"Child is born/with no state of mind/blind to the ways/of mankind..."
Melle Mel is to Hip Hop/Modern American Music, what Miles Davis is to Jazz, what Bob Dylan and William "Smokey" Robinson are to Rock&Soul, what Huddie William "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie are to Folk and Blues, and what Beethoven is to Classical; Melvin "Melle Mel" Glover--of the storied Hip Hop collective known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five--is a composer of unparalleled excellence. Melle Mel is The Blueprint for an MC. Melle Mel represents The Beginning. If there was no Melle Mel, if there was no Hip Hop Rosetta Stone known as "The Message," there would be no Jay-Z, no Yeezy-Weezy-Jeezy, no KRS-1, no LL Cool J, no Rakim, no Big Daddy Kane, no Biggie, no Tupac, no nothing. In the grand hall of cultural mirrors that comprise The Great American Songbook, "The Message" reflected the dark light which cast shadows from the inner city's abyss. It was an S.O.S. at the crack of the dawn of the dead, in President Reagan's Mourning In America.
My world changed back in the summer of 1981, when I was in Bobby Robinson's record store on 125th near 8th Avenue, hanging out with another legendary MC by the name of Gabriel "Spoonie G" Jackson. Bobby Robinson, who owned the "Enjoy" label, was Spoonie's uncle, and Spoonie's half-brother--Poochie Costello--was the house percussionist for Enjoy. Poochie also manned the cash register at the record store. Enjoy, along with Sugar Hill Records of New Jersey, were the first rap record labels in the country. Spoonie and I had just finished a grits and whiting fish lunch at M&G's Restaurant a few doors down on St. Nicholas Avenue, and we were discussing the track I wanted to produce for him for Aaron Fuchs's fledgling Tuff City imprint. While we were dicing it up, Poochie put an Enjoy production on the turntable that changed the way I listened to music forever.
It was called "Super Rappin'."
The group was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Though I had heard the song before--via "the boombox express," or dudes blasting music on their Sanyo's and JVC's as they passed in transit, between 1979 and 1981--I finally listened to it that day at Bobby's Record Shop. When I listened to Mel, his brother Kidd Creole, another vocally adroit MC named Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, and the always funky Rahiem and Mr. Ness (a.k.a Scorpio), I just shook my head. It wasn't just the tight interlocking rhythms between the emcees that was nothing short of seamless; nor was it Flash's surgical turntable technique. It was the lyrics, of a ghetto child who lived fast and wild, until he took the elevator to his own homemade gallows in a prison cell; the imagery was chilling. I could almost imagine the heat of Melle's lyrics turn into the white fog of winter air, as he described the icy finality of death; "You was cold/as your body swung/back and forth."
I looked at Spoonie and Poochie, and they just smiled. "My man Mel wrote that joint," said Spoonie, as he and Poochie watched me slowly shake my head. They knew my brain was spinning. I stepped outside in the mid-August steamroom of 125th Street; "Super Rappin'" had knocked the wind out of me.
From that day forward, Hip Hop took on a deeper meaning in my life.
As Melle Mel critiqued the current state of Hip Hop during VH-1's Planet Rock Documentary panel that I moderated at the Paley Center (12.September.2011), his commentary was direct, sometimes biting, but always spoken with a brutal honesty, and in the spirit of tough love. Because more than anything, Melle Mel loves Hip Hop. No matter how far Hip Hop strays from its origins, no matter how much gaudy make-up she may adorn, Melle Mel still loves H.E.R. Hip Hop is his muse, his mistress, his life. Listen to Melle Mel's message to Hip Hop:
A big shout-out to the producers of the documentary "Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation"; Ice T, Martin Torgoff, and Richard Lowe (who also directed the film), and VH-1's executive producers Stephen Mintz and Brad Abramson. This is one of the best VH-1"Rock Docs" ever made, and I am honored to have been a part of such compelling television history.
Many thanks to the professional and gracious folks at The Paley Center For Media in New York, and especially to Ms. Maria Pagano for allowing me to use these video clips on my Hooked On The American Dream blog.
Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.