Black and white promo photo of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Protest Songs: The Message

Written by: Dorian Lynskey

In 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs From Billie Holiday to Green Day, music critic Dorian Lynskey offers an engrossing, insightful, and wonderfully researched history of protest music in the twentieth century and beyond. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives Author Series welcomes Dorian Lynskey as the next speaker in its Author Series on Monday, September 19 at 7 p.m. Lynskey will be interviewed by Andy Leach, the Rock Hall’s Director of Library and Archives, as they discuss his book. Audience members will be able to participate in a Q&A session, as well as purchase copies of the books for signing. 

To preview the event, Lynskey has shared an excerpt from the book, in which he discusses "The Message" from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.

 

With hindsight, ‘The Message’ was inevitable. It was the record that critics, especially white ones, had been waiting for, placing hip-hop in the socially conscious bloodline of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron. This offspring of the Bronx slums wasn’t just the most exciting party music in the world; it finally had something to say. The highfalutin Paris Review even printed the lyrics, an honour it had not afforded, say, Kurtis Blow’s ‘Christmas Rappin’’.

But almost nobody saw it coming, not even the group whose name was printed at the centre of the record. With the exception of Melle Mel, the Furious Five couldn’t stand it; they thought it was a crazy idea. Hip-hop was dance music. Who wanted to hear about broken glass and roaches on a Saturday night? If they wanted reality, they could look out the window. They were drowning in reality. They didn’t need to hear it pumping from the radio.

Sylvia Robinson thought differently. That was her gift. She was a music industry veteran who had scored her first hit in 1957 as half of R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia. In the 1960s she founded with her husband Joe a studio and label called All Platinum. A decade later it spawned Sugar Hill Records, based in Englewood, New Jersey. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang raised hip-hop’s game forever when it came out in 1979, selling eight million copies. Even as some observers dubbed it a dancefloor fad, it became a magnet for downtown hipsters who had never set foot in the Bronx. Blondie, Malcolm McLaren and the Clash were among those flocking to the clubs, and the man they all wanted to meet was the one deified by Debbie Harry on Blondie’s 1981 hit ‘Rapture’: ‘Flash is fast, Flash is cool’.
 

Between Robinson’s divide-and-rule diplomacy and the strong subject matter, Flash had a bad feeling about this song. ‘“The Message” wasn’t one of my favourites,’ he says. ‘What she wanted out of us was totally opposite of what we were. We were into DJing, talking about women, the party thing. Sylvia had this feeling that America was ready to hear social commentary lyrics and we were the only ones in the company that could pull it off. We dodged it for a year or two and then she cornered us.’
 
‘The Message’ annexed the terrain vacated since the mid-1970s by Stevie Wonder and the other erstwhile ghetto chroniclers. In a few stark, eloquent verses, Edwin Fletcher sketched out the city that the hip-hop kids came home to when the clubs and the block parties were over. The music’s tense, enervated strut evokes a walk through the Bronx in the sickly, hungover dawn. Here are roach-infested tenements and failing schools, predatory junkies and pitiful bag ladies, hookers and killers, inflation, unemployment and strikes: things falling apart.
 
The narrator is one you don’t hear very often in hip-hop: neither a gangster nor a player, but an ordinary blue-collar guy reaching the end of his tether. On the early verses he’s compassionate and conversational. He has a job but not one that pays enough to ward off the debt collectors; his neighbourhood is decaying; his son wants to drop out of school. By the fourth verse, he has reached breaking point: hunted, paranoid, packing a gun.
 
Mel takes the first two verses, leaving the third and fourth to the man who wrote them. They express two sides of the protagonist’s outlook: Fletcher sombre and reflective, Mel indignant and irate. It ends with Mel’s ‘Superrappin’’ verse, chronicling the life and death of a kid who sees that the only people making decent money on his block are ‘the number book takers, thugs, pimps, pushers’. So he drops out of school, ‘turns stick-up kid’, gets sent to jail and ends up swinging from a noose in his cell. ‘It was based on a cross between me and someone that really got the bad end of it,’ Mel told High Times. ‘Like, I’ve been to jail, but I was only in jail for five days. I robbed a decoy cop, dressed like a bum.’
 
Even the rest of the Furious Five get sucked in when they finally make an appearance on the closing skit. They’re preparing for a night at Disco Fever, the South Bronx hotspot which had given Flash his first DJing residency five years earlier, when the police pull them over: ‘The Furious Five? What is that? A gang?’
 
‘The Message’ is protest phrased as an ultimatum, poised on the borderline between the anguished humanism of 1970s soul and the howling nihilism of gangsta rap. It’s the internal monologue of a good man who’s trying to stay on the right path when it’s just so damn hard. Even the most conscientious soul stars sang as outsiders observing the ghetto from a distance – passionately engaged for sure, but nobody was going to repossess their cars. The narrator of ‘The Message’ lives it every day, so he spits every syllable through gritted teeth. Don’t. Push. Me. ’Cause. I’m. Close. To. The Edge. I’m. Try. Ing. Not. To. Lose. My. Head.
 
‘The Message’ is hip-hop’s first truly inward-looking record, pointing the way to such introspective, anti-social narratives as the Geto Boys’ shivery, haunted masterpiece ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ (1991) and the cornered belligerence of 2Pac’s Me Against The World (1995). Even as it describes the urban landscape, it delineates the narrator’s internal geography: the stinking alleys and smouldering husks of the mind. Its priority is not how to make the black nation rise but how to save one man from falling.
 
You can see why Flash was worried. To a DJ, this sounded like commercial poison. He could picture people fleeing from the dancefloor, asking what went wrong with the great Grandmaster Flash. ‘I remember one person scared the daylights out of me,’ he admitted a year later. ‘He said, “Flash, I’ve always been your devoted fan, I love you, but I don’t like that record.” I just stayed in the house, but Mrs. Robinson said, “Flash, this is gonna be a big thing.” You gotta respect the woman for her intuition. All of a sudden, she made one dub, boom, that was it: It blew up. “Like a jungle, like a jungle” on every station.’