There is little dispute that, between 1978 and 1984, the three greatest rappers anywhere from Planet Earth to Planet Rock were Grandmaster Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee. Despite basically being the Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley of what Jay Z does for a living, they’re not exactly household names — though that may become somewhat less true in the coming weeks.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Seattle’s quirky underground rap group turned chart-topping grandpa fashionistas, paid tribute to their legacy by inviting them to record a verse on “Downtown,” the lead single from the follow-up to 2012’s platinum The Heist. The track turned into a single, which turned into a music video, which turned into hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore getting the opportunity to shout through an intricate MTV Video Music Awards performance, a high-octane Jimmy Fallon appearance and 16 million YouTube views.
As New York City’s most gifted architects of a new American art form, their impact on hip-hop — and, by proxy, culture worldwide — is immeasurable. As a member of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Melle Mel penned “The Message,” a crucial document of inner-city reportage and forefather of Kendrick Lamar’s socially conscious word-spill. During his run in the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee stretched the boundaries of lyricism into tricky double-time flows and became the most formidable battle rapper in the land, laying some of the earliest groundwork for Meek Mill and Drake’s verbal pissing contests. Grandmaster Caz and the harmony-soaked Cold Crush Brothers didn’t fare as well on wax, but set standards for lyricism and group interplay as viewed by their performance in the iconic Wild Style.
Before Macklemore invited them to appear on “Downtown,” the three rappers had never appeared on a track together and hadn’t had a molecule of pop impact in years. Moe Dee last hit the Hot 100 assisting Will Smith’s 1999 remake of his “Wild Wild West”; Melle Mel’s last charted in 1984 when he gave Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” some hip-hop credibility; Grandmaster Caz has never had a charting single unless you count the time his rhyme book was jacked to create the first commercially released hip-hop single ever, in 1979. “Downtown” is currently at Number 22 and, to paraphrase their moped-loving student, the ceiling can’t hold them.
Rolling Stone met with the three pioneers to talk about the past, the present and — in what seemed unlikely but a few months ago — their future.
Was there hesitation on anyone’s part to make “Downtown?”
Melle Mel: Well, I thought it would be a good project just hearing about it. Really you couldn’t lose with it. I thought it was a no-brainer.
Kool Moe Dee: Big Daddy Kane, when he called me, he broke it down so thoroughly, it was nothing to even hesitate about. He gave me backstory and then gave me the idea. He starts the sentence off, “Do you know who Macklemore is?” I’m laughing like, “Of course, why?” I didn’t know where he was going with that. . . . I’m a vibe person. I wanted to actually sit down with Macklemore, get his vibe, see where he was coming from. Soon as we got out [to Seattle], we had like a two-hour debate about hip-hop, basketball, whether the Cavaliers are gonna beat Golden State, Mayweather fight — really, we went in for two hours or whatever and we talked. And then finally Ryan says, “OK, so this is the song.” That set the tone for how cool the environment was.