THE GENETIC CODE
Back in 2005, on a warm day in Oakland, California, I had the opportunity to sit and interview the man who wrote the genetic code for what we call hip-hop today: Kool DJ Herc. But back in Herc’s day, it didn’t have a name; it was what it was: just a neighborhood thing.
After listening to the founding father reminiscence about his times as the first breakbeat DJ progenitor, I realized something: Kool Herc is to hip-hop what Alexander Graham Bell is to the telephone. Yes, he is the creator. But what hip-hop was then and what it is now are two different things.
One hundred years ago, you couldn’t have paid Bell or an Italian gentleman named Guglielmo Marconi to have predicted the wireless phone, the cell phone, the BlackBerry, or any other modern device. Kool Herc himself will tell you in a heartbeat, “I had no idea that this would become a billion-dollar-a-year industry.”
With that in mind, I wondered something: if Coke La Rock (Kool Herc’s MC) was just spittin’ little phrases on the mic, not all-out rhymes as we know it today, then who was the first real MC spittin’ lyric for lyric, on beat, with a continuous flow?
“Mr. Herc,” I asked him as I scratched my head and searched for the right words, “I’m curious about something. Who was the first person that you saw rap as we know it today?”
At that moment, a warm smile enveloped Kool Herc’s street-hardened face. He looked out the window and across the street at Lake Merritt, almost as if he was looking back at that day, and, in a quiet voice, he said, “It was Melle Mel—Melle Mel and Kid Creole. They were at a boxing gym on 169th Street, in the Fort Apache area; as a matter of fact, it was the last place that I seen Big Pun alive at.”
In a quiet and almost somber voice, he recalled the events, sometimes taking a pause to look down at his battle-scarred hands: “They was in the middle of a boxing ring with these big Afros. Kid Creole, as little as he is, had one too. Flash was behind them cuttin’. When I saw them, I just smiled, ’cause I knew where they got it from. They got it from me. And they knew that they got it from me. I wasn’t mad. Melle Mel saw me in the crowd and just nodded at me. I laughed to myself.”
It must’ve been one hell of a moment.
Hanging above the dimly lit gym was a thick cloud of smoke, a pungent mixture of cigarettes and reefer laced with angel dust. Stoned dust heads tripped out as the dazzling display of flashing lights played psychedelic tricks on their minds. In the red-light haze, surrounded by stick-up kids, gangsters, and hyperactive b-boys, Kool Herc got to see the first steps of his creation taking on a new dimension, as brothers Melle Mel and Creole were laying down the foundation for rap as we know it today.
According to Kool Herc’s suddenly upbeat, mocking recollection, “They were saying, ‘Yes, yes, y’all, to the beat, y’all, a keep on, y’all, and ya don’t stop.’ ”
Mel and Creole—born Melvin and Danny Glover—are from the South Bronx, an area that was once described as a war zone. It was here where they were born and raised—them and six other gentlemen who would fill out the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The group’s rise from hip-hop pioneers to 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees was long and hard. Their story starts in the grimy streets of the South Bronx, where they were all fans of an amazingly innovative local DJ.
Flash didn’t invent any of this by himself!Arthur “Disco Bee” Hayward
GRANDMASTER CRUSHES THE COMPETITION
While looking out his window and smoking a cigarette, Arthur “Disco Bee” Hayward says to me, "this group has never been just about five people." What he is referring to is the fact that, apart from the five MCs (Melle Mel, Scorpio, Rahiem, Creole, and the late Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins) and the DJ, Grandmaster Flash, there were actually two other guys who were a part of the crew, Flash’s assistants: Disco Bee and EZ Mike. “I go back with him to the beginning,” Bee says. “You ask around, anyone that knows the truth will tell you that originally it was Grandmaster Flash, Disco Bee, and the Three MCs.”
On this day, Bee is a bit frustrated. The impact of the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could finally turn the page for a group that many mainstream media outlets have ignored over the last twenty years, thus generating some serious cash for a generation of aging hip-hoppers who never got the chance to see any real revenue for the music they’ve given most of their lives to. Further adding to the situation is that the contributions of Disco Bee and EZ Mike have practically gone unacknowledged. “Flash didn’t invent any of this by himself!” Bee says to me. “That shit [a three-man turntable routine] that he did onstage at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors with Jazzy Jeff and Kid Capri is the same thing that me, him, and Mike did back in the day.”
