To many, Grandmaster Flash is perhaps best known for this track.
But whilst it bears his name on the cover, he didn’t write it, and barely appears on it.
He’s in good company though – most of the rest of the band don’t appear on it either.
The track actually originates from Sugarhill Records’ staff songwriter Ed Fletcher, who began the composition in 1980 in his mother’s basement, on the piano.
Sugarhill Records boss Sylvia Robinson liked the track and wanted Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five to record it, but the band weren’t convinced by the unconventional style and content, and made fun of the track initially.
One band member held a different view, so Melle Mel worked with Fletcher to complete the composition and the recording, and the two take alternate verses on the finished track.
Songwriting credits are split therefore between Sylvia Robinson, Ed Fletcher, Melle Mel, and also Sugarhill Records producer Clifton Chase, who contributed greatly with a unique sound to match the then unique lyrical content.
As the track was developing, some band members warmed to it and asked to become involved, but Robinson refused, other than to have them included in the skit in the track’s outro.
Sugarhill Records was very much a production house in its own right, and this record was very much the product of the label rather than the band – the band’s role being much more to front rather than create the record in this case.
Given the scenario that had unfolded, it’s unsurprising perhaps that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five divided into Grandmaster Flash the solo artist, and Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five not long after this release.
And the tensions didn’t end with the split, as Grandmaster Flash would later sue Sugarhill Records for $5m in unpaid royalties, which in turn would see future single ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ retrospectively re-credited to Grandmaster & Melle Mel rather than Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel, as Flash had actually played no part on that track too.
Flash was regarded as a pioneering DJ, who had invented a number of techniques, including using two copies of the same vinyl to loop breaks on twin-turntables to play out a break for longer than other DJs had been able to previously, and also a technique known as punch phrasing, where short segments of music such as horn hits were rhythmically overlaid on a break.
Flash’s status made it attractive for Sugarhill Records to bill tracks as having his involvement, even where that meant being flexible with the truth. To be fair to them, his is amongst the coolest names of the era, and you would want it on your record!
Notwithstanding the extraordinary politics around ‘The Message’, there exists a track that startled listeners at the time, and which has been consistently lauded since as a game changer in the hip-hop genre.
In 2012 Rolling Stone magazine for example recently named this as the Greatest Hip-Hop Song of All Time, beating another Sugarhill Records release, ‘Rapper’s Delight’, and Africa Bambatta’s epic ‘Planet Rock’ to top spot.
And its influence is not restricted to the genre.
When interviewed about their 1983 hit ‘Mama’, Phil Collins of Genesis revealed ‘The Message’ had been a favourite of the band’s at the time, and ‘Mama”s drum pattern, and segment of laughing lyrics were both inspired by the Sugarhill track.
But what gave the track such broad appeal?
Well first it brings social commentary to a hip-hop record for the first time, painting stark images of urban living in what were times of austerity in major cities on both sides of the Atlantic.
But it does so above a sparse electro-funk groove that hadn’t previously existed in hip-hop records – producer Clifton Chase was interested in a style inspired by Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love’ and a comparison can certainly be drawn between the two.
In different ways then, a hugely significant track both for those involved with its conception, production and promotion, and for those of us who heard it for the first time in the 1980s and were startled, unnerved or inspired by it.
As for the 12″, Sugarhill Records have us a simple black and white sleeve, with tracklisting on the front, and lyrics on the back, whilst the vinyl itself features the full length version on the a-side, and an instrumental of the same on the reverse.
Label: Sugarhill Records
Cat No: SHL117