Monday, June 1, 2009

Why Grandmaster Mele Mel is a Genius

Recently there was a small ruckus in the world of rap when mixtape soldier Joe Budden stuck his foot in his mouth, or should I say some other unmentionable orifice. Budden, upset with his ranking in VIBE magazines list of greatest rappers of all time, took exception to being ranked lower than old school great Mele Mel.

“Mele Mel?” The rapper asked, “what has he done recently?”

Mel’s response caught many off guard. It was to the point and funny. Mel ran off a short list of his accomplishments. He has so many “firsts” that it is literally impossible to leave him off of anyone’s greatest of all time list.

The first rapper to have his song added to the Library of Congress.

The first rapper (his group included) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The first rapper to use the title MC.

The first rapper to make a real video.

The first rapper to win an Emmy.

And there are other firsts that I just can’t name off right now. Let’s just put it this way: This dude has so many “firsts” that if you erased his name from the history of the rap game…there would be no rap game!

With his usual hubris Mel created his own chart of great rappers using a body chart. As to be expected he ranked himself number five (in the throat area), he then ranked Joe at around number thirty-two – which so happened to fall around the ass crack or ball sack area of the body.

Everybody knows the words to “The Message” so I’m not about to take up any space here reciting those words. Now if your looking for a hidden gem in the rap game, might I suggest you check out one of Mel’s least celebrated recordings: “World War III”.

Let me give you a little background about this song and its impact before I go into it.

In 1984 the world was on edge. This was before the threat of Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda friends. At that time, believe it or not, Bin Laden and his friends (the mujahdeen) were on our side.

For forty years two great nuclear powers had been on the verge of literally blowing up the world. There was fear on both sides. The fear of a nuclear war and the spread of communism gave fuel to the rise of the right wing of the Republican Party.

But Republicans be damned. The possibility of nuclear war was damn frightening to everybody. After we dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima we had a deep seated fear of the karma awaiting us.

In 1984 anti-war forces were out in mass protesting anything and everyone connected to the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

There have been many movies that have dealt with the fallout from nuclear war. First among them: “The Planet of the Apes”. The premise of the story was that after mankind had literally blown itself back into the Stone Age, a weird kind of reverse evolution took place, the planet became the dominion of the gorillas! To hell with the “missing link” we were at the bottom of the food chain ya’ll!

Another movie that comes to mind is the “Terminator”. No, it had nothing to do with nuclear war, but it depicted a world run by machines. Mankind living in fear of machines.

Science fiction has always told stories of the planet self-destructing due to man’s greed and propensity for violence. Our worlds future is depicted as cold, dangerous, sterile, bleak and we’re either at the mercy of machines or other evil forces, who have no choice but to dominate us due to our violent nature.

So with all of that as a backdrop enter: the message raps of the eighties. Before so-called “conscious rappers” there was Kurtis Blow, Mele Mel, Divine Sounds, CD III, Twilight 22, RUN-DMC, Fearless Four and dozens of other groups back then that all kicked rhymes about hard times, unemployment, drugs and how scary the city was becoming.

Maybe this is a good time to have this conversation. I don’t know how many rap songs get released every year in this country, but with myspace music, mixtapes, and so many other avenues to release music, fuggeaboutit , it’s too goddamn many to mention. But lets just say that a large portion of it – lyrically, is irrelevant.

Why do I say that?

Ok, maybe songs about dudes flossin’ and girls strippin’ and endless nights in clubs sippin’ Henny and poppin’ E pills is relevant to how some people are livin’. I ain’t about to sit here and argue that. Uh uh. But what does all that have to do with the current state of our country?

Let’s be clear we are in the midst of the worse recession since 1929. We are fighting two wars and are on the verge of maybe fighting a third and a fourth (Iraq, Pakistan, Korea you pick one). More people have lost homes and jobs in the past year than at anytime ever.

So let’s get back to being relevant.

What does being relevant mean? According to the dictionary: “pertaining to or connected with the matter at hand or under discussion”

So like I say, songs about sippin’ this and that; and trippin’ off of this and that; may in fact be relevant to some. I know, I know no one wants to hear about the problems of the world, they listen to music because they want to escape all of that. And that’s why they pop this and that and sip this and that. But understand, you can’t run from your problems forever. You can’t drink your life away (at least you shouldn’t), you can’t fuck your life away (you can – but you shouldn’t) because your problems aren’t going anywhere.

With that said, the 60’s and ‘70’s were the era of some of the great songwriters ever. Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Gamble and Huff, Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield and dozens and dozens of others, all of whom could write songs that not only talked about good times, love and drugs, but and this is important, they talked about what was going on in the world around them.

During the 60’s John Lennon said that American music was irrelevant because none of the songs were talking about Vietnam. He said that the only song that was in anyway relevant was Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street” which was a metaphor for the riots taking place at the time.

So here we are in the 21st century in the midst of a depression, two wars and an uncertain future and what are popular artists today singing about? Well, let’s see…ego driven nights in clubs, sexual fantasy’s and other mindless dribble.

Let’s get back to 1984 the year that a lot of these artists claim they were born.

