Sunday, June 1, 2008

Once Upon A Time In The Bronx: The Rise of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

By Mark Skillz

It was a extraordinary night for music history. For hip-hop it was the last barrier of mainstream acceptability. The creators of rap music were going to be recognized by the same institution that honored rock icons Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony takes place every year at the posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City; for music history buffs as well as old rock fans with salt and pepper hair this is the night. Music critics and record industry heavyweights turn out in droves to celebrate the careers of the legends of rock that inspired the music we all know and love.

But the 2007 award ceremony was different. This was the first year that a rap group would be inducted into the hall of fame. Rock fans and music critics were livid. Twenty-seven years after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ shook the world, the genre still wasn’t respected as a legitimate form of music. “I’ve heard of Grandmaster Flash”, scoffed one irate fan online, ‘but who in the hell are the Furious Five? And why on Earth are they being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ahead of INXS?”

This year the group that practically invented rap as we now know it, has been formally inducted into the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside rock greats R.E.M., Patti Smith, Van Halen and The Ronnettes. This is a large step for a crew that many have called “the greatest rap group to ever grace stage and wax.” Their story starts in 1976 when it really was just about the music.

Back in 2005 on a warm day in Oakland, CA I had the opportunity to sit and interview the man that wrote the genetic code for what we call hip- hop today: Kool DJ Herc. But back in Herc’s day, it didn’t have a name it was what it was: just a neighborhood thing.

After listening to the founding fathers reminisces on his times as the first break-beat deejay progenitor, I realized something: Kool Herc is to hip-hop what Alexander Graham Bell is to the telephone, yes, he is the creator, but what hip-hop was then and what it is now are two different things.

One hundred years ago you couldn’t have paid Bell or an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi to have predicted the wireless phone, the cell phone, the blackberry, or any other modern device. Kool Herc himself will tell you in a heartbeat “I had no idea that this would become a billion dollar a year industry.”

With that in mind I wondered something: If Coke La Rock (Kool Herc’s MC) was just spittin’ little phrases on the mike, not full all out rhymes as we know it today, then who was the first real MC spittin’ lyric for lyric on beat with a continuous flow?

“Mr. Herc,” I asked him as I scratched my head and searched for the right words. “I’m curious about something.” I said, “Who was the first person that you saw rap as we know it today?”

Just then at that moment a warm smile enveloped Kool Herc’s street hardened face. He looked out the window across the street at Lake Merritt, almost as if he was looking back at that day, in a quiet voice he said, “It was Mele Mel… Mele Mel and Kid Creole. They were at a boxing gym on 169th St, in the Fort Apache area, as a matter of fact, it was the last place that I seen Big Pun alive at.”

In a quiet and almost somber voice he recalled the events while sometimes taking a pause to look down at his battle scarred hands. “They was in the middle of a boxing ring with these big Afro’s… Kid Creole, as little as he is, had one too. Flash was behind them cuttin’. When I saw them I just smiled cause I knew where they got it from…they got it from me. And they knew that they got it from me. I wasn’t mad. Mele Mel saw me in the crowd and just nodded at me. I laughed to myself.”

It must’ve been one helluva moment.

Hanging above the dimly lit gym was a thick cloud of smoke; it was a pungent mixture of cigarettes and reefer laced with angel dust. Stoned out dust heads tripped out as the dazzling display of flashing lights played psychedelic tricks on their minds. In the red light haze surrounded by stick up kids, gangsters and hyperactive b-boys Kool Herc got to see the first steps of his creation taking on a new dimension, as brothers Mele Mel and Creole were laying down the foundation for rap, as we know it today.

According to Kool Herc’s suddenly upbeat mocking recollection “They were saying ‘Yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all, a keep on y’all and ya don’t stop…”

Melvin and Danny Glover are from the South Bronx an area that was once described as a war zone. It was there where they were born and raised, them and six other gentlemen that would fill out the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The group’s rise from hip-hop pioneers to 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees was long and hard. Their story starts in the grimy streets of the South Bronx where they were all fans of an amazingly innovative local deejay.

