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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: "MESSAGE" RECEIVED

It's been nearly four decades since the release of "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, yet its impact is largely undiminished—and its harrowing subject matter remains all too timely. 

“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat…” This seminal joint (released via Sugar Hill in 1982) was a stunning departure from the block-party, wave-your-hands-in-the-air vibe of first-wave hip-hop, bringing a grim verisimilitude to the mic. “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” goes the refrain, neatly summing up ghetto life in the age of Reagan and schooling the doubters that the burgeoning form could be powerful art. Critics raved, and a raft of incendiary, politicized hip-hop artists—including but not limited to Public EnemyKRS-One and N.W.A—would carry the track’s torch forward. 

The backstory to this rap classic is a master class in diligent record-company A&R. Sugar Hill staff songwriter Ed "Duke Bootee" Fletcher wrote the original demo, influenced by the slower, funkier cadences of Zapp and Tom Tom Club. He brought it to label boss Sylvia Robinson, but she couldn’t convince Flash and his Furious Five to record it—in fact, the group clowned the song at first. So Robinson improvised, and got the group’s rapper Melle Mel to record, trading verses with writer Fletcher. By the time Flash came around asking to be a part of the song, Sylvia refused. Yet the ultimate legacy of the track is its brutally truthful content. “The Message,” more than any other single cut, expanded the concept of the MC beyond mere playful party host or witty wordsmith—suddenly, the wielder of the mic could be a community thought leader and a resonant voice for change.  

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