Disco Bee goes back to Flash’s initial stages at a schoolyard called 63 Park. Bee, as friends like to call him, would be there with another young man named Cordee-O, whose older brother was Flash’s partner, “Mean Gene” Livingston. Disco Bee, along with Flash’s best friend, EZ Mike, helped Flash innovate the turntable tricks that would elevate him from the status of local DJ to turntable god.
Today, Disco Bee is a middle-aged man living in North Carolina with his family. With his Bronx accent, glasses, and trademark baseball cap, Bee still retains much of the flavor of his Boogie Down Bronx upbringing. He is rather subdued while talking about his beginnings as a teenaged DJ more than thirty years back, but immediately snaps to life when the subject switches to his favorite sound system. “The Gladiator!” he exclaims with an exaggerated, raspy voice, while proudly wrinkling his face into an intimidating sneer, stretching out his arms, and bringing them together as if he was wielding a mighty sword. This was the system that enabled the group to compete with some of the most ground-shaking sound systems in the tristate area.
In search of further clarification on the power of the Gladiator, I ask EZ Mike, Flash’s best friend since childhood, about it.
“What?” Mike says, as his deep, death-like, gravelly voice hits a high pitch. “What? No one could touch that system. It was untouchable. When we started playing the Dixie, this guy on Freeman Street, this Jamaican guy, built this thing for us.”
Beaming with pride thirty years later, Disco Bee recalls, “The speakers were as big as refrigerators, and we had four of them. It took two people to carry the amp, this thing was so fuckin’ heavy. We used to put a towel over it, so while we were carrying it into the club, people would be pointing at us wondering what we were carrying. And then…we’d uncover it. They would be blown away by…the Gladiator!”
Bee and his partner EZ Mike went all around the city destroying other crews in sound clashes. That was until one night in Jamaica, Queens. “We were at this club on Hillside Avenue,” remembers EZ Mike. “The Fantasia, that was it. There we were with the Gladiator; Flash was killing them people. He was cuttin’ that record ‘Catch the Groove’ to pieces: Dunna dunna dun. [imitating the sound the sax squeal makes as it’s sliced and diced to pieces] Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dunna dunna dun. Dunna dunna dun. He was killin’ it. He was spinnin’ around and shit like that, cuttin’ the record…and then, all of a sudden, we heard this huge, monstrous sound go DUNNA DUNNA DUN. Flash snatched the headphones off and looked around at us and said, ‘What the fuck was that?’ We had no idea what it was, but it was so loud and clear that he could hear it even through the headphones! So he went back to spinnin’ again. I happened to look across the room when I saw [Michael] Goode, in a wheelchair, push a button on his mixer, and then we heard it again: DUNNA DUNNA DUN. We were all like, ‘Oh shit, that’s their fuckin’ system making all of that noise.’ They fuckin’ drowned us out; even with the Gladiator, they fuckin’ drowned us.” That was the night they met DJ Divine and Michael Goode and first witnessed the awesome power of their set called the Infinity Machine.
But, still, Flash and his gravity-defying, lightning-quick turntable techniques made him a very difficult DJ to defeat back then. “One day after Flash had beaten Herc and all of them, there was a jam at a park,” EZ Mike tells me as his voice becomes louder as he gets more excited. “Herc was playing there. From the moment we got there, people were like, ‘Yo, there goes Flash.’ This nigga did one of the most awesome things I had ever seen in my life. He got on the turntables and started cuttin’ ‘Good Times.’ He was killin’ that shit: ‘Good…good…good…good times…good times…good times. Good times. Good times.’ And he kept doin’ it faster and faster: ‘Good times, good times, good times.’ Motherfuckers were watching this shit and were buggin’ the fuck out. And then, all of a sudden, he stopped and walked away from the set. He just kept on walking past the ropes—we thought he was done. And then, all of a sudden, he went running back toward the turntables at top speed and flipped the cross fader just in time for the record to go: ‘Good times.’ I swear everybody in the fuckin’ park lost their minds.”