“This group has never been just about five people”, Arthur ‘Disco Bee’ Hayward said to me while looking out his window smoking a cigarette. What he is referring to is the fact that apart from the five MC’s (Mele Mel, Scorpio, Rahiem, Creole and the late Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggins) and the deejay Grandmaster Flash there were actually two other guys who were apart of the crew, Flash’s assistants: Disco Bee and EZ Mike.

“I go back with him to the beginning.” Bee says. “You ask around, anyone that knows the truth will tell you that originally it was Grandmaster Flash, Disco Bee and the Three MC’s.”

On this day Bee was a bit frustrated. The impact of the bands induction into the Rock Hall of Fame could finally turn the page for a group that many mainstream media outlets have ignored over the last twenty years. Thus, generating some serious cash for a generation of aging hip-hoppers that never got the chance to see any real revenue for the music they’ve given most of their lives to.

Further adding to the situation is the fact that the contributions of Disco Bee and EZ Mike have practically gone unacknowledged. “Flash didn’t invent any of this by himself!” Bee says to me. “That shit [a three man turntable routine] that he did onstage at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors with Jazzy Jeff and Kid Capri is the same thing that me, him and Mike did back in the day.”

Disco Bee goes back to Flash’s initial stages at a schoolyard called 63 Park. Bee – as friends like to call him, would be there with another young man named Cordee-O, whose older brother was Flash’s partner ‘Mean Gene’ Livingston. Disco Bee, along with Flash’s best friend EZ Mike, helped Flash innovate the turntable tricks that would elevate him from the status of a local deejay to a turntable god.

Today Disco Bee is a middle-aged man living in North Carolina with his family. With his Bronx accent, glasses and trademark baseball cap; Bee still retains much of the flavor of his Boogie Down Bronx upbringing. He was rather subdued while talking about his beginnings as a teenaged deejay more than thirty years back, but immediately snapped to life when the subject switched to his favorite sound system.

“The Gladiator”, he exclaimed with an exaggerated raspy voice while proudly wrinkling his face into an intimidating sneer while stretching out his arms and bringing them together as if he was wielding a mighty sword.

This was the system that enabled the group to compete with some of the most ground shaking sound systems in the Tri State area.

“So the Gladiator was all that?” I asked EZ Mike.
“What?” He said as his deep, death-like, gravely voice hit a high pitch, “What? No one could touch that system. It was untouchable.”

“When we started playing The Dixie, this guy on Freeman St., this Jamaican guy built this thing for us.” Disco Bee recalled while beaming with pride. “The speakers were as big as refrigerators and we had four of them. It took two people to carry the amp, this thing was so fuckin’ heavy. We used to put a towel over it, so while we were carrying it into the club people would be pointing at us wondering what we were carrying. And then… we’d uncover it. They would be blown away by… the Gladiator!” Bee exclaims again with the same exaggerated raspy voice.

They went all around the city destroying other crews in sound clashes. That was until one night in Jamaica, Queens…

“We were at this club on Hillside Avenue, what was it called?” Asked EZ Mike, “Oh yeah, the Fantasia that was it. Anyway there we were with the Gladiator, Flash was killing them people. He was cuttin’ that record ‘Catch the Groove’ to pieces: ‘Dunna dunna dun.” Mike said imitating the sound the sax squeal makes as it’s sliced and diced to pieces. “Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dunna dunna dun. Dunna dunna dun.” He was killin’ it. He was spinnin’ around and shit like that cuttin’ the record…and then all of a sudden we heard this huge monstrous sound go: “DUNNA DUNNA DUN”.

“Flash snatched the headphones off and looked around at us and said, “What the fuck was that?”

“We had no idea what it was, but it was so loud and clear that he could hear it even through the headphones!”

“So he went back to spinnin’ again. I happened to look across the room when I saw Goode, in a wheelchair push a button on his mixer and then we heard it again: “DUNNA DUNNA DUN.”

“We were all like “Oh shit, that’s their fuckin’ system making all of that noise. They fuckin’ drowned us out – even with the Gladiator they fuckin’ drowned us.” That was the night they met DJ Divine and Michael Goode and the awesome power of their set called The Infinity Machine.

