Hip Hop History #4 – Melle Mel


Born in ’61 in New York with a Cherokee mom and Black dad, Melle Mel was an originator -the first to call himself an MC – Master of Ceremonies.  He is also credited with inventing the term Hip Hop, by teasing a friend who had just joined the US army by scat singing “hip/hop/hip/hop” mimicking the rhythm of marching soldiers.  Melle Mel was the lead MC and main songwriter in the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  The group started out with Enjoy Records before recording more R&B style beats with Sugar Hill Records.  Despite Hip Hop sales not always being recorded in the statistics fully, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were awarded a Gold disc for “Freedom” that you can listen to on YouTube here ==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gvPiqvQoGM

Another popular song was “The Birthday Party”==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdKwEVT1_9U

In contrast to these upbeat party songs, in 1982 Melle Mel turned to more socially conscious issues.  

[The political background at the time:

The Reagan administration at the time introduced domestic policies such as the largest tax cut in American history for the wealthiest, as well as increased defense spending and national debt.   His War On Drugs granted $1.7 billion to fight drugs in ’87, and ensured a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses.  The bill was criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, however, because of the differences in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine.  Critics also charged that the administration’s policies did little to actually reduce the availability of drugs or crime on the street, while resulting in a great financial and human cost for American society.  Other examples of his policies were silence on AIDS – Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, Reagan did not mention it publicly for several more years and even when his friend Rock Hudson died.  Reagan had opposed the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He even opposed Martin Luther King holiday, but was forced to sign it into law after an overwhelming veto-proof majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate) voted in favor of it.  He opposed LGBT rights saying “My criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I”.  His foreign policy included supporting dictators and terrorists in several Latin American countries to try and create US-friendly governments in other countries.  For example in Nicaragua ’83, the CIA created a group of “Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets” (UCLAs), whose task was to “sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it.”  In January 1984, these UCLA’s minied several Nicaraguan harbors, which sank several Nicaraguan boats, damaged at least five foreign vessels.  In the Middle East, another example of Reagan’s foreign intervention is the early foundations of al-Qaida which were built in part on relationships and weaponry, that came from the billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Afghan mujahadin during the war to expel Soviet forces from that country.  In Africa, Steve Biko’s death at the hands of the Apartheid regime caused international outrage in ’77.  The activist who was famous for his slogan “black is beautiful”, was arrested, beaten into a coma for 22 hours, chained to a window grille for a day, and driven 1100 km to a prison with no hospital facilities where he soon died due to a brain hemorrhage caused by massive head injuries.  In opposition to the condemnations issued by the US Congress and public demands for diplomatic or economic sanctions against the brutal regime, Reagan made relatively minor criticisms of the regime, which was otherwise internationally isolated, and the US granted recognition to the government.  Finally in ’85 Regan was forced to change his policy in the face of overwhelming opposition.]

This is Melle Mel’s song “The Message” – Other than Melle Mel, no members of the Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five actually appear on the record.  It became an instant classic, went platinum in less than a month and was one of the first glimmers of conscious Hip Hop.

==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4o8TeqKhgY

Its worth listening to the whole song cuz often we only get to hear a couple of verses out of the full six minutes.

Artist Justin Bua lived in New York when this song came out, and he says of its impact

“I grew up next to a welfare hotel that housed poor people, but as also a refuge to pushers, hustlers, prostitutes, and criminals.  It was a crazy place during a crazy time.  Homeless people were overflowing on the streets.  Health facilities bused the mentally insane into my neighbourhood and dumped them on the streets, leaving them to fend for themselves.  At the time, my home life felt equally chaotic.  We had three cats and one dog despite the fact that I was allergic to animals.  My mom’s boyfriend, a macho Israeli war veteran, lived with, or should I say, lived off us.  We had a tiny one-bedroom apartment; my mom and her boyfriend slept in the living room.  Without a wall, they didnt have any privacy, but neither did I.  I witnessed everything – good and bad.  I listened to the music my mom had lying around as a way to build a mental fourth wall and escape reality.  It wasn’t until I discovered The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that I heard the story of my world, the one that was closing in on me from all sides.  Melle Mel was articulate and wise, and had the most potent voice I ever heard.  He rapped about life on the streets and painted a picture of New York I knew, full of crime, poverty and drugs”.

The Message has been called “arguably the greatest record in hip-hop history”. It was the first hip-hop record ever to be added to the United States National Archive of Historic Recordings and the first Hip Hop record inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Mel also wrote this song you can see performed live on Soul Train here:

“Survival (The Message 2)”==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee1VMvssn2M

and also 

“New York, New York”==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a-JCSiphHQ

Grandmaster Flash split from the group after contract disputes between Mele Mel and their promoter/Head of their label Sugar Hill Records Sylvia Robinson re. royalties for “The Message”. When Flash filed a lawsuit against Sugar Hill Records, the factions of The Furious Five parted.

He became Grandmaster Melle Mel – leader of the Furious Five and they released this song – the video directed by then-unknown film student Spike Lee:

“White Lines”==>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRw8cBratM4

 Mel then gained higher success appearing in the movie Beat Street with a song based on the movie’s title which you can see him performing live here:

“Beat Street Breakdown”==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrfO6kW8EIs

He became the first rap artist ever to win a Grammy award for “Record of the Year” after performing a rap on Chaka Khan’s smash hit song “I Feel For You” which introduced hip-hop to the mainstream R&B audience.

“I Feel For You”==>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFv61OE1pt0

Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five had further hits with “Step Off”, “Pump Me Up”, “King of the Streets”, “Jesse”, and “Vice”, the latter being released on the soundtrack to the TV show Miami Vice. 

“Jesse” was a highly political song which urged people to vote for then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.  Here is a live performance of it:


After these songs, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were eclipsed by new school artists.  In 1988 Flash and Mel reunited but their album “On the Strength” didn’t sell.  

Mel performed with The King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew on “King Holiday” as part of the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.  

“King Holiday”==> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17DpFraXZ4c

Mel also performed with Artists Against Apartheid on the anti-apartheid song Sun City aimed at discouraging other artists from performing in South Africa until that government ended its policy of apartheid.

“Sun City”==>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aopKk56jM-I

Mel released a few more tracks before, in ’07, 2007, releasing his first ever solo album, Muscles, including this track as the first single: 

“M3 – The New Message”==>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tJR09b-Tsc

In his acceptance speech for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mel implored the recording industry members in attendance ‘to do more to restore Hip Hip to the culture of music and art that it once was, rather than the culture of violence that it has become’. He added, “I’ve never been shot, I’ve never been arrested, and I’ve been doing Hip Hop all my life. I can’t change things all by myself. We need everybody’s help, so let’s do it and get this thing done.”

In 2011 it was announced he was taking part in a new Hip Hop/Pro Wrestling collaboration, and in 2012 he appeared in Ice-T’s film “The Art of Rap”.




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