In the early 1980s, rap sashayed out of New York in a swish of powerful beats and strong lyrical content. Seen as an offshoot of funk, it was played in discos, on the streets, and homes in urban neighborhoods around the country. One song, “The Message,” ensured rap would last by driving this happy music towards a serious outlook. In 2012, “The Message” was named as the greatest hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone, in terms of cultural impact and is still relevant today.
Throughout a major portion of the history of humanity, listening to recorded music was impossible. During this period, historical facts and musical legacies were passed down by ordinary people to their families. Through work and leisure, music was created, enjoyed and eventually taught to the following generation. This allowed both preservation and an opportunity to add a new twist to old ideologies. Since the 1800s a genre referred to as Folk Music was doing just that.
Some believe that folk music originated as art music that was changed and probably debased by oral transmission while reflecting the character of the society that produced it. In many societies, especially preliterate ones, the cultural transmission of folk music requires learning by ear, although notation has evolved in some cultures. Different cultures may have different notions concerning a division between “folk” music on the one hand and of “art” and “court” music on the other. In the proliferation of popular music genres, some traditional folk music became also referred to as “World music” or “Roots music.”
Folk music, which comes from the old English word “folklore” simply means the tradition of passing down customs and cultures. People found comfort in the fact that their music would live on to tell the story of their lives and the lives of their people. In fact, many current genres were born out of this same concept. One, in particular, is the controversial genre of hip-hop.
Rap, sometimes referred to universally as hip-hop, was new to some, but historians find it had a familiar structure. Every culture has strived to leave their mark on society. Hip-Hop is no different. While doing seminars on the relevance of hip-hop’s impact on American culture I remind many that it is a brand of storytelling much like what was used by Native Americans and slaves to preserve their “version” of historical facts.
There are three primary characteristic similarities between folk music and hip-hop I think are important to bring out:
- Both were created to orally transmit key aspects of individual history
- Both are directly tied to a national perception of culture
- Both commemorate historical and personal events to the next generation
In July 1982, a newly formed record label called Sugar Hill Records released a 7-minute and 10-second song called “The Message.” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became responsible for the first hip-hop song to provide a social commentary of what was really happening in America’s ghettos instead of a party-laced track that only boasted of self-indulgence and crime. America had closed its eyes to the injustice, police brutality and disparities in education that was becoming normal for the country’s marginalized communities. But this rap group wanted to shine an ugly yet bright spotlight onto the situation.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
The group consisted of Bronx New York residents of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, The Kidd Creole, Keith Cowboy, Mr. Ness/Scorpio, and Rahiem. The guys initially built their reputation performing at parties and live shows, in the late 1970s, and achieved local success. By the time the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released, the group realized the potential of cutting records and signed with various labels until staying with Sugar Hill Records.
The 1980s were a pivotal year of transition for America. President Reagan took office promising a fundamental change in domestic social policy, and it is now clear that he has achieved much of what he promised. The growth of welfare and food stamp rolls has been halted, even amid a recession with the highest level of unemployment in 40 years. The Medicaid rolls have nearly stabilized. Expenditures for the construction of subsidized housing, for public-service employment and for job training have been sharply curtailed. This left families fleeing to “affordable” housing in hopes to weather an economic storm that would never end.
Crack cocaine had already begun to ravage millions. But unlike today’s opioid epidemic, there was no public outcry for treatment or accountability to pharmacies. It was the unveiling of a prison system designed for mass incarceration.
But right in the middle of the year, on July 1, Grandmaster Flash released the game-changing clarion call to action, “The Message”. Many have asked what made this song so special. It has a rather primitive beat, average break, and elementary rap cadence. But that is not what made this a landmark work. “The Message” bursts onto vinyl with the opening words;
Broken glass everywhere. People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care. I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise. Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room, roaches in the back. Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far. ‘Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.
The opening refrain and following chorus rang even more true to the current mental state of Americans who were forced to live in such poverty;
Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes…It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.
The reality in 1982 was that millions from the projects in Brooklyn, New York to the ghettos of Watts in California were given very little in the way of choices or opportunities in how they could live. Contrary to what the White House was saying or the news media were reporting, black and brown people were not just these unsavory characters addicted to drugs, crime, and unwedded pregnancies. They were children born into abstract devastation and were desperately looking for a way of escape.
Often mistaken for a threat, “Don’t push me because I am close to the edge,” was actually a cry for help…or at the least, an acknowledgment. People who felt trapped in these inhumane circumstances were lamenting that life was not all good in the “hood.” The hood had become the place were dreams and people were forgotten. Tucked away neatly out of the line of sight of America, the government could easily throw money, subsidized housing and food stamps at them in hopes they would kill themselves and keep it quiet. But out of those concrete streets grew a restlessness that would not be quilled. There was a story that needed to be heard, and hip-hop became the vehicle in which that was possible.
For over 35 years, “The Message” has drawn light onto social maladies like black-on-black crime, drug addiction, unsafe public housing, unfair debt collection practices, prison reform and homophobia within the black community. But the culminating clause is found towards the last verse of the song in which group member Melle Mel raps:
A child is born with no state of mind. Blind to the ways of mankind. God is smilin’ on you but he’s frownin’ too…Because only God knows what you’ll go through. You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second-rate. And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate. The places you play and where you stay looks like one great big alleyway.
The idea that the only expectation a baby born in this condition was to live a version of life as “second-rate” should be alarming to us all. Maybe instead of writing of hip-hop has some violent, braggadocios source of rambling and noise, we can begin to dissect it as an art form like Folk Music that is desperately trying to share the inner workings of a lifestyle many do not experience. When we seek to understand what makes each other’s life valid, we begin to bridge the gap between misunderstandings and move towards cultural connectivity.
Opinion by Early Jackson
(Edited by Cherese Jackson)
The Financial Times: Is The Message by Grandmaster Flash the greatest ever hip-hop song?
Early L. Jackson: Interview and Speech
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