Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the Greatest Hip-Hop Song of All Time

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‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is still the greatest hip-hop record of all time. It was released in 1982 and after that, any hip-hop song would be judged by the high standard set on this anthem. The music remains youthful and great because of this standard because over the years so many have sought to achieve the same that this song achieved.

There have been plenty of rap songs released since then that could qualify as being in the category or league with ‘The Message,’ but none to me, at least, that have surpassed it. What is it about the song that makes it so timeless, 36 years after it first appeared on wax?

First, it is a sea change in music. Hip-hop, many know when it began was party music. It did not start as a musical medium that was all about politics or social justice lyrically. The songs did not have to have a strong political slant and most didn’t. The DJs and the MCs wanted to move the crowd and they did.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did something different; they took us all into the heart and soul of the world in which some of them lived. They took us to what they were trying to vanquish by pursuing this art called hip-hop. In fact, even they, the group was worried the song was so serious when it was being completed. Just like Berry Gordy being worried about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On.’

Rolling Stone Magazine voted the song the greatest rap song of all time. The song is likewise #51 all time (of all songs) by Rolling Stone. Other publications have always ranked the song high. Yet, I am sure as time passes, the new generation of hip hop lovers, will forget about it. Every generation forgets what they stand upon.

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I first heard the song in 1982. I was working at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. I was on the field crew. It was a summer job and I remember the times vividly. After being unsure of my directions in life, it all seemed to come together that summer. I knew I wanted to escape D.C. and finish college. I was already taking community college classes and had taken up electric bass.

Rick James came to D.C. that summer for a huge concert and because I worked at the stadium, I was there all day, free of charge, and was behind the stage. Between sets, waiting for James to take the stage, the DJ blasted ‘The Message.’ I had never heard anything like it. I had kept track of most of the early hip-hop records but this was different. This was not Sugar Hill Gang or any of the other party songs that hip-hop was putting out. This was real stuff.

“It’s like a jungle sometimes” the refrain of the song goes and one by one the star studded Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five crew break down city life as it seemed in the early 1980’s under Ronald Reagan. Few songs since then captured the naked passion of “The Message.” It was too honest, too in the moment, and most of all, it was much too painful. This was Gil Scott Heron type ideas over a booming city beat not to mention the unforgettable, noisy keyboard riff.

I will never forget it.

Numbers runner. Cigar smoker.

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