It was a historic night for music history. For hip-hop, it was the last barrier of mainstream acceptability. The creators of rap music were going to be recognized by the same institution that honored rock icons Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony takes place every year at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City; for music history buffs as well as old rock fans with salt-and-pepper hair, this is the night. Music critics and record industry heavyweights turn out in droves to celebrate the careers of the rock legends that inspired the music we all know and love.
But the 2007 award ceremony was different. This was the first year that a rap group would be inducted into the hall of fame. Rock fans and music critics were livid. Twenty-seven years after “Rapper’s Delight” shook the world, the genre still wasn’t respected as a legitimate form of music. “I’ve heard of Grandmaster Flash,” scoffed one irate fan online, “but who in the hell are the Furious Five? And why on earth are they being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ahead of INXS?”
Last year, the group that practically invented rap as we now know it was formally inducted into the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside rock greats R.E.M., Patti Smith, Van Halen, and the Ronettes. This is a large step for a crew that many have called the greatest rap group to ever grace the stage or wax. Their story starts in 1976, when it really was just about the music.
Flash didn’t invent any of this by himself!Arthur “Disco Bee” Hayward
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.
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!”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.