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Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five

+ {Melle Mel}

From RUN-D.M.C. and PUBLIC ENEMY, to CYPRESS HILL and The CHEMICAL BROTHERS, plus hundreds upon hundreds of hip-hop rappers, all owed a great debt to the innovative GRANDMASTER FLASH/MELLE MEL & THE FURIOUS FIVE. Themselves drawing from rap pioneers GIL SCOTT-HERON and The LAST POETS, and the funky hip-hop traits of The SUGARHILL GANG, Joseph “Flash” Saddler, Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and Co revolutionized the streets of the Big Apple at the turn of the 80s, whilst empowering “The Message” to y’all and sundry.
The radical GRANDMASTER FLASH was born Joseph Saddler, January 1, 1958, Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies; although he moved to the Bronx district of New York at an early age. Taking his cue from underplayed progenitor, DJ Kool Herc (aka Clive Campbell), a teenage Saddler began spinning records at local block parties; eventually developing the complex technique of “cutting” between vinyl on two separate turntables and creating a continuous flow of beats punctuated by repetitive rhythmic “breaks”.
While these tricks later proved to be one of the most revolutionary and money-spinning developments in the evolution of popular music, for the time being GRANDMASTER FLASH (so called for his lightning speed turntablist techniques) was content to demonstrate his considerable skills at local hip-hop events. Enlisting a cast of rappers to complement his spinning, Joseph created The FURIOUS FIVE, a group originally consisting of teenboy rappers Melle Mel (b. Melvin Glover), his brother The Kidd Creole (b. Nathaniel Glover), Keef Cowboy (b. Robert Keith Wiggins), Mr. Ness/Scorpio (aka Eddie Morris) and Rahiem (b. Guy Todd Williams); friends and auxiliaries comprised Duke Bootee (aka Edward Fletcher) and solo star KURTIS BLOW.
This collective crew created a buzz around New York City, although their Bobby Robinson-produced 12-minute/12-inch vinyl debut for Enjoy Records, 1979’s `Superappin’’, was strictly for “Disco Fever” club devotees. A couple of curious 45s emerged in the months thereafter; the first of the bunch was `We Rap More Mellow’ (a record that producer Terry Lewis disguised the group under The Younger Generation nom de plume); the second was `Flash It To The Beat’; the third was an edited `Super Rappin’ No.2’.
So far the group had failed to glean the attention of the wider music community; although that was all to change after signing to Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, where GRANDMASTER FLASH and his FURIOUS FIVE began to make major waves. From September 1980 to the following winter, the team(s) dispatched a trine of epic ground-breaking 12-inch singles: `Freedom’, `The Birthday Party’ and `The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’. The latter platter was a revolutionary cut ‘n’ paste of sampling, scratching, breaks and boisterous rapping, utilizing BLONDIE’s `Rapture’, CHIC’s `Good Times’ and QUEEN’s `Another One Bites The Dust’ (among others) as its base material. A prolific period for GF&FF, `Showdown’ and the TOM TOM CLUB-sampled `It’s Nasty (Genius Of Love)’, made inroads into the minds, bodies and souls of breakdancers with a little more that street-cred under their feet.
Another precedent was set almost a year later with the Sylvia Robinson/Duke Bootee-penned `The Message’ – as powerful a record that has ever emerged from the world of hip-hop. With its hard-hitting account of inner city life, the single pre-empted gangsta rap with half the bluster and twice the effectiveness; topping the dance charts on both sides of the Atlantic, whilst it crossed over into the UK Top 10 by autumn ‘82. Sadly, with edited versions of said tracks that should’ve/could’ve lasted longer, parent LP THE MESSAGE {*8} just failed to register a transatlantic Top 50 place, despite the AFRIKA BAMBAATAA-styled `Scorpio’ transmitting some body-poppin’ beats; a rap re-take of The SPINNERS’ `It’s A Shame’ (coupled with PIECES OF A DREAM’s `Mt. Airy Groove’), fell into R&B territory.
