Foreign Gists

The story behind the Grandmaster Flash song ‘The Message’


Grandmaster Flash was one of the three pioneers of hip hop. With his technique of creating an extended break, he found a way for young black Americans to express themselves over a beat without sudden unwanted funk vocals disrupting the flow.

Grandmaster Flash knew what he wanted right from the beginning, and that was to find a solution to the silencing of young black voices on records. He needed to find a way to make the break of a track play endlessly. This was before computers were available like they are today. And with what is often called the ‘merry-go-round’ technique, he did.

After developing this technique and showing it to his friend’s younger brother Theo (also known as Grandmaster Theodore), he formed his own crew and, with the help of DJ Cool Herc, set up his own Soundsystem. As a result, he was able to host block parties in different parts of the Bronx and spread his technique.

Grandmaster Flash’s crew was named Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Comprised of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Keef Cowboy, Scorpio, and Rahiem, the group changed hip hop with their song ‘The Message’ released in 1982.

Up until 1982, hip hop consisted mostly of party records. Call and response, rapping about jewellery, girls and fun was the bread and butter of hip hop. However, no one was using hip hop as a way to talk about issues that were affecting their lives negatively. It wasn’t the done thing. And the release of ‘The Message’ just happened to coincide with the beginning of the horrific ‘crack era’ that exterminated swathes of the African-American population.

The song ‘The Message’ was produced by Clifton “Jiggs” Chase and Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records in Englewood, New Jersey. The was written by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel. Containing no samples, the inspiration for the song was, in part, the 1980 New York subway strike which was causing a lot of chaos in the city, as well as frustration among communities of working African-Americans living paycheque to paycheque.

With their single ‘Scorpio’ already out and doing fairly well, Melle Mel and the group weren’t feeling the beat of ‘The Message’ and wanted their single to breathe, so declined to record the song telling Sylvia Robinson that The Sugar Hill Gang could have the song instead.

However, The Sugar Hill Gang did not like the track either, so with both groups not liking the record, it was a song that sat around for a long time because nobody wanted it or liked it. However, Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records was fixated on it as she knew when she had a hit on her hands, as proved by ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

With Robinson so insistent on the song being released, she begged Melle Mel to do the track in 1982, which he did. Sylvia Robinson mixed the track down at Sugar Hill studios. Went to a New Jersey pressing factory and put it out within three days, according to the Mel. Under the impression that the track would do nothing, the crew paid no attention to it.

However, the track would end up doing very well internationally, reaching number eight on the UK singles charts, and ‘The Message’ changed the direction of hip hop in the US as artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One would then go on to use hip hop as a vehicle for social commentary. Yet again, Sylvia Robinson had proved herself to be a hitmaker, not only did she make what is considered to be the first official hip hop song recorded ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in 1979, but she also produced the first conscious rap record with ‘The Message’.

Below you can watch the music video for ‘The Message’ and hear Melle Mel talk about its impact on the culture and detail the recording process.