The rep was growing. Flash was the DJ equivalent of a mighty god like Zeus or Apollo. But he couldn’t conquer the city alone.
THE KING OF THE STREET
Formerly a self-professed crack addict, now a muscle-bound, tough-talkin’, protein-shake-drinkin’, rumored-to-be sometime male stripper, and aspiring wrestler called “Muscle Simmons,” Melvin Glover is known as one of the greatest rappers to ever touch a mic: Grandmaster Melle Mel. That the first real “King of Rap” sometimes moonlights as a male exotic dancer is heartbreaking to hear. You see, for many rappers of a previous generation, Melle Mel was the equivalent of the mystic Bob Marley and the hard-partying funk god Rick James. For many, Melle Mel was like a prophet. Just like no one would’ve wanted to see or hear about Bob Marley or Martin Luther King Jr. shaking their stuff onstage wearing nothing but a thong, no old-school hip-hopper wants to hear about—or, more importantly, wants to see—the great Melle Mel dancing somewhere in a thong as part of the “Gun Show.”
I have my doubts as to whether Mel is really an exotic dancer or not. So I ask him point-blank: “Mel, I hear this whole ‘Gun Show’ thing and you being a stripper is just an extension of a joke that you and Scorp’ started some years back.” To which he responds: “I do my thing. I’m not gonna comment on that. I got my hustle.”
Just like I thought.
Today, at forty-five years of age, Melle Mel is not ready to hang his mic up or coast his way into oblivion. In fact, he’s probably more over the top today than when he was in his prime. He’s probably one of the few rappers alive these days who actually walks it like he talks it. He’s a man’s man in a culture that doesn’t value maturity. Anyone lacking in self-confidence could borrow a cup or two from him, or, at the very least, could take notes. Even when he’s at his most boastful, he’s being sincere. “I made a way for me to do what I do and for them [other rappers] to do what they do. When you see Melle Mel, I want people to know that you’re seeing a true-to-life living Black legend,” he says to me with the raging confidence of a wrestling legend like Ric Flair. When he’s not in the gym or onstage dancing in some club, he’s touring the country promoting his first solo album titled Muscles.
In the late ’70s, Mel was known on the streets as “Flash’s MC.” He was the central voice for the baddest DJ the world had ever known at that time. In many ways, they complemented each other: Mel was at the very pinnacle at what he did, and Flash was unstoppable. It hadn’t always been the case that Mel was the best MC, though. Many people, who remember them from their days as the Three MCs, recall when Mel’s older brother, Danny (aka Creole), was the best of the trio. In typical fashion, Mel tells me quite confidently, “That’s subjective, who was better than who. Creole was good, but he wasn’t better than me.”
In the Morrisonia section of the Bronx where they grew up, there were many fledgling MCs that got on the mic for Flash in 1976. In fact, according to Mel, “Anyone could get on the mic for Flash back then.” Lovebug Starski has made claims of being the first person to talk on the mic while Flash was cutting. But it is the late Keith Cowboy that many remember as being Flash’s first real MC.
While Cowboy, Lovebug Starski, and others were doing their thing with Flash in the park, the Glover brothers were hard at work preparing to take their neighborhood by storm. “Me and Creole were in the house every day practicing and polishing our routines,” says Mel. “From the very beginning, we did everything together. We used to listen to Kool Herc and them. They used to say things like, ‘And yes, y’all, the sound that you hear…’ They were always saying ‘and yes, y’all.’ We really liked that, so we used it. So we would take that and lengthen it, and say it to the beat. So it would be, ‘A yes, yes, y’all, to the beat, y’all, freak, freak, y’all.’ We went to all of Herc’s parties and studied their shit,” he continues. “We studied their format just like people would later study us; that’s how we studied Herc. There are a bunch of stories out there that say that Creole got on first, and I got on a month or something like that later; no, we got on the mic for Flash at the same time.”
