“The Message”: Grandmaster Flash’s Pioneering Album

When people speak of Rap it’s often used as a singular term. That’s just as erroneous as describing Country Music or Rock and Roll as singular units.  Rap encompasses many styles including ‘Old School’, ‘Boom Bap’, ‘Trap’, ‘Gangsta Rap’, and ‘G-funk’ to name a few.  But all these styles owe their origins to one Joseph Robert Sadler, also known as “Grandmaster Flash,” and often referred to as the father of Hip Hop.

Joseph and his group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.  Many of the techniques and technical tricks that have become synonymous with Hip Hop were originated, or at least copied and improved, by the Grandmaster.

Sadler was born in Barbados but raised in the Bronx.  His father was an avid record collector and Joseph spent hours listening to the stacks of albums that were kept throughout his home.  This love of music led him to take up being a DJ, often spinning these same records at parties.  He quickly developed his own DJing style including smooth transitions between songs (crossfading) and repeating small sections of the tune.  Previously, most DJs would simply play their favorite songs one after the other.  The lull between queuing up 45s and tracks on an LP would often clear the dance floor.  But Sadler’s technique kept the music playing uninterrupted, which made parties better.

He also perfected the “scratching” technique that others had used. His most outrageous technique, known as “quick mix” or “break-beating,” included the use of two turntables and headphones.  In its most common use, both turntables would be queued with the same record.  While the first was playing he’d find the same part of the song on the second turntable via headphones. He then would switch from the first turntable to the second, often to just extend the mix.

Using felt and wax paper, he created the first crude version of something now called a Slipmat, allowing a record to turn freely without forcing the motor forward or backward.  This makes it easier to both scratch-play a song and move to a particular part of a song without impacting the speed of the turntable.

In the early 1970s, Sadler (as Grandmaster Flash) joined with Keef Cowboy, Melle Mel, and Kidd Creole to form the group “Grandmaster Flash & the 3 MCs.”  It was this group that coined the term “hip hop,” an imitation of soldiers marching in a rhythmic way.  With the addition of Rahiem and Scorpio, the group renamed itself to “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five”, signing with Enjoy Records and releasing their first single, “Superrappin.”

“Superrappin’” will immediately sound familiar, recalling later hits such as The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, with the rappers describing themselves, telling a story about the group, all the while delivering a nasty bass hook and drum rhythm. The latter became a Top 40 hit in 1980.  At the same time, Grandmaster Flash and his group signed with Sugarhill Records and released the single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.”   This 7-minute mashup is a clinic on Grandmaster Flash’s various DJing techniques, and includes clips from Blondie’s “Rapture”, the bass hook from “Rapper’s Delight”, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Good Times by Chic, and others.

This all culminated in the release of the group’s first LP in 1982 titled The Message, a fantastic combination of various early Hip Hop styles and catchy hooks.  That year,  The New York Times called it the “year’s best album.”

The Message is a fun album. Opening with “She’s Fresh” the LP immediately causes your head to bob to the fantastic bass line samples and horn stabs.  It’s still catchy and, well, fresh. That’s followed by “It’s Nasty”, in which you’ll immediately recognize the hook from the classic “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club – a great sample used effectively.

“Scorpio” uses synth-robotic voices and a drum machine to deliver another danceable number.  “It’s a Shame (Mount Airy Groove)” takes samples from “Mt. Airy Groove” by Pieces of a Dream, a soul group from Philadelphia.  “Dreamin’” is an R&B tune that harkens to Stevie Wonder-styled hits and includes great vocals by Melvin Glover (Melle Mel).

By the same token “You Are” is a beautiful peace that reminds us of the soulful music in black churches, with wonderful vocals by Melle.  And if you grew up in the late 1970s / early 1980s, you would instantly recognize the eponymous “The Message” as it received a great deal of airplay at the time.  It’s a song ultimately about the misery of living in the ghetto, later describing a child born there and lured into a life of crime.  The repeated lyrics, “It’s like a jungle sometimes and it makes me wonder how I keep from going under” drive the point that living in that squalor is a significant barrier that includes constant pressure to just give up.

Later re-releases of The Message in 2010 and ’20 added other Grandmaster Flash songs “New York, New York” and “The Birthday Party.”  The album includes great production values, clear mixing, crisp vocals and drum tracks, and effortless movement between effects and samples.  Later groups such as Run D.M.C. and Young MC would borrow from the groundwork laid by The Message. If you’ve never really thought of yourself as someone who might like Rap, listening to The Message might change your mind at least regarding the original stylings of Hip Hop.

-Will Wills

Fair Use image of The Message single

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Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

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