Sunday, April 24, 2011

April 24: Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee, "The Message"

Artist: Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootie
Song: "The Message"
Album: The Message
Year: 1982

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While some genres take decades to evolve, and seem to have a slow rise to notoriety, a few have simply burst into the mainstream, seemingly out of nowhere.  Though this latter situation is rather rare, and one can find traces of the style in question in earlier songs, when a sound emerges so suddenly, it almost always becomes part of the actual definition of the genre.  This was perhaps no more true than when the world-at-large was introduced to a sound called "hip-hop" in the late 1970's, and in comparison, few genres have changed as drastically over the decades.  Yet even in its early days, there seemed to be some dissent as to "what" the purpose of the genre was, as many artists seemed to simply wish to keep it close to its roots in the Jamaican "toasting" style.  Conversely, some saw a far more important application of hip-hop music, and while many later artists try and argue that it was their efforts that first reported the "problems" of the inner city, the truth of the matter is, such songs were present from the earliest days of the genres' existence.  Though it stands today as what may very well be the most mis-credited song in history, one can find the entire foundation for the hip-hop genre within Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's 1982 masterpiece, "The Message."

Though there have been a number of musical hooks that have risen to an iconic status, few are on par with that found on "The Message," and it is almost impossible to think of a time when it did not exist in the form put forth on the song.  The way in which the unmistakable keyboard progression dances across the track is as close to musical perfection as one will find anywhere, and over the decades, it has been re-sampled a countless number of times.  While in most cases, this progression would be a very upbeat one, there is a dark mood that persists throughout the song, and it is reinforced in the manner with which the keyboard clashes with the break-beat.  Though the beat structure is rather simplistic, it fits perfectly with the rest of the musical arrangement, and it is within this aspect of the music that one can hear how disco gave way to hip-hop music.  There are also a number of DJ cuts and slides throughout "The Message," and it is these small touches that give the song its fantastic sense of movement, as well as establish itself as an entirely new musical approach.  However, it is the bassline that proves to be the most essential aspect of the arrangement, as it gives the song a deep groove, and also gives it a rather intimidating tone.  On every level, "The Message" quickly set itself far apart from everything else being created at the time, and one can easily understand why the song is held as such a work of visionary genius.

However, as fantastic as the music is, the song simply would not have worked had it not been for the vocals of both Duke Bootee and Melle Mel.  Taking an aggressive, straightforward vocal approach, there was never any thought of altering either voice in the slightest, and this helps the frustration in their lyrics to come through clearly.  There is a free, almost relaxed tone within the rapping during the verses, and it is largely this aspect of the music that pushed the song to commercial success, as they perfectly blend with the music over which they perform.  Yet it is rather strange to think of crowds "enjoying" this song, as the lyrics on "The Message" are as brutal and unapologetic as one will find anywhere.  The way in which these two emcees paint a picture of the life in the inner-city is exceptionally dark, and while many have tried, few have been able to match this brutal honesty.  Finding no need for lines of excessive violence or swearing, "The Message" proves that by simply reporting things "as they are," a song can have far more impact than the mindless garbage that is spewed within the current hip-hop scene.  Though each line in the song hits hard, there may be no other lyric in hip-hop history that is more iconic than the repeated, "...don't push me 'cuz I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head..."  The "power in simplicity" that runs throughout the entire song serves as the ideal finishing touch, and even almost thirty years later, "The Message" manages to hit just as hard as it did when it was first released.

Strangely enough, almost from day one, "The Message" has taken the title for the most improperly credited song in all of music history.  Most people do not think twice before mentioning the name Grandmaster Flash when asked of "The Message," and yet Flash, as well as the other members of The Furious Five, had absolutely NOTHING to do with this track.  In fact, they made it quite clear during the recording session that they had no interest in the song, and all of "The Message" is the sole work of Melle Mel and Duke Bootee.  Not only did Sugar Hill Records improperly label the album upon release, but when it came time to create a music video, the rest of the band was "forced" into the song, and other members lip-synced the verses.  Even in later years, when the song was being honored for its groundbreaking nature, this mis-crediting continued, and to this day, few people are aware that Grandmaster Flash is nowhere to be found on "The Message," aside from his name on the record's sticker.  Regardless of this mistake, one cannot deny the massive impact that the track continues to have, and few songs have been sampled as consistently across the entire world of music, making appearances both musically and lyrically in a wide-range of hit songs.  To this day, the song can still hold its own with everything being recorded within hip-hop, and there are few songs as perfect or as timeless than the simple genius that can be found within Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's "The Message."

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