But still Flash and his gravity- defying, lightning- quick, turntable techniques made him a very difficult deejay to defeat back then.

“One day after Flash had beaten Herc and all of them, there was a jam at a park.” EZ Mike tells me as his gravely voice becomes louder and louder as he gets more and more excited. “Herc was playing there. From the moment we got there people were like “Yo there goes Flash.” This nigga did one of the most awesome things I had ever seen in my life. He got on the turntables and started cuttin’ ‘Good Times”. He was killin’ that shit. “Good…Good …Good…Good Times…Good Times…Good Times. Good Times. Good Times.” And he kept doin’ it faster and faster…”Good Times. Good Times. Good Times”. Motherfuckers were watching this shit and were buggin’ the fuck out. And then all of a sudden he stopped and walked away from the set. He just kept on walking passed the ropes – we thought he was done. And then all of a sudden he went running back toward the turntables at top speed and flipped the cross fader just in time for the record to go “Good Times”. I swear everybody in the fuckin’ park lost their minds.”

The rep was growing Flash was the deejay equivalent of a mighty god like Zeus or Apollo. But he couldn’t conquer the city alone.

Before he was a self-professed former crack addict, now, turned muscle bound tough- talkin’, protein-shake drinking, rumored to be a sometime male stripper and also – nowadays, an aspiring wrestler called ‘Muscle Simmons’; Melvin Glover was known as one of the greatest rappers to ever touch a mic: Grandmaster Mele Mel.

To hear that the first real ‘King of Rap’ sometimes moonlights as a male exotic dancer is heartbreaking to hear. You see, for many rappers of a previous generation Mele Mel was the equivalent of the mystic Bob Marley and the hard partying funk god Rick James. For many Mele Mel was like a prophet.

Just like no one would’ve wanted to see or hear about Bob Marley or Martin Luther King shaking their stuff onstage wearing nothing but thongs. No old school hip-hopper wants to hear about – or more importantly, wants to see, the great Mele Mel dancing somewhere in a thong as part of the ‘Gun Show’.

I have my doubts as to whether Mel is really an exotic dancer or not. So I asked him point blank: “Mel, I hear this whole “Gun Show” thing and you being a stripper is just an extension of a joke that you and Scorp’ started some years back.” To which he responded: “I do my thing. I’m not gonna comment on that, I got my hustle.”

Just like I thought.

Today at 45 years of age Mele Mel is not ready to hang his mic up or coast his way into oblivion. In fact, he’s probably more over the top today, than when he was in his prime. He’s probably one of the few rappers alive these days that actually walks it like he talks it. He’s a man’s man in a culture that doesn’t value maturity. Anyone lacking in self-confidence could borrow a cup or two from him or at the very least could take notes. Even when he’s at his most boastful he’s being sincere.

“I made a way for me to do what I do and for them [other rappers] to do what they do. When you see Mele Mel I want people to know that you’re seeing a true to life living black legend.” He said to me with the raging confidence of a wrestling legend like Rick Flair.

When he’s not in the gym or onstage dancing in some club somewhere, he’s touring the country promoting his first solo album titled ‘M3’.

In the late ‘70’s Mel was known on the streets as “Flash’s MC”. He was the central voice for the baddest deejay the world had ever known at that time. In many ways they complimented each other: Mel was at the very pinnacle at what he did and Flash was unstoppable.

It hadn’t always been the case that Mel was the best MC though – no, many people who remember them from their days as the Three MC’s, recall when Mel’s older brother Danny (Creole) was the better of the trio. In typical fashion Mel told me quite confidently, “That’s subjective, who was better than who. Creole was good, but he wasn’t better than me.”

In the Morrisonia section of the Bronx where they grew up at there were many fledgling MC’s that got on the mic for Flash in 1976. In fact according to Mel ‘anyone could get on the mic for Flash back then’. Lovebug Starsky has made claims of being the first person to talk on the mic while Flash was cutting. But it is the late Keith Cowboy that many remember as being Flash’s first real MC. While Cowboy, Lovebug Starsky and others were doing their thing with Flash in the park, the Glover brothers were hard at work preparing to take their neighborhood by storm.

