Last week I wrote about one of the very first hip-hop LPs, (hopefully) turning a few people onto the relatively unknown Kurtis Blow. In contrast I think everyone should probably know who Grandmaster Flash is, as he is probably one of the most famous names in hip-hop; hell, it was one of the Furious Five who invented the term “hip-hop”. The story of Flash, the Furious Five, and Sugarhill Records is too convoluted to detail here, but it is a rather interesting story. A lot of what happened between 1979 and 1981 was incredibly important (Flash’s turntable techniques, the excellent 12 inch “Superrappin'”, the coining of terms like “MC”), particularly the “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” single, the first actual “mashup”, and the first time the public got to hear what a DJ could do with strands of different tracks. Most importantly was “The Message” single, with its chilly electro-beat and all-too-poignant lyrics, easily one of the most important singles within the entire genre. The Message full-length was the culimation of all this, and it remains the essential early hip-hop LP. While Kurtis Blow was little more than a guy rapping over a funk band, The Message demonstrated so much more; electronic beats, clever sampling, vocoders, and MCs constantly trading lines; it’s like an encyclopedia of what was possible within the genre.
That said, The Message doesn’t really feel like an album. First of all, “Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five” is kind of a misnomer; several of the tunes feature just one of the MCs (“The Message” is just Melle Mel, “Scorpio” is just Scorpio), and Flash doesn’t even appear on some of the tracks. Secondly, it’s mostly made up of previously released singles, with only three “new” songs. Worse, those are the weakest cuts on the album, signalling that perhaps this was the beginning of the end. Thirdly, it’s really all over the place. A lot of these songs don’t really work together – there’s half a great electrofunk LP in here with “The Message”, “It’s Nasty”, and “Scorpio”, along with some lame overemotive soul (“Dreamin'”, “You Are”), and the party-ready, horn-heavy “She’s Fresh”, which is great but at odds with more serious fare like “The Message”. Some of this is by design; they probably wanted to touch as many bases as possible, and for that I think the LP succeeds, it’s not a great one but there’s something for everyone here.
What I’m trying to say here is you probably shouldn’t get this; there plenty of albums that contain all the good stuff plus singles like “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel”, “Freedom”, and if you’re lucky, “Superrappin'”. The 3-disc 1999 comp called simply Adventures on the Wheels of Steel pretty much covers it, though there is quite a lot of overkill. The CD I have includes “Adventures” as a bonus track along with “New York, New York”, and I believe some comps include as many as six of the seven tracks here. As classic as pieces of this album are, they’ve been anthologized to hell and back – truly essential tracks like “The Message” and “She’s Fresh” are on dozens of comps already. It’s a shame, too; as an LP, The Message represented endless possibilities for the group, but everything fell apart soon after. Sugarhill Records engaged in some shady accounting, and egos got in the way. The next single was “White Lines”, which is where things got really weird. Credited to “Grandmaster Melle Mel” (in a deliberate attempt to confuse the public into thinking Flash was on the track), it’s a bona fide classic, and maybe my favorite tune from Grandmaster Anything, but it had the unfortunate side effect of inadvertently bankrupting Sugarhill records, as the bass line was rather obviously borrowed from “Cavern” by Liquid Liquid. But things were already screwy; Flash and Melle had split into different factions, each grabbing different pieces of the Furious Five, and the next album was called Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, despite not containing Flash nor all of the Furious Five. This was deliberately made as confusing as possible (one of the songs was titled “The New Adventures of Grandmaster”) to entice fans of The Message to buy it. Problem is very few of them actually did, and soon after you had Def Jam and Run-DMC, and that was pretty much it. The original group actually did reform for 1988’s On the Strength, though by that time it was much too late. These days, any interview with former members of the group will relay the idea that yes, they made a few mistakes, and yes, they should have gotten their shit together and stuck it through; as The Message proves, there was loads of talent on hand, but like Kurtis Blow before them, they blinked and found themselves hopelessly behind in the very scene that they helped create.
At the same time, listening to The Message (along with some of the other singles of that era) gives me the impression that these guys were further ahead of the game than anyone else. Just listen to the acid-infused electro-whirlwind of “Scorpio”; this would have sounded radical in 1991, to say nothing of how it must’ve sounded back when it was first released in ’81. “The Message” still feels groundbreaking and “It’s Nasty” has held up better than the song it samples heavily from (“Genius of Love”); unlike a lot of the early hip-hop stuff (like, say, most of Run-DMC’s output), this still feels dynamic and fresh. One can only imagine how exciting this must have felt at the time, when it seemed like these guys still had it all in front of them. So maybe The Message will ultimately stand as a testament to what could have been, but it’s also a reminder of how immortal they were when they stuck to what they knew; much of this was born from those legendary Bronx house parties, and things predictably went south once money and fame and copyright law entered the picture. Perhaps you’re best served with one of the many compilation albums, but bottom line is, the good stuff here is absolutely essential.