We’ve covered a lot of different genres in the past few weeks, from classic rock and indie, to electronic, K-pop, and folk. As we reach the last days of February, however, it would be pretty shameful if we didn’t dedicate one week to exploring hip hop, a genre that continues to prove its significance to black history.
For the rest of the week, we’ll be taking a broad look at some of the most influential and important songs in hip hop. The goal is to provide a comprehensive view of the variety seen in hip hop over the years, as well as the cultural, social, and political significance the genre carries to this day.
It may sound like an ambitious undertaking, but we’ll do our best to hit that mark. That being said, I would appreciate suggestions of influential hip hop songs to cover. I’ve listened to a fair share of rap and hip hop, but I’m still no expert.
Our first song this week is “The Message” written by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five in 1982. While it wasn’t the first hip hop song by far, it remains one of the most important songs of Hip Hop history.
Before “The Message”, most hip hop lyrics revolved around parties, having fun, and bragging. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five brought the first song with that commented on life and society. The lyrics are filled with reactions to the suffering they see, and are a part of, along with reflections on the state of society at the time.
If you’ve heard “The Message” before, you no doubt remember the chorus. “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head / It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”. But let’s take a closer look at the meat of the song.
Through each verse, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and Duke Bootee share stories that reinforce this rallying cry. One tells the story of a “crazy lady livin’ in a bag”, who lives on the street and is forced into prostitution. Another references the hardships his family goes through, with “The bill collectors, they ring my phone / And scare my wife when I’m not home”.
The last verse takes a wider look at the problems facing black citizens who grow up in poverty, and the effect it has on the direction their lives take. It starts with a birth, “A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind”, before “You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second-rate / And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate”.
The verse goes on to describe how young men then develop a growing admiration for the “Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers”, “But then you wind up droppin’ outta high school”. The story gets sadder still, as it results in a life of crime that leads to prison. “Bein’ used and abused to serve like hell / Til one day, you was found hung dead in the cell”.
And from birth, the verse takes us through a short life, ending in a tragic death. The last lines end with a horrifying image. Anyone would lose their head if this was the reality they were facing. “It was plain to see that your life was lost / You was cold and your body swung back and forth / But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song / Of how you lived so fast and died so young so”.
I’d heard “The Message” before today, but had never taken the chance to really break it down and look at it closely. I’m glad that I did, and hope that the songs we look at throughout this week will grant just as much clarity and insight.
We end today with this brief look at the history of hip hop from over thirty years ago. Tomorrow, we’ll jump forward in time to the early nineties. It’s going to be tough to pick one song for the decade, so if you have any suggestions, get them in now.