“Me and Creole were in the house everyday practicing and polishing our routines. From the very beginning – we did everything together. We used to listen to Kool Herc and them. They used to say things like, ‘and yes y’all, the sound that you hear…” They were always saying ‘and yes y’all’ we really liked that so we used it. So we would take that and lengthen it and say it to the beat. So it would be “A yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all, freak-freak y’all.”

“We went to all of Herc’s parties and studied their shit”, he continued, “We studied their format just like people would later study us – that’s how we studied Herc. There are a bunch of stories out there that say that Creole got on first and I got on a month or something like that later, no, we got on the mic for Flash at the same time.”

From the very first time that Mel saw Coke La Rock and Timmy Tim on the mic, he says that rhyming became an all-consuming obsession for him. “I knew from that very first time I held the mic that this is what I should be doing.” He told me. In fact he said as much on his very first record “Superrappin’…

“Ever since I talked at my very first party, I felt I could make my self somebody. It was somethin’ in my heart from the very start, I could see myself at the top of the charts, rappin’ on the mic, making cold cold cash, with a jock spinnin’ for me called DJ Flash. Signing autographs, for the young and old, wearing big time silver and solid gold. My name on the radio and in the magazine’s my picture on a TV screen…”

No one would’ve guessed back then that all of that would come to pass. It can be argued that Mel’s competitiveness, ego and raw determination were key ingredients to putting the band at the top of the heap. Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that Mel was far more competitive than the rest of the group. To this day, he believes that not only can he body slam any opponent in a wrestling ring but can still defeat any MC out there as well.

Many rappers over the age of 35 consistently cite Mele Mel as a prime influence. Rappers as diverse as Kid and Play, Big Daddy Kane, Hammer, Busta Rhymes, Too Short, Rakim and Kool G Rap have all praised his name over the passed two and a half decades. His lyrical prowess is unmatched with songs like “World War III”, “Step Off”, “Beat Street Breakdown”, “King of the Street”, “New York, New York”, “The Truth” and “Survival”. He stood out in an exceptionally talented group.

Nowadays it’s a hard task to get the band that changed rap music to reunite. So much has happened over the years: drug abuse, break ups, fights over money, lawsuits, envy, bitter feelings for not being properly credited and death.

But before the group was full of animosity, before the records and movies, Grammy awards, world tours, long nights with strings of groupies and critical acclaim, in his heart Mele Mel was Flash’s biggest fan.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the sound that you hear is a def to your ear. Ya have no fear cause Flash is here. The disco dream of the mean machine the Darth Vader of the slide fader, no man in the world cuts straighter or greater than New York’s number one cut creator…” That’s how Mele Mel would open many a show with Flash back in the day.

“He’s the one that made me wanna get in the game”, Busy Bee told me. Busy is one of the group’s biggest fans and himself a hip-hop pioneer who is best known for his appearance in the movie ‘Wild Style’ and his record ‘Suicide’. He remembered how the guy that he was so much a fan of, was equally, if not more so an even bigger fan of Grandmaster Flash.

“I used to see him walk around in a sky blue t-shirt that said Pro Keds. Now on the bottom of the logo that said ‘Pro Keds’ he wrote ‘Flash fan’. He was a Flash fan. And he wore the shirt so much, that that’s the way I knew who he was. It was sky blue with white letters I’ll never forget it. I still have snapshots to this day of Mel in that shirt. He was like with me what Monique [the comedian] said to the Bishop Don Magic Juan, “If you wear that green suit again motherfucker!’ You know what I’m sayin?’ He was like that back then with me, “If you wear that T-shirt one more time motherfucker, I’ll buy you a joint my motherfuckin’ self.”

When I related the story to Mel from Busy Bee he laughed hysterically and said, “ Yeah, I remember that shirt.”

EZ Mike remembers when Mel first came around their crew to get on the mic, “Mel wanted to get on the mic with Flash because [Flash] was the best. It was Flash that put him on. Mel and all of them followed Flash everywhere. I remember… they were fans of the man just like everyone else.”

