On May 15, 1961, Melvin Glover, aka Melle Mel, was born in the Bronx, NYC. After a brief stint as a B-boy break dancer, Mel took up the mic, as the back spin had become popular, a move the lanky Mel couldn’t do. At that time DJs were popular, but let’s not get it twisted, all (we) DJs did was spin records at the set. Sure, by the end of the 70s a few began to pick up the mic, adding their own spin to the spin, and in the Bronx, they began scratching on the records, adding a percussive impact that made their set stand out. Grand Master Flash was such a guy, becoming a hugely popular hip hop icon despite the fact that he served all the functionality of a decent Spotify playlist. By the late ’80s, scratching had become tedious (and who the hell wanted to listen to shitty vinyl in the first place) and the dubious talents of the Grand Master Flashes of the world were passe.
Sadly, however, the hip hop community didn’t get the notice. So, despite The Furious Five’s biggest hit, “The Message” being touted as one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time, people still associate it with the DJ, Grandmaster Flash, instead of the people who actually made and cut the record. In 2002, the Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry, the first hip hop song to receive that honor. It was also inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012 and was instrumental in getting the group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It was written by Sugar Hill Records studio musician Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher purportedly with Melle Mel’s rhyme from an earlier song added by Sylvia Robinson, who produced the record along with Fletcher and Clifton “Jiggs” Chase. Mel and Fletcher performed on the song despite its being marketed under the banner of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. Per OldSchoolHipHop.com:
A session musician/producer for Sugarhill Records named Ed Fletcher, also known as Duke Bootee, laid much of the groundwork. He developed the line “It’s like a jungle…” to go along with an African track he was working on and ran it passed the head of Sugarhill, Sylvia Robinson. She liked the verse but wanted to switch the track to something more commercial. Fletcher wrote the remainder of his verses and Robinson took the track to the Furious Five. At first none of the five were able to adapt their personal styles to the song, eventually complaining that they were doubtful that the song would be ever be popular.
Eventually, the story goes, Melle Mel thought that some of his lyrics from “Superrappin,” released under another label, would fit in “The Message” and Sylvia Robinson worked to secure the rights to use the lyrics again. I personally found no linkage between the two songs and believe that Ed Fletcher wrote the whole thing by his damned self, but they all need a cover story to somehow tie Miss Robinson and the Furious Five to another of Fletcher’s 31 hip hop hits that you didn’t know he was involved in.
In any case, indeed, not only were the other member’s contributions marginal, but it is true that the group didn’t even want to do the song because at the time of its release, 1982, hip hop had been pretty much limited to what its Jamaican predecessor was, “toasting,” used to brag about one’s exploits and incite the crowd to party. In short, hip hop was for dancing, not social commentary. However, according to Melle Mel, the record’s producer, Sylvia Robinson, sometimes called the Mother of Hip Hop, was indeed the one who was instrumental in getting the group to release the single. She was the age of most of the artists’ mothers, and they help Miss Robinson’s ideas in high esteem. According to Melle Mel:
Even to this day I give Miss Robinson the credit for her being the main source behind us doing the record “The Message”. Which to this day till forever it’s going to considered the greatest Hip Hop record ever made. Flash doesn’t give anybody credit and it was my call! I could’ve turned the record down because nobody wanted to do it. It was supposed to be a Sugar Hill record.
Mel, while explaining in no uncertain terms that NOWHERE in this process was Grandmaster Flash, whose contributions to hip hop was been largely 1) Marketing and 2) getting paid for becoming an icon, failed to mention that “The Message” was written by someone else. This is troubling, given the vocals in the song were alternating leads by Melle Mel and Fletcher (I call him Fletcher because that’s what he calls himself).
As is the case with all icons, however, the truth eventually comes out and all the statues are toppled in favor of those who did the real heavy lifting. With that in mind, here’s the song Sylvia Robinson saved from afrocentric obscurity, Melle Mel’s and Duke Bootee’s masterpiece, The Message. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Melle Mel. #FuckGrandMasterFlash
(As you watch the video) notice that most of the rappers do nothing but pose, and think of Duke Bootee behind the scenes.)