From the very first time that Mel saw Coke La Rock and Timmy Tim on the mic, he says that rhyming became an all-consuming obsession for him. “I knew from that very first time I held the mic that this is what I should be doing,” he tells me. He said as much on his very first record, “Superrappin’ ”:
Ever since I talked at my very first party,
I felt I could make myself somebody.
It was somethin’ in my heart from the very start,
I could see myself at the top of the charts,
Rappin’ on the mic, making cold, cold cash,
With a jock spinnin’ for me called DJ Flash.
Signing autographs, for the young and old,
Wearing big-time silver and solid gold.
My name on the radio,
And in the magazines.
My picture on a TV screen.
No one would’ve guessed back then that all of that would come to pass. It can be argued that Mel’s competitiveness, ego, and raw determination were key ingredients in putting the band at the top of the heap. Everyone interviewed for this article agrees that Mel was far more competitive than the rest of the group. To this day, he believes that not only can he body slam any opponent in a wrestling ring but can still defeat any MC out there as well.
Many rappers over the age of thirty-five consistently cite Melle Mel as a prime influence. Rappers as diverse as Kid ’N Play, Big Daddy Kane, Hammer, Busta Rhymes, Too Short, Rakim, and Kool G Rap have all praised his name over the past two and a half decades. His lyrical prowess is unmatched with songs like “World War III,” “Step Off,” “Beat Street Breakdown,” “King of the Street,” “New York, New York,” “The Truth,” and “Survival.” He stood out in an exceptionally talented group.
Nowadays, it’s a hard task to get the band that changed rap music to reunite. So much has happened over the years: drug abuse, breakups, fights over money, lawsuits, envy, bitter feelings for not being properly credited, and death. But before the group was full of animosity, before the records and movies, Grammy Awards, world tours, long nights with strings of groupies, and critical acclaim, in his heart, Melle Mel was Flash’s biggest fan.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the sound that you hear is a def to your ear. Ya have no fear, ’cause Flash is here. The disco dream of the mean machine, the Darth Vader of the slide fader, no man in the world cuts straighter or greater than New York’s number-one cut creator.” That’s how Melle Mel would open many a show with Flash back in the day.
“He’s the one that made me wanna get in the game,” Busy Bee tells me of Melle Mel. Busy is one of the group’s biggest fans and himself a hip-hop pioneer who is best known for his appearance in the movie Wild Style and his record Suicide. He remembers how the guy that he was so much a fan of was possibly an even bigger fan of Grandmaster Flash: “I used to see him walk around in a sky-blue T-shirt that said ‘Pro Keds.’ Now on the bottom of the logo that said ‘Pro Keds,’ he wrote ‘Flash fan.’ He was a Flash fan. And he wore the shirt so much that that’s the way I knew who he was. It was sky blue with white letters; I’ll never forget it. I still have snapshots to this day of Mel in that shirt. [Like] what Monique [the comedian] said to the Bishop Don ‘Magic’ Juan: ‘If you wear that green suit again motherfucker!’ You know what I’m sayin’? ‘If you wear that T-shirt one more time, motherfucker, I’ll buy you a joint my motherfuckin’ self.’ ”
EZ Mike remembers when Mel first came around their crew to get on the mic: “Mel wanted to get on the mic with Flash, because [Flash] was the best. It was Flash that put him on. Mel and all of them followed Flash everywhere. They were fans of the man just like everyone else.”
Whether it was on tape or on record, Mel was usually the lead voice. With an almost fire-and-brimstone delivery, he’d convey lines about Flash so convincingly that people thought that it was Flash on the mic: “Grandmaster Flash is willing and able; he’s the king of the cuts on two turntables. He’s the grand grand, the master man. He’s so nice on the slice, he don’t need no band. He rocks 45s and 33s; he rocks boys, men, women, and young ladies!”
