Thursday, November 17, 2005
click twice on the record to hear a snippet
In 1979, before being singed on to Sylvia Robinson's Sugarhill label, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their first single, "Supperappin", with Enjoy! records. The version I've managed to track down is about eight minutes, with Flash spinning a perpetual disco loop in the background and the five rapping members of the band doing a kind of tag-team style discourse.
I listen to this song allot because it's on the CD compilation that almost always works to put my housemate's three-year old son to sleep. It harkens from the days when rap music was still fun and upbeat, when it had clever, carnival-barker style lyrics, and when it made you want to get up and dance rather than go out and rob a liquor store.
The five rapping members of the band all take turns extolling their sexual prowess and lyrical skill, but the song really takes off when Melle Mel grabs the mic. Something about the tenor of his voice, the smoothness and speed of his delivery, and the complexity of his lyrics sets him apart, I believe, from the rest of the group:
Get up off your seats and get ready to clap
Because Melle Mel's just about ready to rap
I had an image of fame at my very first party
I felt I could make myself somebody
It was something in my heart from the very start
I could see myself at the top of the chart
Rapping on the mike and making cold cold cash
Rocking with the man they call DJ Flash
Signing autographs for the young and old
Wearing pure silver and the solid gold
My name in all the magazines
My picture on the TV screen
It ain't like that now but, huh, you'll see
So eliminate the possibility.....
Unabashedly egotistical, for certain, but his vision turned out to be true. The band became enormously popular and has the distinction of introducing socially conscious themes into what had been up to that time exclusively dance-oriented music. Melle Mel had a prophetic gift, writing such songs such as "The Message", "New York, New York", "White Lines", "The Beat Street Theme" and "World War III"--a recording that I think is one of the great anti-war songs of the twentieth century (akin to Dylan's "Masters of War" or "Universal Soldier" by Buffy St. Marie).
The band was plagued by the usual destructively egotistical squabbling, with Melle Mel wanting to have the title "Grandmaster" alongside Flash (they broke up for a time, and Melle Mel assembled his own Furious Five). Flash was a technical genius--though he didn't invent scratching as some people assume. He did perfect most of the staple DJ techniques upon which hip-hop is based, and he developed one of the first mixing boards for cutting quickly between two turntables. I think he also had a good sense for business and promotion. His incredible ear for beats and cuts is evident on the now-classic, "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel", the first record to be made entirely from other recordings reassembled, via two turntables, into a rhythmic hip-hop collage.
This band certainly had an impact on me growing up; it was the first music that really made me stop and listen. Grandmaster Flash was a legendary figure with my friends and I, inhabiting a mythical abode in our imaginations alongside ninjas and Jedi knights. We searched high and low to find hip-hop recordings, which was a difficult feat in southern Ontario in the early eighties. What we did find we would reproduce onto mixed tapes by putting a boom box or tape recorder up to the speaker of my friend's dad's stereo. I still appreciate Flash's technical expertise and rhythmic ingenuity, but now that I'm older it seems to me that Melle Mel was the humanistic element that gave the band its staying power. Without him the outfit would have been just another souped-up disco team, likely relegated to the footnotes of musical history (how many people, for instance, remember the Fearless Four, or Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three?).
When "Supperrappin" is playing on the sound system, and Melle Mel is just about ready to rap, my ears perk up and a caffeinated thrill travels down my spinal chord: his voice is like rich coffee, and the lyrics of his more visionary songs have the power to wake the soul from its complacent slumber. Melle Mel is, in my mind, the Dylan of hip-hop, and he's still rocking the mic with his man Scorpio, though whether his recent output lives up to the earlier material is a mystery to me, because I haven't heard the albums.