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Music History

‘The Message,’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is the Embodiment of New York City’s Spirit

The hip hop classic is the most 'New York' song of all time

melle mel the message

Melle Mel illustration by Dan Redding

What’s the first song that comes to mind when you think of New York City? Frank Sinatra’s rendition of ‘New York, New York’? Ol’ Blue Eyes was from Hoboken, and his classic song is primarily treated as kitsch for tourists: the musical equivalent of a Little Italy souvenir t-shirt. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind’? The song was a genuine, ubiquitous smash hit – but the uber-anthem strains too hard in its effort to hit every sentimental note in New York’s mythology (also, “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” is an irritatingly nonsensical phrase).

The most New York song of all time is ‘The Message’ by South Bronx rap crew Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. ‘The Message’ epitomizes both New York City and the beloved music genre that was born here. This urgent street life manifesto is the pure embodiment of the urban environment. It’s the sound of heat rising from South Bronx concrete on a hot summer day.

‘The Message’ is credited for introducing the harsh light of reality into a genre whose previous chief concern had been partying. Its unblinking portrayal of the concrete jungle (“broken glass everywhere / people pissing on the stairs you know they just don’t care”) was the kernel for gangsta rap; it opened the floodgates for a N.W.A., Public Enemy, and other groups who would use rap for a purpose that Chuck D described as “CNN for black people.” Rolling Stone named ‘The Message’ the greatest hip hop song of all time. When Grandmaster Flash performed the song in Williamsburg’s McCarren Park on Friday, the song’s cascading synth rhythm sounded as fresh as ever.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 released ‘The Message’ in 1982. Flash was already known as a pioneer of the art of DJing. ‘The Message’ was considered an experiment in an embryonic genre dominated by party rhymes (like Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’). The song was released hot on the heels of ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force – a song which had successfully expanded hip hop’s boundaries in yet another direction: futuristic, electronic sounds influenced by German pioneers Kraftwerk.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 (Flash is standing second from left, Melle Mel kneeling)

The rap verses in ‘The Message’ were written by co-producer Duke Bootee, and performed by Bootee and Furious Five member Melle Mel. The song’s concept originated with co-producer Jiggs Chase and Sugar Hill Records head Sylvia Robinson. Chase told The Guardian that Robinson was already seeking “a serious song to show what was happening in society.” Then, Chase heard Duke Bootee offhandedly rap the lyric that would become iconic: “Don’t push me, ‘cos I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.” Robinson’s concept for a rap song with a serious message was fused with Bootee’s lyric, and the song’s seed was planted. The record label pitched the song to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 – who were skeptical at first, because they were used to party rhymes and boast records. Melle Mel told Terry Gross that he ultimately “caved in” and agreed to do the song, which he “just thought would be another record.” Mel was shocked when the record took off.

‘The Message’ became an important hip hop touchstone. Diddy used a remix of it (the abhorrent ‘Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down’), as did did Ice Cube (‘Check Yo Self [feat. Das Efx][Remix]’) and many others. Nas invoked the classic song by using its title for his own street life rumination. It’s a true classic of the New York spirit, and of hip hop itself.

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