Not many people today remember Sylvia Robinson as a singer. She is probably one of the first Black females to find success as a songwriter and producer. But, without a doubt, the biggest feather in her cap is that she is the first Black female recording artist to own her own independent record company. Many people call her a genius. There isn’t a thing about record production that Sylvia Robinson doesn’t know. On a recent rerun of the syndicated show Soul Train, a flashback segment highlighted old footage of Sylvia from 1973. “And now from the Soul Train history book, this is Sylvia,” Don Cornelius said as he introduced her with his trademark smooth-as-velvet bass voice. The camera cut to a scene from the distant past, where a dance floor full of teenagers with Afros and bell-bottoms swayed to the sultry sounds of an erotic disco beat. Onstage wearing an oversized jazzy yellow applejack cap and big hoop earrings, Sylvia Robinson moaned and whispered between sensually charged verses: “What your friends all say is fine, but it can’t compete with this pillow talk of mine.”
And to think she almost sold the song to Al Green. In 1973, the song “Pillow Talk” was not only a top-ten smash hit on the radio, but it was also a hit in discos, bedrooms, and in the backseats of cars parked in dark places all over America. The song “Pillow Talk” resurrected a career that dated back to the 1950s when Sylvia, as part of the R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia, burst onto the charts with the smash song “Love Is Strange.”
Along the way, she wrote and produced for Bo Diddley, Ike and Tina Turner, the Moments, Shirley and Company, the Whatnauts, Brother to Brother, and many others. Sylvia knew a hit when she heard one. Whether it was the Moments singing the R&B classic “Love on a Two Way Street” or Brother to Brother covering Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle,” the lady knew her stuff. To top things off, she and her husband, Joe Robinson, a tough, no nonsense, gruff kind of guy, made the ultimate coup d’etat in the record biz in 1975 by buying the Chess/Checker catalog.
Or so they thought.
By purchasing the Chess/Checker publishing catalog—a collection of some of the most treasured songs in early rhythm and blues and rock and roll history—the Robinsons invited the jealous wrath of White record men. They gave Joe and Sylvia pure hell from the moment they bought that catalog. “Niggas weren’t thinking about buying publishing catalogs back then,” a defiant Joey Robinson Jr.—son of the couple—tells me on the phone.
In 1979, their record company, All Platinum Records, was struggling financially. That was until Sylvia saw Lovebug Starski performing at the club Harlem World; that’s when a light went off: “What if I could take what he’s doing and put it on wax?” After thirty years in the music business, Sylvia knew to trust her instincts. It would be those instincts that had helped her to navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry for three decades that wouldn’t allow her to let the idea go. First, she approached Lovebug Starski, who turned her down. According to DJ Hollywood, the man that many credit as being the “godfather of rap,” she approached him as well, and he too turned her down: “I was making so much money at the time playing at the Apollo and Club 371 and other spots around the city that making a record didn’t make sense to me at the time.” That’s when she got the three guys from New Jersey and christened them the Sugar Hill Gang and released the first commercially successful rap record, “Rapper’s Delight.” The Robinson’s label was the first independent record company in the world to rake in serious cash from a brand-new style of music, which, much like rock and roll, would later have a profound impact on popular culture.
LEGENDS IN LEATHER
By 1981, Sylvia Robinson’s choke hold on the rap industry was complete. She signed all of the top groups in the city to contracts—ironclad contracts, at that—so that no one could compete with her stable of acts. The best crew on her roster was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They were the real kings of rap back then. And they were an arrogant bunch, too.
Cold Crush Brothers’ DJ Toney Tone remembers a night at the early hip-hop hot spot the Disco Fever, when Scorpio “spent all night looking at himself in the mirror.” Many groups from that time remember the Furious Five as being the types of guys who were a little too full of themselves. Kool Herc remembers Melle Mel as being one of the only ones who would occasionally come out and play with him and his crew. As brilliant as they were, their competition at that time would’ve been shocked to learn that the band only practiced “maybe once a week,” according to Rahiem. “We didn’t really practice that much, because Mel and Creole didn’t get along. Every time we would get together, it never failed, they’d get into it, and one of them, usually Creole, would wind up walking out. We may have practiced one day a week, but it was intense; we practiced from three or four o’clock in the afternoon to ten or eleven at night.”
