The Message, 1982
"The Message" was a total knock out of the park," says Chuck D. "It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something." It was also the first song to tell, with hip-hop's rhythmic and vocal force, the truth about modern inner-city life in America – you can hear its effect loud and clear on classic records by Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, N.W.A, the Notorious B.I.G. and even Rage Against the Machine. Over seven minutes, atop a creeping rhythm closer to a Seventies P-Funk jam, rapper Melle Mel and co-writer Duke Bootee, a member of the Sugar Hill Records house band, traded lines and scenes of struggle and decay: drugs, prostitution, prison and the grim promise of an early death. There was a warning at the end of each verse: "Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head," each word enunciated like a gunshot.
Flash, born Joseph Saddler, grew up in a neighborhood that closely resembled the song: the South Bronx during the worst of the Seventies urban blight. He and the Furious Five had become the number-one DJ crew in the borough – pushing aside early pioneers like Kool Herc and Pete "DJ" Jones – with a mix of party-hearty showmanship and Flash's groundbreaking turntable skills. (Among other things, he invented the scratch.)
In a 1983 interview, Flash claimed "The Message" showed that he and the Five "can speak things that have social significance and truth." But when Flash and the Furious Five first heard Bootee's original demo (a track the latter called "The Jungle"), they worried that hip-hop clubgoers would not dig the subject matter and slowed-down beat, unusual for an early rap record. As Melle Mel remembered, he was the group member who "caved in" and agreed to record it; Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson got him to write and rap more lyrics to Bootee's track, and Sugar Hill studio player Reggie Griffin added the indelible synthesizer lick. Despite the credit on the record, Flash and the rest of the Five appeared only in a closing skit, in which they're harassed and arrested by police.
"The Message" was a commercial success, peaking at Number Four on Billboard's R&B-singles chart, but its messy birth was fatal to Flash and the Five, who split into factions. Their most notable reunion would finally come in 2007, when they became the first rap group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.