Whether it was on tape or on record Mel was usually the lead voice, with an almost brimstone and fire-like delivery he’d convey lines about Flash so convincingly that people thought that it was Flash on the mic. “Grandmaster Flash is willing and able, he’s the king of the cuts on two turntables, he’s the grand grand the master man. He’s so nice on the slice he don’t need no band. He rocks 45’s and 33’s, he rocks boys, men, women and young ladies!”

Not many people today remember Sylvia Robinson as a singer. She is probably one of the first black females to find success as a songwriter and producer. But without a doubt the biggest feather in her cap is the fact that she is without question the first black female recording artist to own her own independent record company. Many people call her a genius. There isn’t a thing about record production that Sylvia Robinson doesn’t know.

On a recent rerun of the syndicated show ‘Soul Train’ a flashback segment highlighted old footage of Sylvia from 1973. “And now from the Soul Train history book this is Sylvia…” Don Cornelius said as he introduced her with his trademark smooth as velvet bass voice. The camera cut to a scene from the distant past where a dance floor full of teenagers with Afro’s and bell-bottoms swayed to the sultry sounds of an erotic disco beat. On stage wearing an oversized jazzy yellow Apple hat and big hoop earrings, Sylvia Robinson moaned and whispered between sensually charged verses “What your friends all say is fine, but it can’t compete with this pillow talk of mine…”

And to think she almost sold the song to Al Green. In 1973 the song ‘Pillow Talk’ was not only a top ten smash hit on the radio but also it was a hit in disco’s, bedrooms and in the back seats of cars parked in dark places all over America. The song ‘Pillow Talk’ resurrected a career that dated back to the 1950’s when Sylvia, as part of the R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia, busted on to the charts with the smash song ‘Love Is Strange’.

Along the way she wrote and produced for Bo Diddley, Ike and Tina Turner, The Moments, Shirley and Company, The Whatnots, Brother to Brother and many others. Sylvia knew a hit when she heard one. Whether it was The Moments singing the R&B classic ‘Love on a Two Way Street’ or Brother to Brother covering Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Bottle’ – the lady knew her stuff.

To top things off she and her husband Joe Robinson, a tough, no nonsense, gruff kind of guy, made the ultimate coupe de tat in the record biz in1975 by buying the Chess/Checker catalogue.

Or so they thought.

By purchasing the Chess/Checker publishing catalogue – a collection of some of the most treasured songs in early Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll history, the Robinson’s invited the jealous wrath of white record men. “Niggas weren’t thinking’ about buying publishing catalogues back then” a defiant Joey Robinson Jr, told me on the phone. They gave Joe and Sylvia pure hell from the moment they bought that catalogue.

In 1979 their record company All Platinum Records was struggling financially. That was until Sylvia saw Lovebug Starsky performing at the club Harlem World, that’s when a light went off: What if I could take what he’s doing and put it on wax? After thirty years in the music business Sylvia knew to trust her instincts. It would be those instincts that helped her to navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry for three decades that wouldn’t allow her to let the idea go.

First she approached Lovebug Starsky who turned her down. According to DJ Hollywood, the man that many credit as being the ‘godfather of rap’, she approached him as well and he too turned her down. “I was making so much money at the time playing at the Apollo and Club 371 and other spots around the city, that making a record didn’t make sense to me at the time.”

That’s when she got the three guys from New Jersey and christened them the Sugar Hill Gang and released the first commercially successful rap record ‘Rapper’s Delight’. The Robinson’s were the first independent record company in the world to rake in serious cash from a brand new style of music, which, much like rock n roll, would later have a profound impact on popular culture.

By 1981 Sylvia Robinson’s chokehold on the rap industry was complete. She signed all of the top groups in the city to contracts – iron clad contracts at that, so that no one could compete with her stable of acts. The best crew on her roster was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They were the real kings of rap back then.

And they were an arrogant bunch too.

Cold Crush Brothers deejay Toney Tone remembered a night at the early hip-hop hot spot the Disco Fever, when Scorpio “spent all night looking at himself in the mirror.” Many groups from that time remember the Furious Five as being the types of guys who were a little too full of themselves. “They didn’t really associate with MC’s outside of their group” many have said. Kool Herc remembered Mele Mel as being one of the only ones who would occasionally come out and play with him and his crew.