Today, at forty-three years old, Rahiem is the youngest member of the crew and arguably the most talented. His smooth tenor voice and wicked flow made him the lyrical coanchor of the band. Whereas Mel is boastful and arrogant, in contrast, Ra is quiet and introspective. “People see me on the street and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you…somebody I should know?’ They don’t know if I’m from the Cold Crush or the Treacherous Three or what,” Rahiem tells me. “I’m not as easily recognizable as everyone else, and I kind of like it that way.” It was Rahiem who cowrote many of the group’s songs along with Melle Mel.
Scorpio aka Mr. Ness was the ladies’ man. It was his charismatic persona—with his braided hair and sharp features—that helped to give the quintet its swagger. Kid Creole, to this day, still has long, flowing, straight hair, as well as nonstop rhymes, and a voice like a traveling salesman. But it is the late, bowlegged, deep-voiced Keith Cowboy who many revere. He had one of the best voices ever heard on a mic.
The most superb example of Cowboy at his best is at the end of the record “Freedom.” As the tape was fading out, there were more rhymes to go, so the founding member of the Furious Five ended the song in a classic street-corner style with finger snaps and all. He wasn’t the best lyricist in the group, but it was his voice and flow that forever sealed the ending of the song as a classic.
Once they got on Sugar Hill and their records started selling, they went way over the top as far as egos went. And why not? They toured the country with some of the biggest acts of the ’80s: Evelyn “Champagne” King, the Gap Band, Joan Jett, the Clash, the S.O.S. Band, and many others. The band was royalty on the street. In Hollywood, they hung out and partied with Eddie Murphy. Their stage show was in demand. Night after night, they toured the world like proselytizers of a new faith. They were spreading the word of the gospel that Kool Herc had crafted ten years before and were taking it to places as unexpected as Aruba. People in Middle America had never seen or dreamed that eight guys with two turntables and a set of microphones could do so much with so little. They were warmly received in most places, but in others they were met with stony silence and indifference. What they were doing was so much different from anything anyone had ever witnessed.
“We were playing at Bond’s International one night. I’ll never forget this,” Rahiem says as he recalls the show. “When we first started touring with Sugar Hill, Sylvia used to dress us. She picked out these velvet suits with rhinestones—we hated those suits. Anyway, here we are at Bond’s International, opening for the punk rock group the Clash. Those White boys that came out [to hear the Clash], you know, they wanted to slam dance and shit like that. So Flash is out there first, doing his thing, and I guess he went zigga zigga one too many times, and the crowd started getting restless. Well, we get out there and start doing our thing, and, after a while, I dunno… It seemed like everybody went to take a break and head for the concession stand—at the same time. The next thing we knew, we were getting hit with all kinds of shit. I remember somebody threw an orange at Scorpio, and it hit him dead in the balls. It was that bad. And we had to go through it twice, because we played two shows that night. But we got over it, because we were being paid $18,500 that night. When we got off that stage, every White boy in that place looked like someone who threw something at us.”
Bad shows aside, what making records afforded the group was the chance to tour the world. Some of them had never been outside of New York before; they were in awe of the sights and sounds of different places and having fans in neighborhoods that were similar to their own. “I’ll never forget this time on tour in St. Thomas,” says Disco Bee. “Me and Cowboy were the only ones who woke up early; it was eight o’clock in the morning, and everyone else was asleep. Cowboy said, ‘Yo Bee, let’s go out.’ We were like two little kids with a new invention. I mean, we were that happy. We were walking around when, all of a sudden, we turned a corner and were like, ‘Oh snap, you see that?’ It was a bunch of brothers playing ball in a park with no shoes on. We joined in with them. After a while, Cowboy looked at me and said, ‘Yo Bee, you gonna take your shoes off?’ I said, ‘Hell no.’ He said, ‘Me either.’ The ground was too fuckin’ hot for that shit.”
“We really liked touring the country,” Rahiem says. “One of the things that separated us from a lot of these cats today is we didn’t just know our hood, we were in every hood,” Melle Mel says adamantly. “A lot of these dudes today are block niggas, because all they know is their block. But when we came to town, we went into every hood and hung out and got to know the people.” Rahiem agrees: “As soon as we’d get off the plane, we’d be like, ‘All right, take us to get some food,’ and we went straight to the hood. In every country and every city, we didn’t care where, we went to the hood. We loved going to Florida. Atlanta was a good city for us, and we loved hanging out there. All over Louisiana—New Orleans, Lake Charles, Shreveport—we got plenty of love there.”
