I pretty much missed the earliest wave of rap music. Sure, it was something that I read about, but it goes without saying that it wasn’t in heavy rotation on any of the radio stations that I was listening to in Fresno in the early 1980s.
So what little rap I heard was through cultural osmosis — maybe the late-night video shows, or going up and down the radio dial. I actually do have a memory of stumbling across “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio in my car and not really comprehending it, even though at the same time I knew exactly what it was. What else could it be?
Oh, and of course, “Rapture,” which I guess would qualify as cultural appropriation these days, no matter how sincere Debbie Harry was in her musical eclecticism.
So it wasn’t probably until 1984’s Greatest Messages compilation when I fully heard it. And even then, it probably took me a few years — coming back around to it after Run-DMC, LL Cool J & Public Enemy took hip-hop to whole new levels — to fully understand how great “The Message” truly is.
All these years later, I can hear what makes “The Message” so great. For one thing, it has two distinct hooks. First off, there’s the thesis statement Melle Mel makes at the outset of the song:
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going under
In other words, what’s coming next isn’t for the faint of heart.
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
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
After that, he almost stutters the first half of the chorus, like he wants you to make sure you know how fucked up every thing is.
That nervous laugh is almost scarier than any of the words. Nobody who is laughing like that is going to settle for their circumstances, and Melle Mel punctuates that by inserting that laugh in almost random points in the song.
And in the end, there’s a skit that plays as the link between “Living For The City” and “Fuck Tha Police” where they’re all hanging out and are suddenly hassled by the cops, the implication being that just speaking out about their surrounding is going to bring the heat down on them. But we all know that would never happen.
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