Before anybody over 40 gets excited, Yes had a Festive Fifty entry from an album called Close To the Edge…but this isn’t it. Interestingly, the song today is no less than a milestone in the history of rap, but doesn’t feature the man it’s credited to.
Sugar Hill released some of the pioneering records in rap, a genre to which the majority of British audiences were introduced in 1979 by the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. Talking instead of singing was not a new thing by any means, but the changing of the focus from the dance beat to the message therein was a revelation. Enter Jamaican Joseph Saddler, who came from a background of fascination with music: his father was an inveterate vinyl junkie, and had an enormous collection of black and Caribbean music. This early fascination with the needle to the record led to him working parties where he would pioneer break beats: using two copies of the same record and mixing them together to produce something entirely new. Such remakers inevitably regarded themselves as magicians of a sort, and styled themselves ‘wizard’, ‘duke’, etc. So he became ‘grandmaster’, and joined forces with Melle Mel (allegedly the first to call himself an MC, short for Master of Ceremonies), Raheim, Kid Creole, Scorpio and Cowboy, who transmuted from the 3 Rappers to the Furious Five.
Flash himself made his mark on the scene early on with the remarkable Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel, wherein he intercut samples from not only black but white music (Blondie’s Rapture providing the memorable hook ‘Flash’s back’). Thus scratching was born, and this would become a mark that he had actually participated on the track. However, this was not the case with The Message (FF 1982 #3), a slowed-down backbeat overlaid with only Melle Mel and session musician Duke Bootee appearing, though the entire band was credited. The song has become something of a legend: the lyrics vividly portray life in the Bronx and the struggle to overcome rampant poverty. It soared into the top ten in the British charts, despite its use of language (‘Broken glass is everywhere/People pissing on the stage, you know they just don’t care‘) and the negativity evinced in its story: the protagonists are ultimately claimed by their ghetto past (‘But now your eyes sing the sad sad song/Of how you lived so fast and died so young’). And, of course the warning of impending violence: Don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head’.
Although the rest of the band were apparently disinterested in making it, Rahiem stooped to lip-synching for this one. Flash’s suing Sugar Hill for royalties that year precipitated a split: Flash, Kid Creole and Rahiem appearing in one camp and Mel and the rest in the other. It was this aggregation which metamorphosed into Grandmaster Melle Mel and The Furious Five and had another huge hit with White Lines (Don’t Do It), a classic anti-drug tirade with a muscular beat. It’s also Mel on Chaka Khan’s fantastic I Feel For You.
That the band were the first hip-hop or rap artists to be inducted into the Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame last year is a measure of how much they lent to the genre, and how the dividing lines between black and white were becoming increasingly blurred.