“What did you love about Louisiana?” I ask.
“The food, the women. Once you’ve had a Creole woman—I dunno, man, that shit was like crack; that shit was addictive.”
THE FURIOUS FIVE MEET THE KING OF PUNK FUNK
In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five sat on top of the rap music industry like a big 800-ton elephant. But the world of funk was the dominion of a shit-talkin’, weed-smokin’, cocaine-sniffin’, sex-crazed, multitalented singer, songwriter, and producer named Rick James.
Decked out in leather and high-heel boots, James had only two real friends: a spliff and a guitar. With recordings like “Mary Jane,” “Bustin’ Out,” “Standing on the Top,” “Cold Blooded,” and “Give it to Me Baby,” Rick James was the king of funk. His songs weren’t just about sex and drugs, though they were a common theme. He also liked to write tunes that reflected his ghetto upbringing: “P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P.” was a song he recorded with the Furious Five for the album Cold Blooded. His albums went platinum, and he played to sold-out stadiums all over the world. People who knew him have said that he was one of the hardest-working musicians they had ever met. For as hard as he worked, though, he partied even harder.
“People need to go back in their memory banks and remember, in the ’70s and ’80s, before Prince and Michael Jackson, Rick James was hot,” Melle Mel wants to remind us. “He was the first modern-day Black rock star. When he walked out onstage and said, ‘Fire it up,’ everybody in the place was firing their weed up. He was a talented dude.” Mel cites the song “Déjà Vu,” which James wrote and produced for Teena Marie, as being his favorite Rick James record. “Slick Rick [as James was sometimes called] was basically like our father when we were out on the road,” Mel tells me. “Slick Rick did for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five what Frank Sinatra did for Sammy Davis Jr. He made everyone respect us.
“When we first went out on tour with him,” Mel continues, “we’d be outside our tour bus lifting our little weights that were filled with sand and doing push-ups. Outside the coliseum, or wherever we were doing a show at, we would get this little deli tray that would have meats and cheese and shit like that on it that looked like niggas probably could’ve wiped their balls with it. Rick would come around and check up on us and make sure we were all right. And he saw how we were being treated. He went to Al Hayman, who at one time was the biggest promoter in the country, and put him and the union people on notice: ‘Yo, treat them right. Flash and them are my boys.’ And they did it. So as a result of that, we got better food, better places to stay, more space onstage, and more time onstage.”
“We immediately clicked with Rick,” Rahiem tells me. “Although he’s from Buffalo, he’s still from New York. His drummer, Lino, from the Stone City Band, is from the Bronx—we all immediately hit it off. We got high together and everything.”
“Did you ever hear Rick James say, ‘I’m Rick James, bitch!’?” I ask.
“Absolutely!” Rahiem responds. “That was his slogan; that’s really not a joke. That’s how he really carried himself. I seen him straight-up kick a chick in the ass with a pair of thigh-high suede boots on. He was wearing some black leather pants. He straight-up kicked a chick, straight up her ass. He said, ‘You must have the game fucked up; I’m Rick James, bitch! Get out of my dressing room.’ ”
Upon hearing Rahiem’s story, Melle Mel laughs and remembers another event: “The first time I saw Rick, I hadn’t even met him yet. I seen him smack the shit out of a bitch, and this was a good-looking broad too; I mean, he wasn’t no punk about his. He smacked her and said, ‘Now get the fuck out of my dressing room!’ I was like, ‘Oh shit, this nigga is for real.’ ”
Rick’s charismatic personality and talent made a serious impression on the Furious Five. But there is another memory of Rick that really stands out for Mel: “When we would be onstage, Rick would be on the side of the stage wearing a hood over his head, watching us, silently taking mental notes. He really wanted to help us to be better performers.”
Rahiem recalls a night after the tour was over, when “Rick called me when he knew he was going to be in New York, and told me to meet him at NBC studios on the set of Saturday Night Live, because he wanted to surprise Eddie. It was Smokey Robinson’s birthday; it was me, Rick, Smokey Robinson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy, and a lot of others who all went out to Studio 54.”