As brilliant as they were though their competition at that time would’ve been shocked to have learned that the band only practiced “maybe once a week” said Rahiem. “We didn’t really practice that much because Mel and Creole didn’t get along. Every time we would get together, it never failed, they’d get into it, and one of them – usually Creole, would wind up walking out. We may have practiced one day a week – but it was intense, we practiced from three or four o’clock in the afternoon to ten or eleven at night.”

Today at 43 years old Rahiem is the youngest member of the crew and arguably the most talented. His smooth tenor voice and wicked flow made him the lyrical co-anchor of the band. Whereas Mel is boastful and arrogant, in contrast Ra is quiet and introspective. “People see me on the street and say “Hey aren’t you…somebody I should know? They don’t know if I’m from the Cold Crush or the Treacherous Three or what”, Rahiem told me. “I’m not as easily recognizable as everyone else – and I kind of like it that way.” It was Rahiem that co-wrote many of the groups songs along with Mele Mel.

Scorpio a/k/a Mr. Ness was the ladies man; with his braided hair and sharp features it was his charismatic persona that helped to give the quintet its swagger. To this day Kid Creole has long flowing straight hair as well as non-stop rhymes and a voice like a traveling salesman.

But it is the late bow-legged, deep voiced Keith Cowboy that many revere. He had one of the best voices ever heard on a mic. The most superb example of Cowboy at his best is at the end of the record ‘Freedom’. As the tape was fading out there were more rhymes to go, so the founding member of the Furious Five ended the song in a classic street corner style with finger snaps and all. He wasn’t the best lyricist in the group, but it was his voice and flow that forever sealed the ending of the song as a classic.

Once they got on Sugar Hill and their records started selling they went way over the top as far as egos went. And why not? They toured the country with some of the biggest acts of the 80’s: Evelyn Champagne King, The Gap Band, Joan Jett, The Clash, The SOS Band and many others, the band was royalty on the street; in Hollywood they hung out and partied with Eddie Murphy. Their stage show was in demand.

Night after night they toured the world like proselytizers of a new faith. They were spreading the word of the gospel that Kool Herc had crafted ten years before and were taking it to places as far as Aruba. People in Middle America had never seen or dreamed that eight guys with two turntables and a set of microphones could do so much with so little. They were warmly received in most places, but in others they were met with stone silence and indifference. What they were doing was so much different from anything anyone had ever witnessed.

“We were playing at Bond’s International one night. I’ll never forget this”, Rahiem said as he recalled the show. “When we first started touring with Sugar Hill, Sylvia used to dress us. She picked out these velvet suits with rhinestones – we hated those suits. Anyway, here we are at Bond’s International, opening for the punk rock group The Clash.”

“Now here we are – we’re rappers, those white boys that came out you know, they wanted to slam dance and shit like that. So Flash is out there first doing his thing, and I guess he went ‘zigga zigga’ one too many times and the crowd started getting restless.”

“Well, we get out there and start doing our thing and after a while I dunno… it seemed like everybody went to take a break and head for the concession stand – at the same time. The next thing we knew we were getting hit with all kinds of shit. I remember somebody threw an orange at Scorpio and it hit him dead in the balls. It was that bad. And we had to go through it twice because we played two shows that night. But we got over it because we were being paid $18, 500 that night. When we got off that stage every white boy in that place looked like someone who threw something at us.”

But bad shows aside what making records afforded the group was the chance to tour the world. Some of them had never been outside of New York before; they were in awe of the sights and sounds of different places and having fans in neighborhoods that were similar to their own.

“I’ll never forget this time on tour in St. Thomas”, said Disco Bee. “Me and Cowboy were the only ones who woke up early, it was eight o’clock in the morning and everyone else was asleep. Cowboy said, ‘Yo Bee, let’s go out.” We were like two little kids with a new invention. I mean we were that happy. We were walking around when all of a sudden we turned a corner and were like, “Oh snap, you see that?” It was a bunch of brothers playing ball in a park with no shoes on. We joined in with them. After a while Cowboy looked at me and said, “Yo Bee, you gonna take your shoes off?” I said, ‘Hell no’. He said ‘me either’. The ground was too fuckin’ hot for that shit.”

