Why Every Rapper Owes A Debt To Grandmaster Melle Mel (Video)
To those who closely study the history of Hip-Hop and embrace the earliest days of Rap, Grandmaster Melle Mel is a living legend and pioneer. The Bronx New York MC has a name that is often mentioned, whether in academic texts like Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop or Netflix series Hip Hop Evolution. Melvin Glover began as a 1970s artist, who unlike most early elite peer MCs, was able to write and perform a hit song (with accompanying video) in the 1980s. Melle embodied Rap’s bravado, competitive spirit, and balance of bragging with street reporting. However, to appreciate Melle Mel, one needs a contextual lens, and acquaintance with his catalog.
Unlike Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, or Spoonie Gee, Mel maintained his role in a group until the 1990s. While “Muscle Simmons” (as he once dubbed himself) rocked stages alone, his catalog highlights are forever attached to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Like some of those after him, Melle’s name was eclipsed by that of his group. Although active well into the late ’80s, names like LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., and Eric B. & Rakim were afforded name-brand recognition that Melle, even as a major label artist could not get.
In his ongoing series examining the greatness of some MCs (see episodes on Rakim and Kool G Rap), JayQuan takes a long look at G.M. Melle Mel. Looking at some easy to miss firsts (star R&B collaborations, totin’ guns on album covers, premiere Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions for rappers), The Foundation lays down some interesting support of Mel well before getting to the lyrics. Once there, the 50 minute documentary celebrates his innovative wordplay, trail-blazing originality, advanced rhyme schemes, and being a Rap prophet.
JayQuan, informed by many primary sources, sets the stage for 1970s Hip-Hop. The DJ was the focal point, with MCs serving as fly-talking public announcers above all else. Based on his research, JayQuan urges that Melle Mel is the first MC to say an entire rhyming verse, about himself, on beat. All three qualifiers are important, as Melle maintained the rhythm and spoke completely. Moreover, instead of making the focus the DJ or the party (or the crowd), Melvin Glover spit the kind of self-aggrandizing rhyme that lives as recently as Drake’s More Life album released one day ago.
Dating back to 1979, Melle Mel was bringing his style to wax (the same year as Sugarhill Gang and Fat Back Band). Even before Grandmaster Flash was attached to The Furious Five, Melle and his team (including brother Kid Creole) made waves. JayQuan highlights the ’79 “Superrappin'” verse (later re-purposed in “The Message”) as an example of Mel’s incredible gifts. He was 16 years old when the track dropped, showing that his writing gifts were rich during his adolescence. Today, as JayQuan motions, those words apply, even if some of the specifics have changed.
From “New York New York” to “Beat Street Breakdown” to “World War 3” to “The Truth,” JayQuan uses songs that show off Mel’s pen. Getting to the mid-1980s, signed to the suddenly waning Sugar Hill imprint, Melle (now without Flash and half of the group) did not have access to producers like Rick Rubin, Larry Robinson, and Jazzy Jay. Instead, with the Sugar Hill house band, Melle was still able to strike a chord in the consciousness. Moreover, the 10-year veteran was throwing his weight around at Boogie Down Productions, and others. Perhaps akin to Ice-T and GZA dissing Soulja Boy, or even KRS attacking Nelly with lyrics, Melle’s spirit is to be respected, even if it may have dated him in the eyes of the growing Hip-Hop masses. By the late 1980s, Hip-Hop was booming with new talent. Like his peers (and even Run-D.M.C.), Melle did not transition well. However, as JayQuan points out, there are powerful, prophetic rhymes still in the fodder that may not have been reaching the spotlight.
From rough labels, limited production, and a fractured group, Melle Mel had very few forces working in his favor. However, through all of that, he’s been able to hit hard. This documentary recognizes those hurdles and push-backs, and gives Melvin Glover his props. Having appeared on a hit song with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis less than two years ago, Grandmaster Melle Mel proves he’s still got the juice, and as one of Rap’s first fully-formed MCs, is more active than most even 20 years his junior.
#BonusBeat: X-Clan’s Paradise Gray tells some great stories about Grandmaster Melle Mel bullying MCs musically and literally in the late 1980s Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City:
There is an especially great anecdote of Mel jacking Mikey D’s (of Main Source fame) New Music Seminar championship belt.