“What was Studio 54 like?” I ask.
“The only way I know how to describe Studio 54 to you would be to say…it was like Disco Fever to the tenth power.”
A MESSAGE IN THE MUSIC
While the group was out on tour having the time of their lives, Sylvia Robinson was excited about a demo she got from percussionist and songwriter Ed Fletcher—aka Duke Bootee. According to a 2004 article in Blender magazine, Fletcher had two songs on the demo; one was called “Dumb Love” and the other was “The Message.” In the article, Melle Mel said, “No one wanted to do ‘The Message’; even Ed Fletcher didn’t think much of it.”
At the time, the band was coming off a string of records that blasted out of boom boxes and rocked block parties, skating rinks, cookouts, and school dances—but they weren’t hits. Saleswise, they were nothing in comparison with what was to come. “Freedom,” “The Birthday Party,” “It’s Nasty,” “Flash to the Beat,” “Superrappin’,” and “The Adventures of Flash on the Wheels of Steel” were top-notch rap records, but they didn’t make it to the top of the charts.
The first commercial rap artist to release a record with any kind of social awareness was a guy who at one time had been a part of Flash’s crew. According to Disco Bee, “At one point, the group got really large. I mean, there were a whole lot of people in the group, man.” So they ended up having two groups: the A group, which was the Furious Five, and the B group, which consisted of Kool Kyle, Lovebug Starski, a guy named Georgie George, and another guy, who called himself Kurtis Blow.
According to the band, at first, no one in the group wanted anything to do with “The Message.” It was a complete departure from everything that they had done. For a year, the band ducked and dodged Sylvia at every turn. But the more they resisted, the more pressure she applied. Finally, she put her foot down: either record this song, or that’s it. “She’d do things like withhold advances from us as a form of punishment,” Rahiem recalls.
According to Joey Robinson Jr., the reason Melle Mel is the only one from the group featured on the song is because Mel said, “Mrs. Robinson, if you believe in the song—then I believe in you.” No one else in the band believed in the record.
Grandmaster Flash has gone on record as saying he was against the idea of only one person from the group being featured on the song. However, Rahiem was originally on the track as well. “Mel and I cowrote the verse ‘a child is born’ together; it was used on ‘Superrappin’,’ says Rahiem. “We decided while recording ‘The Message’ that that part would fit into the new song.” But then the script got flipped on Rahiem: “I laid down the part that Duke Bootee would later do. But Mrs. Rob had a problem with my mother and I. She called us troublemakers.” From the very start of their careers at Sugar Hill Records, Rahiem’s mother had a deep distrust for Sylvia Robinson. The bad blood mostly stemmed from the fact that Sylvia forced the band into signing the contract on the spot without legal advice. Rahiem says that he and his mother openly questioned Sylvia’s controlling methods, which is why his voice was erased from the final track.
Every group has its standout member; whether it’s the Leaders of the New School, the Wailers, or the Spinners, there is that one member who has a little bit more of that special something that makes that member stand out from everyone else. From the very start of their careers at Sugar Hill, Sylvia noticed that special something in Melle Mel. “It was Mrs. Robinson that singled him out and made it look like he was the leader—but he wasn’t,” Rahiem tells me. “Because his lyrics were more universal, we let him take the lead on stuff that he wrote.”
In the song “The Message,” Duke Bootee and Melle Mel painted raw lyrical pictures of the suffering of ghetto dwellers huddled together in the ruins of the neglected promise of America. For the first time on wax since the days of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, there was a record on the radio that truly captured the claustrophobic desperation and despair of the inner city at the dawn of Reaganomics:
Broken glass everywhere,
People pissin’ on the stairs,
You know they just don’t care.
I can’t take the smell,
Can’t take the noise,
I got no money to move out,
I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room,
Roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far,
’Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.
And then the song’s refrain:
Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.
When “The Message” finally dropped, it was one of the most awesome songs ever heard in rap up to that point. Lyrically, it forever changed the game. The days of party rhymes and fun were over. The seeds for a more serious art form were finally taking root.