Melle Mel Explains Why He Didn’t Think “The Message” Would Be Successful (Video)
Grandmaster Melle Mel is regarded as one of Hip-Hop’s first generation MC icons. The lyrical front-man of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five helped move the fledgling genre of Rap from the party to a reflection of street reality. In his staggering discography, Melvin Glover was successful in both realms. However, the Bronx, New Yorker led a charge that Rap has forever followed when he delivered “The Message.”
The 1982 Sugar Hill Records single is remembered, in part, for Mel’s iconic hook of “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m tryin’ not to lose my head” and his epic closing verse that began with, “A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind / God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too / Because only God knows what you’ll go through…” Beyond the lyrics, the single has a unique history that not everybody knows. Last night (January 17) at the SoHo Sonos Store in New York City, Grandmaster Melle Mel revealed some rarely discussed facts about the record that first put Flash and the Furious Five in the Top 100. The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee and Grammy winner was flanked by fellow BX lyricist (and producer/DJ) Lord Finesse, along with TV and radio personality Miss Info.
Ambrosia For Heads was on hand and filming from the audience at the “Song Stories” event. “The main body of the song was written by the percussionist in the Sugar Hill Band,” explains Mel. “His name was Ed Fletcher. If you look at the song, there’s two people rapping on the song: there’s Melle Mel and Duke Bootee [who is Ed Fletcher]. The part of the song that I wrote came from part of a song that we had wrote previously for Enjoy Records, called ‘Superrappin’.” That record was released in 1979 on Bobby Robinson’s label, a side operation to his 125th Street record store in Harlem.
Another Robinson family across the George Washington Bridge, Englewood, New Jersey’s Joe and Sylvia Robinson were competitors of Enjoy. By the early ’80s, they signed several of Enjoy’s former acts, including Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, as well as Spoonie Gee and the Funky Four + 1 More. Melle explains how Sylvia, a onetime hit-making singer and fledgling producer had a bold vision. “Miss Sylvia Robinson put my verse in [‘The Message’ from] the back of [‘Superrappin’]. I didn’t want to do the song, because we’re rappin’ about partying, and we’re havin’ a good time. There was something about the song [she liked]…I understood it, but I didn’t think it was gonna work. Nobody thought that it was gonna work. Miss Sylvia Robinson was the only one that believed in the song [including her husband and label partner, Joe Robinson]. But he caved in, everybody caved [in on ‘The Message’]. We went in, we did the song,” he says of the Jersey recording studios belonging to the three-year-old Sugar Hill label. “She kept it on the [studio] board for three days, 72 hours. She taped the board, she didn’t want nobody to come in the studio; she wanted the mix to be perfect, perfectly perfect.”
Sugar Hill Records pressed up the song. On its powder blue labels (with its orange, yellow, purple and red logo), the track was released on July 1. “When the song came out that summer [in 1982], ‘Planet Rock’ [by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force] was the hottest record out.” With one of Hip-Hop’s godfathers, Afrika Bambaattaa making headway with Tommy Boy Records, Sylvia and Sugar Hill had their newest 12″ single. When Robinson delivered the single to one of Hip-Hop’s clubs, and a residency of Grandmaster Flash’s, it would be tested. Melle Mel continues, “We’re all in [the Bronx nightclub] The Fever. She comes with her fur coat; she had a big, crazy diamond ring [and hands the DJ the record]. I didn’t think it was gonna work, so I backed into a corner. They was playin’ ‘Planet Rock’ and took it off, and then they put ‘The Message’ on.” The crowd responded. He remembers, “The people stood on the dance floor; they didn’t move. It [went] from a Dance song to that song! And it worked.”
Although the vibe changed, people listened in awe at Sal Abbatiello’s Hip-Hop landmark. “[Sylvia Robinson] made the right record at the right time. Timing is everything, especially in music—just like Cardi B’s [‘Bodak Yellow’]. It’s not the greatest record, but it’s the right record at the right time…and that’s what [Sylvia Robinson] was good at, because she did it before with [Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’]. We all hated [it when it released because of the rapping]. To this day, those are still the top two records [of many historical lists],” he says of his label-mates’ ’79 smash hit.
“The Message” would light an everlasting path for Run-D.M.C., Rakim, N.W.A., Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and so many others. “It was the first [Rap] record that actually said something,” admits Mel, proudly. “‘Cause that was the biggest knock [against Hip-Hop songwriting], ‘there’s nothing there.’ We’re sampling other people’s music, and [often] rapping about nothing. But ‘don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head,‘ that’s Black and white. That’s everything. That could be anybody.”
#BonusBeat: Ambrosia For Heads’ “Finding The GOAT” four-part documentary series that examines the Greatest Rappers of All-Time, including Grandmaster Melle Mel: