Turning 30: Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”

“Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge/I’m tryin’ not to lose my head”

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” was released on July 1, 1982 on Sugar Hill Records from album of the same name. Bringing to mind the honest testimony found in Curtis Mayfield’s “Ghetto Child,” “The Message” raised the bar from the typical machismo, fast- paced beats and boasting that usually blanketed the genre.  Melle Mel’s lead vocals drape comfortably over Duke Botee’s instrumental track “The Jungle,” adding a compelling draw that makes it unthinkable to doubt its realness. At the time, Melle Mel’s raw commentary seeping from the song set a springboard for the politically and socially conscious lyrics of hip-hop acts to follow—from Public Enemy to the Poor Righteous Teachers.  The standout feature of the song was how the slower beat on the song emphasized the MC and his lyrical flow over the music, which was counter to the genesis of hip-hop music which was born from an emphasis on the DJ.

I remember clearly hearing this song for the first time, as it was one of the first hip-hop songs I ever paid attention to. I was in the kitchen as my mother cooked, the radio on blast.  I was mixing some crazy concoction as my little sister sat on the floor playing with her dolls and the song’s signature synthesized opening rang out. I remember pausing and listening. This song was something new. It was simple. It was a story. It was easy to memorize, and the beat was dope. It spread through my neighborhood like quicksilver.

Kids on the playground were singing it in no time. The “ah ha ha ha” was our favorite part. At the time, we didn’t care that the song was actually sending the world a message about the plight of Black communities around the country. We didn’t realize that the above-referenced hook would go down in history as the most popular verse in hip hop history. Instead, for many of us, it was the first time we took a pause and drank in this new flavor of music called hip hop. It felt good. It flowed easy and it fit naturally.

For better of worse, the message that “The Message” speaks of – a protagonist trying to hang on despite the craziness around him—is as timely today as it was when it was recorded.  For many of us, this song began our thirty-year relationship with the genre of hip-hop. Because of that, this song remains, for many us, one of the top reasons why we cling to the genre through up days and down. “The Message” is often that song among many that we remember fondly when hip-hop sometimes turns its back on us and wanders, catching amnesia when forgetting its rich, conscious and meaningful roots.

-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman


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