Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge/ I'm tryin' not to lose my head...
These words should sound very familiar to old school hip hop fans, as they comprise part of "The Message," a groundbreaking 1982 track by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Not only did this song prove that hip hop could address serious topics, it also ranks among music's best protest tracks.
Before "The Message," many early rap songs served as party starters, with MCs bragging about their skills. DJ Grandmaster Flash, aka Joseph Saddler, developed his talent in this atmosphere, performing at block parties and dances in the Bronx during the 1970s. By age 19, Flash had gained a reputation as a pioneering DJ who developed then-new techniques such as cutting and back-spinning (turning records to repeat certain parts). He started collaborating with rappers in 1977, most notably with the Furious Five: Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover), Mr. Ness aka Scorpio (Eddie Morris), and Rahiem (Guy Williams). Their formidable partnership earned them many fans in New York, but they did not record any music until the success of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Appropriately, Flash and the Furious Five signed with Sugarhill Records, releasing moderately successful singles including 1981's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." But their debut album, The Message, proved to be their major breakthrough, with the title track injecting a dose of reality into the pop and R&B charts.
Unlike the carefree tone of "Rapper's Delight," "The Message" paints a stark portrait of inner city life, a modern update of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Rapper Melle Mel's rhythmic delivery demands the listener's ear by reciting the aforementioned lines as well as the unforgettable hook "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder/ How I keep from going under." Despite Flash's incredible DJ skills, he keeps sound effects to a minimum on this track, a wise decision considering the song's powerful words. Indeed, the group minces no words while setting the stage: "Broken glass everywhere/ People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care," Melle Mel spits angrily. Additional lyrics, traded among other Furious Five members, force the listener to look at unpleasant and uncomfortable images, describing a "crazy lady livin' in a bag/ Eating out of garbage pails" and people wielding guns in order to (ironically) combat violence. "Stay in school" messages do not resonate here, as the song reveals the grim reality of this world. "All the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper/
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper," they rap. After all, the characters children see on a daily basis seem to prosper in the inner city: "You'll admire all the number book takers, thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers/ Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens/ And you wanna grow up to be just like them." Education may not be a guaranteed ticket out of the ghetto--at least, it may seem that way.
"The Message" may have a danceable beat and a catchy refrain, but lyrics such as "It was plain to see that your life was lost, you was cold and your body swung back and forth/ But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song of how you lived so fast and died so young" still sound bleak. These shocking images rank among harrowing protest songs such as Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" or classics such as "Maggie's Farm" or "For What It's Worth." Flash and the Furious Five forced mass audiences to closely examine poverty, violence, and overall despair, similar to the great songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did "The Message" shine a spotlight on early 1980s inner city life, it inspired a generation of rappers to transform to the music into a forum for political statements (Public Enemy, NWA, and KRS-One, to name a few).
While "The Message" peaked at number four on Billboard's R&B charts, it did not fare quite as well on the Hot 100, reaching number 62. But Flash and the Furious Five's track transformed hip hop, highlighting topics that printe and broadcast media ignored, and made "It's like a jungle sometimes/ It makes me wonder how I keep from going under" a national catchphrase. In sum, it made poverty, violence, unemployment, and drugs everyone's problems.