“We really liked touring the country”, Rahiem said. “One of the things that separated us from a lot of these cats today, is we didn’t just know our hood, we were in every hood”, Mele Mel said adamantly. “A lot of these dudes today are block niggas because all they know is their block, but when we came to town, we went into every hood and hung out and got to know the people.”

Rahiem agrees, “As soon as we’d get off the plane we’d be like alright, take us to get some food, and we went straight to the hood. In every country and every city we didn’t care where – we went to the hood. We loved going to Florida, Atlanta was a good city for us, and we loved hanging out there. All over Louisiana – New Orleans, Lake Charles, Shreveport we got plenty of love there.”

“What did you love about Louisiana?” I asked.

“The food, the women, once you’ve had a Creole woman, I dunno man that shit was like crack, that shit was addictive.”

In 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five sat on top of the rap music industry like a big 800-ton elephant. But the world of funk was the dominion of a shit talkin’, weed-smokin’, cocaine-sniffin’, sex crazed, multi-talented singer, songwriter and producer named Rick James.

Decked out in leather and high heel boots his only real friends were a spliff and a guitar. With recordings like “Mary Jane”, “Bustin’ Out”, “Standing on the Top”, “Cold Blooded” and “Give it to Me Baby” Rick James was the king of funk. His songs weren’t just about sex and drugs – though they were a common theme, he also liked to write tunes that reflected his ghetto upbringing: “Pimp Simp” was a song he recorded with the Furious Five for the album ‘Cold Blooded’. His albums went platinum and he played to sold out stadiums all over the world. People that knew him have said that he was one of the hardest working musicians they ever met. For as hard as he worked though– he partied even harder.

“People need to go back in their memory banks and remember, in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, before Prince and Michael Jackson, Rick James was hot.” Mele Mel wants to reminds us. “He was the first modern day black rock star. When he walked out onstage and said “Fire It up” everybody in the place was firing their weed up. He was a talented dude.”

Mel cites the song “Déjà vu’ which James wrote and produced for Teena Marie as being his favorite Rick James record.

“Slick Rick [as James was sometimes called] was basically like our father when we were out on the road”, Mel told me. “Slick Rick did for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five what Frank Sinatra did for Sammy Davis, Jr, he made everyone respect us.”

“When we first went out on tour with him”, Mel continued, “We’d be outside our tour bus lifting our little weights that were filled with sand and doing push ups. Outside the coliseum or wherever we were doing a show at, we would get this little deli tray that would have meats and cheese and shit like that on it that looked like niggas probably could’ve wiped their balls with it or some shit like that. Rick would come around and check up on us and make sure we were all right and he saw how we were being treated. He went to Al Hayman, who at one time was the biggest promoter in the country, and put him and the union people, on notice: ‘Yo, treat them right, Flash and them are my boys.’ And they did it. So as a result of that we got better food, better places to stay, more space on stage and more time on stage.”

“We immediately clicked with Rick”, Rahiem told me, “Although he’s from Buffalo he’s still from New York, his drummer Lino, from the Stone City Band is from the Bronx – we all immediately hit it off. We got high together and everything.”

“Did you ever hear Rick James say ‘I’m Rick James, bitch!” I asked.
“Absolutely!” Rahiem responded, ‘that was his slogan, that’s really not a joke. That’s how he really carried himself.”
“I seen him straight up kick a chick in the ass with a pair of thigh high suede boots on, he was wearing some black leather pants, he straight up kicked a chick straight up her ass. He said, “You must have the game fucked up, I’m Rick James, bitch! Get out of my dressing room.”

Upon hearing Rahiem’s story Mele Mel laughed and remembered another event. “The first time I saw Rick, I hadn’t even met him yet. I seen him smack the shit out of a bitch, and this was a good-looking broad too, I mean he wasn’t no punk about his. He smacked her and said ‘Now get the fuck out of my dressing room! I was like ‘Oh shit’ this nigga is for real.”

Rick’s charismatic personality and talent made a serious impression on the Furious Five.