Although not apparent at the time, only Melvin Glover featured on `The Message’ cut, so when minor hit follow-up `Message II (Survival)’ only credited MELLE MEL & DUKE BOOTEE, there was indeed rumpus and fractions within the group and, of course, Sugar Hill. Meanwhile, `New York, New York’ (not the Sinatra classic) flopped for GRANDMASTER FLASH’s combo. The revelation and fact that Saddler did not feature on any studio efforts came to light after he filed a lawsuit against the aforesaid Sugar Hill for $5 million in unpaid royalties. In the event, Saddler and Mel split the group in two; and duly went to court in order to use the main moniker. To add to the confusion, the label unfettered the next single by GRANDMASTER & MELLE MEL; some pundits assumed that “Flash” was still involved. As it turned out, the club-friendly `White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’ – a song warning of the dangers of drugs – gate-crashed the UK Top 10 several months on from its late ’83 release. It was indeed a dig at old mucker Saddler, who would’ve done well to heed the signs as he was now a freebase cocaine addict.
Melvin continued his part of the saga, along with Scorpio and Cowboy. The songwriting rapper also recruited fresh members King Lou/Lewis Glover, Tommy Gun Chev and Les De La Cruz for a number of hit-and-miss 45s; namely `Jesse’, `Beat Street Breakdown’ (from Atlantic-endorsed film “Beat Street”) and the poignant `We Don’t Work For Free’ – all spawns from the eponymous GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL & THE FURIOUS FIVE (1984) {*5}; entitled “Work Party” when released in the UK. The conveyor-belt of 45s didn’t stop there; UK Top 10 hit, `Step Off’ and `Pump Me Up’ both played their part prior to attendant part compilation, “Stepping Off” (1985), reaching the Top 50.
Meanwhile, the game of two halves was underway when Saddler’s GRANDMASTER FLASH instigated his very own comeback; alongside backing from Rahiem, The Kidd Creole, Kevin La Von Dukes, Mr. Broadway (b. Russell Wheeler) and dancer Larry “Love” Parker. Whilst MELLE MEL was struggling to stop the soon-to-be defunct Sugar Hill imprint from receivership, Elektra Records were only too happy to bail out turntablist Flash. There was little or no interest emanating from the States, though in Britain (as in previous cases), there was some chart action for the `Sign Of The Times’ single and parent album, THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE (1985) {*4}.
After the addition of Shame (Jesse Dukes) as “personal assistant” to Flash, 1986’s THE SOURCE {*4} was simply treading water. BA-DOP-BOOM-BANG (1987) {*4} continued Saddler and Co’s sharp decline to relative obscurity as young bucks ERIC B and PUBLIC ENEMY took over the rap mantle with a vengeance.
There was only one thing for it, and that was for the alumni to bury the proverbial hatchet in order to re-form GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE; a New York charity concert organised by PAUL SIMON was where it was re-kindled. As it turned out, 1988’s ON THE STRENGTH {*3} album, and a few flops besides (including a clueless cover of STEPPENWOLF’s `Magic Carpet Ride’), the whole project reeked of a cash-in.
But it was certainly not the end of the story for GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL & THE FURIOUS FIVE whom, without Saddler, of course, delivered another re-vamp of `White Lines ’89 Part II (Don’t Do It)’, from a rather puzzlingly-titled PIANO {*4} LP.
Tragically, it was the last time the original line-up would be linking up together, as Cowboy (Keith Wiggins) died as a result of crack addiction on September 8, 1989.
Several years on, GRANDMASTER FLASH played at the 1997 Essential Music Festival in Brighton, England, in promotion of a forthcoming FLASH IS BACK (1998) {*4} album. Besides a UK Top 20 spot for all parties concerned when DURAN DURAN covered `White Lines (Don’t Do It)’, in 1995, and a plethora of mix albums and compilations spun out of control, there was little to set the pulse beats racing when GRANDMASTER FLASH unveiled a star-studded album attempt – THE BRIDGE: CONCEPT OF A CULTURE (2009) {*6} – in order to claw his way back into the rap/hip-hop spotlight.
Not to be outdone, performer MEL rapped with Artists United Against Apartheid for the charity song, `Sun City’, while his own solo career went virtually unnoticed as he launched a handful of albums under his “Mele-Mel” moniker; these included “Right Now” (1997), “Die Hard” (2002) and “Muscles” (2007). The rapper took up urban wrestling around the same time (an event that combined hip-hop with the sport), though their biggest claim to fame of later years was when MELLE MEL AND THE FURIOUS FIVE (alongside DJ GRANDMASTER FLASH) became the first rap act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2006/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Dec2018

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