This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #23: The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
There is some conjecture as to when, exactly, the musical genre of Hip Hop began. There are some who say that it really began way back with Bob Dylan and his songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, complete with the poetic, sing-song cadence that he employed. Others point to Hip Hop legends such as Afrika Bambaataa who helped unify a variety of music forms that were popular in the 1970s. He created a form of Hip Hop that was dance-oriented. *(You can read that post here). Some even give credit to Debbie Harry and Blondie for helping to bring a Disco/Dance/Hip-Hop hybrid to the forefront with her hit song, “Rapture”. But, the general consensus seems to be that Hip Hop as we know it today…..as being a format designed to enable people (especially, people of colour) to air grievances and concerns about living in the society that they do, started with a song called, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Almost every Rapper of note points to “The Message” as being the foundation of all that came to follow….from Run-DMC, to Public Enemy, to NWA, to Eminem and now, to Hip Hop heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar today. Regardless as to where one stands on such a debate, the truth that “The Message” changed the trajectory of the evolution of Hip Hop, is undeniable. So, let’s take a few moments and pay our respects to one of the most influential and important songs of all-time, “The Message”. Here we go.
As we have discussed in several Hip Hop-related posts, the rise of this genre of music came from local communities feeling unheard and unseen by the powers that be. When one feels powerless, often times the best way to start to affect change is by voicing your concerns. So, Hip Hop had an element of a Speakers Corner to it in the beginning. But soon, it became clear that it was easier to amplify mere words when they were presented in an interesting, rhyme-heavy format and partnered with beats and sounds that helped deliver the message the speaker was trying to convey. As part of the growth of this way of communicating, the role of the DJ became very important. In Hip Hop culture, a DJ is the person who spins the records and samples the sounds and song bits that help build the backing soundtrack to a Hip Hop song. For awhile, those DJs who could “scratch” the best became the biggest Hip Hop stars. One of the very best to first emerge was a man named Grandmaster Flash. In a subculture where the DJ was King, Grandmaster Flash was the undisputed leader. His squad, known as The Furious Five” put on incendiary live shows and, along with DJ Kool Herc and Africa Bambaataa, formed the “Holy Trinity” of Hip Hop as it came to exist in the 1970s.
The story of “The Message” is important because, prior to it being recorded and released, Hip Hop tended to be a genre of music dedicated to party anthems and to dance, funk, techno and soul music; all of which emanated from the record-scratching DJ on out to the front of the stage, where other singers would add some lyrical content. “The Message” turned that format on its head. First of all, “The Message” is a song that tells the story of growing up Black in an inner city environment. Although it was set in New York City, it could easily have been set in Chicago, Detroit or Los Angeles, too. “The Message” describes daily life where there is only concrete and alleyways to explore. The heroes children look up to tend to be those with flashy chains and wads of cash garnered from dealing drugs. Police are not looked upon as friends of the neighbourhoods. Poverty is real and is woven into every facet of daily life. The future looks bleak because it is bleak. That is the song. “The Message” was one of the very first songs of note to offer such blunt commentary on the life experiences of people of colour and, as such, it resonated deeply within those communities, all across America.
Because of “The Message”, Hip Hop’s structure shifted; with the content of the lyrics becoming as important, if not more important, that the sounds coming from the turntables of the DJ. Hip Hop groups started becoming more equal partnerships between Rappers and DJs, which can be seen in the next big Hip Hop group to make it on the national scene, Run-DMC. In fact, moving forward in time, all of the stars of Hip Hop tended to be the rappers with DJs, while still integral, falling into a more supportive role. The song, “The Message” started Hip Hop on an evolutionary path that saw the words being spoken as being the most fundamentally important aspect of the song. Nowadays, Hip Hop songs are common of regular, commercial radio. That cadence of poetic sing-song has become one of the most successful and profitable music genres of them all…..and, it all started with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. In fact, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first Hip Hop group to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, to be followed by Africa Bambaataa, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, Eminem and the Beastie Boys.
So, without further delay, let’s see what the fuss is all about. Be forewarned, “The Message” is not an upbeat song. It was meant to be and in-your-face, kind of wake up call about what was really going on in inner city neighbourhoods. The video looks dated because it was filmed in the 1970s but, don’t let that distract you. The issues raised in this song remain relevant fifty years later. That this fact exists should be shameful to us all.
Here are the ones who started it all, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with the most important HipHop song of all-time, “The Message”.
The link to the video for the song, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting important artists and their music since forever. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.