But there was another memory of Rick that really stands out for Mel, “When we would be onstage Rick would be on the side of the stage wearing a hood over his head, watching us silently taking mental notes. He really wanted to help us to be better performers.”

Rahiem recalls a night after the tour was over when “Rick called me when he knew he was going to be in New York, and told me to meet him at NBC studios on the set of Saturday Night Live, because he wanted to surprise Eddie. It was Smokey Robinson’s birthday; it was me, Rick, Smokey Robinson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy and a lot of others who all went out to Studio 54.”

“What was Studio 54 like?” I asked.
“The only way I know how to describe Studio 54 to you would be to say…it was like Disco Fever to the 10th power. There were celebrities walking in and out of that place, it was something else.”

While the group was out on tour having the time of their lives, Sylvia Robinson was excited about a demo she got from percussionist and songwriter Ed Fletcher. According to a 2004 article in Blender Magazine, Fletcher had two songs on the demo, one was called ‘Dumb Love’ and the other was ‘The Message’. In the article Mele Mel said, “No one wanted to do ‘The Message’ even Ed Fletcher didn’t think much of it”.

At the time the band was coming off of a string of records that blasted out of boom boxes and rocked block parties, skating rinks, cook outs and school dances – but they weren’t hits. Sales wise they were nothing in comparison with what was to come. “Freedom”, “The Birthday Party”, “It’s Nasty”, ‘Flash to the Beat”, “Superrappin’ and “The Adventures of Flash on the Wheels of Steel” were top notch rap records – but they didn’t make it to the top of the charts.

The first commercial rap artist to release a record with any kind of social awareness was a guy who at one time had been a part of Flash’s crew. According to Disco Bee, “At one point the group got really large. I mean there were a whole lot of people in the group, man.” So they ended up having two groups: the A group – which was the Furious Five, and the B group, which consisted of Kool Kyle, Lovebug Starsky, a guy named Georgie George and another guy who called himself Kurtis Blow. .

According to the band, at first no one in the group wanted anything to do with “The Message”. It was a complete departure from everything that they had done. For a year the band ducked and dodged Sylvia at every turn. But the more they resisted the more pressure she applied.

Finally she put her foot down: Either record this song or that’s it. “She’d do things like withhold advances from us as a form of punishment”, Rahiem recalls.

According to Joey Robinson, Jr., the reason Mele Mel is the only one from the group featured on the song, is because he said, ‘Mrs. Robinson if you believe in the song – then I believe in you.” No one else in the band believed in the record.

Grandmaster Flash has on gone on record as saying he was against the idea of only one person from the group being featured on the song.

However it was Rahiem’s voice that was originally on the track as well. “Mel and I co-wrote the verse ‘a child is born’ together, it was used on ‘Superrappin’. We decided while recording “The Message” that that part would fit into the new song. I was in the studio I laid down the part that Duke Bootee would later do. But Mrs. Rob had a problem with my mother and I. She called us trouble makers.”

Every group has its stand out member, whether it’s The Leaders of the New School, The Wailers or The Spinners, there is that one member that has a little bit more of that special something that makes them stand out from everyone else. From the very start of their careers at Sugar Hill, Sylvia noticed that special something in Mele Mel. ‘It was Mrs. Robinson that singled him out and made it look like he was the leader – but he wasn’t.” Rahiem told me. “Because his lyrics were more universal we let him take the lead on stuff that he wrote.”

In the song ‘The Message’ Duke Bootee and Mele Mel painted raw lyrical pictures of the suffering of ghetto dwellers huddled together in the ruins of the neglected promise of America. For the first time on wax since the days of the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, there was a record on the radio that truly captured the claustrophobic desperation and despair of the inner city at the dawn of Reaganomics.

“Broken glass everywhere,
People pissin’ on the stairs,
You know they just don’t care.
I can’t take the smell,
Can’t take the noise,
I got no money to move out,
I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room,
Roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far,
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.”

And then the songs refrain:

“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.”
When the song finally dropped it was one of the most awesome things ever heard in rap up to that point. In fact, lyrically it forever changed the game, the days of party rhymes and fun were over the seeds for a more serious art form were finally taking root.