Friday, March 11, 2011

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five -- "Freedom" (1980)

"Melle Mel, right on time, 

It's Taurus, the bull, my zodiac sign!"

"I'm Mister Ness and I'm ready to go
And I go by the sign of Scorpio!"

"My name is Raheim, I don't like to fuss
My zodiac sign is Aquarius!"

"The Kidd Creole is the name of mine 
And Pisces is my zodiac sign!"

"And I'm Cowboy and I'm running this show
My zodiac sign is Virgo!"

"And Grandmaster Flash, cuts so on,
His zodiac sign is Capricorn!"

No big surprise this song was released in 1980 -- I think that's about the time all that "What's your sign?" stuff peaked.

Welcome back to "Hip Hop 101," students.  I'm Professor G-Loco.  Did you remember to bring your completed homework assignment to class?  (Just kidding!)

In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first rappers to be voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Grandmaster Flash at work
Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, the hip hop superstar and entrepreneur -- he grew up in a housing project and shot his brother in the shoulder when he was 12 years old (the brother had stolen some of his jewelry), but now has an estimated net worth of $450 million -- gave the induction speech.  He called them "hip hop's first supergroup," and noted that "what Chuck Berry did for the guitar, Flash did for the turntables."

Grandmaster Flash -- his real name was Joseph Saddler -- was born in Barbados on New Year's Day, 1958, and grew up in the Bronx.  Flash was one of the first generation of New York club DJs, and is credited with inventing several popular DJ techniques.  

Traditional DJs -- whether they were on the radio, or at a dance club -- would often utilize two turntables and a mixer so they could smoothly transition between two different records.  (The DJ might talk over the transition, introducing the second song and smoothly papering over the switch from one song to another.)  One song would slowly fade, and before you really knew it, the second song would be underway.

If the two records had been recorded at similar tempos, the transition would be almost seamless -- popular disco DJs could move from record to record without disrupting the dancing for a second.

But DJs like Grandmaster Flash were able to not just spin records but manipulate the records  in order to create something new.  For example, they would use the mixer to cut back and forth between two copies of the same record in order to extend an instrumental passage indefinitely.  These instrumental "breaks" were almost purely rhythmic in nature -- often the only instruments were drums and a bass guitar.

The Furious Five
The DJ might talk over the breaks, engaging in a call-and-response dialogue with the crowd at a dance party.  Eventually, the "rapping" -- the talking over the breaks -- grew in sophistication and significance, becoming the focus of the performance.  Soon there were crews where the DJ stuck to working the turntables while the rapping was left to one or more MCs.

As the Bible says, "There is nothing new under the sun," and rapping is no exception to that rule.  It has its roots in the songs of West African griots, professional singers who "combine[d] the functions of living history book and newspaper with vocal and instrumental virtuosity."  Griots might be hired to sing an abusive song aimed at a villager's enemy, and also satirized the rich and powerful.

In the African-American community, participants in ritualized insult contests -- known in some areas as "the dozens" -- often spoke in rhyming couplets.  We've all heard "Yo' mama" insults (e.g., "Yo' momma's so fat she got baptized at Sea World," or "Yo' momma's so dumb she sold her car to get money for gas").  Here's one such an insult in rhyming couplet form:

I don't play the dozens, the dozens ain't my game
But the way I [bleeped] yo' momma is a god-damn shame!

This video (from the "In Living Color" television show) turned the dozens (also known as "the dirty dozens") into a "Jeopardy"-style game show:

David Toop's book, Rap Attack, discusses the anthropology of hip hop in much more detail.  It's a fascinating story.

Grandmaster Flash eventually teamed up with five rappers, each of whom introduces himself and discloses his zodiac sign in the lyrics quoted above.  (In a song called "Birthday," the Furious Five take turns rapping their birth dates.)  Melle Mel, the most famous of the five, was apparently the first rapper to call himself an "MC."  They signed with Sugar Hill Records, and quickly surpassed the Sugarhill Gang to become the label's biggest stars.

Here's a recording of Grandmaster Flash and four of the "Furious Five" recorded live at a Bronx club in late 1978.  This is compelling stuff.  (If you listen closely, you'll hear the "hotel, motel" line that the Sugarhill Gang used in "Rapper's Delight.")

Here's a video of Grandmaster Flash DJ'ing live on British television in 2009, which will give you a closer look at what DJ'ing involves.  It's hard work:

Here's the 1981 single, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel"  (i.e., turntables), a live studio recording of Flash using three turntables to  scratch and mix several different records (including Blondie's "Rapture," Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," Chic's "Good Times" -- the song that "Rapper's Delight" was based on -- and "Rapper's Delight" itself).  No MCs here -- just a DJ:

"Freedom" is a delightful song -- even if it doesn't make you get up and dance, it will make you smile.  Listen for all the audience-participation tricks -- including the Furious Five's call for their audience to follow their example by shouting out their names and zodiac signs.  (It's a bit reminiscent of Shirley Ellis's "The Name Game.")

And listen for the kazoo, too.

Here's "Freedom":

Here's a link you can use to buy "Freedom" from iTunes:

Freedom - The Best of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five

Here's a link you use if you prefer to buy it from Amazon:

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