Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: The Message, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, She’s Fresh
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s debut album The Message is widely considered to be one of the landmark moments in hip-hop history, though much more so the title track than the actual album. It’s the moment when rap went from a silly novelty offshoot of late 70s disco to being its own thing. Though to really appreciate its impact, you must consider rap’s origins and where the genre was before the album came out in 1982.
Old-school hip hop, or disco rap as it’s sometimes called, derived from disco and funk breaks with MC’s rapping over them. It stands in stark contrast to modern hip-hop or even golden-age rap from the 90s. The rhymes were very primitive and party-centric, and a lot of the songs haven’t aged well due to the sheer cheese and corniness of a lot of the lyrics. For reference, a lot of the lyrics were very “My name is ______ and I’m here to say” and “Wave your hands in the air if you just don’t care.”
Considering how much secondhand embarrassment a lot of old-school rap songs can bring, it’s easy to see why the genre doesn’t have a cult following or revival artists in the vein of early rock n’ roll. The closest examples to a genre revival or homage to disco rap are “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith and arguably “Juice” by Lizzo, though these songs work because they emphasize the funk elements of the genre over the corny rhymes. Keep in mind I’m not criticizing disco rap: The Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and several songs from the Sugar Hill Records label are total blasts, with lots of funky and infectious beats. But at the same time, I wouldn’t recommend them to rap fans and more so to fans of 70s funk and disco.
Speaking of rock n’ roll, The Message’s title track is the hip hop equivalent of “Tutti Frutti” or “Johnny B. Goode” in terms of importance to genre. It has the danceability of old-school rap, with a groovy synth bass line, but it was the first time that hip hop wanted to be truly taken seriously and succeeded. The lyrics of the song contain heavy social and political commentary, with mentions of poverty and mental health in a way that’s not corny and feels earnest and sincere. It’s genuinely dark, introspective, and still has bite in 2022. With the genre term “conscious hip hop” being such a widely used and known term, it’s crucial to listen to this song to see its long-lasting influence.
It’s a bonus track, but my other favorite song here is “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” This song is incredible, and I think it should be considered as influential as the title track. Not only is it a great party track, but it’s a great showcase of sampling and Grandmaster Flash’s turn-tabling abilities with mixing a dozen records together seamlessly to create an elegant, funky soundscape. It’s even more impressive considering it was all done live! Like the title track, it’s a masterpiece and I think everyone should listen to it in full.
However, there’s still six more songs on the record and while some of them have their charms, they’re not nearly as essential as the other two songs I’ve mentioned. Most of the other songs are more stereotypical disco-rap, with all the corny rhymes and general goofiness the genre was known for. My favorite of these is the opener “She’s Fresh” and has a great horn section, bassline, and fun call-and-response sections. The second track “It’s Nasty” is fun too, sampling the immortal “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, though this track isn’t as compelling as the first song and overstays its welcome a bit.
The third song “Scorpio” is a departure from the other tracks, featuring vocoded rapping and electro beats reminiscent of Kraftwerk, though it sounds very dated, and the synthesized vocals get annoying after a while. “It’s a Shame”, which is the fourth song, is commendable for attempting to have social commentary but its politically charged lyrics feel too corny and lack bite, especially against its post-disco sound. The other two songs on the record I haven’t mentioned are easily the worst: “Dreamin” and “You Are”, which are two sappy and overblown adult contemporary soul songs that sound like Stevie Wonder at his very worst. A lot of funk and disco albums at the time suffered from including terrible slow ballads to gain R&B credibility and taints otherwise classic albums from Donna Summer, Rick James, Michael & Janet Jackson, and dozens of others.
The Message, as an album, is a wildly mixed bag. It’s a wonderful time capsule of early 80s rap, funk, and R&B, even if the songs range from masterful to bad. Yet its positives rise so high above its lows that it’s entirely forgivable. It’s a landmark that’s earned its place in music history, even if only part of the album is responsible for that.