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.