Four or five hundred years ago, if someone would’ve read Mele Mel’s lyrics to ‘World War III’ he would’ve been called a prophet, a mystic, a poet, messianic preacher, a visionary and a genius. There are moments in the song when, I swear, Mel could’ve been Confucius or I dare say a messenger like Jesus or Moses. With lines like…

Man is in conflict with nature,

And that is why there is so much sin.

But mother natures delicate balance

Will fix it so nobody wins in World War III.”

Now let’s examine that. At the time Mel was twenty two years old. He was a young father with children trying to feed his family in hip-hop’s infancy. Hip-hop in the 80’s was the “champagne and cocaine era.” When you mix that in with the fact that Mel was in the hottest group of that time, well, let’s just say its difficult to believe that he would be able to write something as profound as the following lyrics.

There’s been a talk of a fiery tomb,

Prophesized since the dawn of time.

In a world of bloodshed

Mass confusion

Killer diseases

Pollution and crime.

Man is conflict with nature

And that is why there is so much sin.

But mother natures delicate balance

Will fix it so nobody wins

In World War III

And then he got poetic

Between the boundaries of time and space,

Was the planet Earth and the human race.

A world alive,

And centuries old,

With veins of diamonds, silver and gold.

Snow capped mountains overlooked the land

And the deep blue sea made love with the sand.

Full grown strands of evergreen hair

Kissed the sky with the breath of air.

Where exotic fish once swam in the sea,

And the eagles soared in the sky so free

But the foolish clan that walked the land

Was the creature that they called man.

They’re cannibalistic paranoid fools

Tricking each other with games and rules.

Training their men to kill and fight

Movin’ and steering with mechanized might.

The only thought that man had in mind,

Was to conquer the world and the rest of mankind…

This was before songwriters and producers established the tired, trite and overly formulaic song structure of the sixteen bar verse and the eight bar chorus that is now mandatory on every record.

A thousand miles away from home

A mortally wounded soldier dies.

And on the blood stained battlefield

His life flashes before his eyes.

Before he died the man saw Jesus

And Jesus Christ took his hand

And on the soldiers dying breath

The Good Lord took him to the Promised Land.

But there’s no more pain,

Everybody disappears after World War III

The silver moon the midnight stars

Jupiter collides with Mars

And out of the darkness spirits roar,

To cast revenge on the Earth once more

The leaders of the world are hypnotized,

By wizards dark and in disguise

Bought to Earth by an evil hand

To devour souls in the brand new land.

They make the leaders think that war brings peace

And out comes the one with the Mark of the Beast.

There’s evil behind closed doors in the year of 1984.

The first time I interviewed Mel I asked him about the origin of the lyrics, my assumption was that Sylvia Robinson had probably introduced him to the songs of Lennon and McCartney or Bob Dylan, or maybe he had a nightmare about the end of the world. His response: “I was just trying to beat other MC’s.”

Go figure that: deeply profound lyrics with searing insight and poetic prophesy; at the heart, were written out of the fear of competition!

Conscious Rappers vs Message Rappers

On the surface it sounds like there should be no difference, right? Let's look at the artists and compare some notes.

In 1982 Sugar Hill Records released the ground breaking classic "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This was a song written by an obscure session musician named Ed Fletcher. At first Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson wanted the song to be recorded by the Sugar Hill Gang. Thank God for Sylvia's ears cause that wouldn't have sounded right.

In fact, none of the Sugar Hill artists wanted to record it. Neither the Crash Crew or the Treacherous Three wanted to do it. I seriously doubt that she offered it to Sequence. I've been told by both Rahiem and Mele Mel that Sylvia Robinson
insisted that the band record that song or else.

After much hemming and hawing and leg and teeth pulling, the Furious Five as a unit recorded "The Message". But Sylvia didn't like it. She insisted that Mel and Ed Fletcher record the song together. The song became a classic. It is the first rap recording to be added tothe Library of Congress.

It was the impact of the record that I'm talking about right here though.

After "The Message" came out group after group made "message" type records that talked about unemployment, drugs, the insanity of ghetto life etc. It can be argued that the ripple effects of "The Message" were felt all the way up until 1989 when NWA released "Fuck tha Police".

However, there is a difference between "Message" rap and "gangsta rap".

Who are some of the artists that recorded "Message raps?"

Twilight 22
Divine Sounds
Kurtis Blow
Fearless Four
Lovebug Starsky
Jeckyll and Hyde

There were others I just don't feel like writing out all of them. This ain't a library ya know.

Okay, 1987 the conscious era begins. For me it starts with Public Enemy. BDP didn't get "conscious" until the release of their second album "By Any Means Necessary". After that came X Clan, Paris, Def Jeff and so many other groups if they weren't wearing red, black and green then they were singing about red, black and green.

But they were doing "Message Rap". Somewhere, somehow, someone came along and made a difference between the two. When there wasn't. The only difference between the two was the use of Black Nationalist imagery.

All those groups did "The Message" over harder beats.

Why today aren't Kurtis Blow and Mele Mel called "conscious rappers?"