Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  • The Message (Sugar Hill) 1982 
  • Greatest Messages (Sugar Hill) 1983 
  • On the Strength (Elektra) 1988 
  • Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five
  • Work Party (Sugar Hill) 1984 
  • Stepping Off (Sugar Hill) 1985 
  • Grandmaster Flash
  • They Said It Couldn't Be Done (Elektra) 1985 
  • The Source (Elektra) 1986 
  • Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang (Elektra) 1987 
  • Grandmaster Flash/The Furious Five/Grandmaster Melle Mel
  • The Greatest Hits (Sugar Hill) 1989 

Although Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were not rap’s first stars, the group’s galvanizing 1982 hit “The Message” was the earliest record to demonstrate the form’s potential for socio-political commentary and, preceding Run — DMC, initially served to convey rap’s excitement to an audience beyond urban blacks. Unfortunately, most of Flash’s early raps were of the let’s-party-and-tell-our-zodiac-signs variety, with absolutely no consciousness, political or otherwise — good for dancing, but not very stimulating. (Despite his star billing, DJ Flash is not the rapper; lead vocals are by Melle Mel, Rahiem and others. Adding to the credit-where-due confusion, most of the crew’s early songwriting and performing was done, in large part, by the Sugar Hill house band.)

Greatest Messages splits the difference between hard-edged social realism and mindless partytime, from “Freedom” (their first hit) and “Flash to the Beat” to “Survival (Message II)” and “New York, New York” (the follow-up to “The Message”). The cassette has two bonus tracks. What the LP doesn’t include is Melle Mel’s brilliant 1983 anti-cocaine song, “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It),” the music for which, incidentally, was lifted from a Liquid Liquid instrumental.

Following a bitter legal dispute over contracts and ownership of the name, the band split in two: most of the members remained with Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler), dropped the “Furious Five” appellation and signed to Elektra; Melle Mel, who also got to wear the Grandmaster crown, recruited a mostly new FF and stuck with Sugarhill. The former’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done is a strained effort to diversify and make up for lost time and momentum. There’s a rapped-up version of Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” a Run — DMC imitation unoriginally entitled “Rock the House” and two soulful all-singing tunes. Only “Sign of the Times” dips into topicality, employing a sound reminiscent of “White Lines.”

The Source, which travels a number of awfully familiar verbal and musical roads, makes a regular point of arguing Flash’s significance and supremacy. “Fastest Man Alive,” the audio vérité “Street Scene,” the hackneyed music-rap marriage of “Style (Peter Gunn Theme)” and the pretend-live “Freelance” make more personal introductions and absurd claims than a convention of used car salesmen. As a routine party record, it fulfills all the minimal obligations; as proof of Flash’s creativity and ability to grow with the times, it’s a sad example of commercial wheel-spinning.

The word funky gets an aromatically literal interpretation in Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang‘s “Underarms,” an amazingly tasteless put-down about bad smells. Otherwise, the LP avoids The Source‘s hype to concentrate on praising women (“Them Jeans”), cars (“Big Black Caddy”), parties (“House That Rocked”) and self-reliance (“Get Yours”). Interpolations of other people’s music, including a lamely belated cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” with other stuff stitched in, don’t prevent Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang from being run-of-the-mill.

When members of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — specifically Mele-Mel (new spelling), Scorpio and Cowboy — reunited, the result was the distinctly superior On the Strength. The record gets off to a killer start with the streetwise “Gold”; the side ends with “King,” a moving gospel-tinged tribute to MLK. (The intervening tracks are routine bragging, with only Flash’s deadly turntable work on “Yo Baby” for diversion.) Side Two’s bizarre highlight is a rock-rap cover of “Magic Carpet Ride” (shades of “Walk This Way”). Mr. Steppenwolf himself, John Kay, sings it; Flash’s gang raps on the chorus and adds a few sections that I don’t recall from the 20-year-old original.

Stepping Off is a compilation; the two-record 1989 Greatest Hits contains Sugar Hill-era tracks by all of the original crew’s various permutations.

[Ira Robbins]

See also: Duke Bootee