Merle Meyer

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message

General Information

The Message (1982)
Artist: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Band Members: Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Cowboy, Kidd Creole, Mr. Ness aka Scorpio and Rahiem
Composers: Edward Fletcher, Melle Mel, Bobby Robinson
Album: The Message
Distribution: Sugar Hill Records


When people talk about hip hop and rap the first picture popping up in their heads is a masculine, dangerously looking rapper with a big car and several half-naked women by his side. But the beginnings of hip hop quite differ from the conception of rap and hip hop from what it is now in contrast to how this music genre started. This following music video excerpt will treat the music video to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, one of the pioneers of the roots of hip hop and one of the decisive oeuvres that marks the beginning of the favorite music genre. This review will treat musical structures, the realization of the video and relations between lyrics and cinematic depiction.


Within six minutes the viewer can see the main character of the group named Grandmaster Flash and his posse named the Furious Five. “The message” is a song which is supposed to be a wakeup call for all society members. Hip hop music arouse from DJ’s, or disc jockeys, mixing black music, meaning jazz, funk, reggae and dub beats. These DJ’s presented their music on block parties where people heard the music and started to imitate it. Soon the new music style was diffused extensively. But it was not accepted as eligible music style in official society, but it got famous more and more within the ghettos and the streets. Of course Grandmaster Flash was not the only artist dedicating himself to this new kind of music, another famous group at that time named The Sugarhill Gang gained attention by the media. This was the first proof that hip hop, even though it was a new style of music can be commercialized. “Rapper’s delight” smoothed the path to mainstream and publicity for hip hop artists.

Reason and aim

Several reasons are responsible for the formation of this song, which is one of the first well-known hip hop songs in the beginning of rap and hip hop music. In its beginning, hip hop music had two major focusses: identity and location. It was used as a way of self-expression and to show all people where one grew up or how a poor life was like. Hip hop and rap music should depict “[…] rap’s ghetto stories as real life reflections that should draw attention to the burning problems of racism and economic oppression, rather than to questions of obscenity.” (Tricia Rose, “Black noise”) With entitling the song “The Message” the listener is already prepared to listen closely to the lyrics. The song treats economic problems, also in case of maintenance and circumstances, hopelessness, desperation and other problems the people living in the inner cities. The following paragraph the lyrics will be briefly explained and analyzed.

Looking at the Lyrics

The song is build up like a typical song is built: with a recurrent refrain and several strophes. The first strophe is used to describe the scenery. Within this strophe Grandmaster Flash[1] does not embellish the situation but uses more colloquial terms and clear language. In the following he parts in inverted commas are excerpts from the original lyrics of The Message[2]. (e.g. “[…] people pissin’ on the stairs[…]” or […] junkies on the alley […]”) Additionally he adds that he was not able to escape the bad situation by constituting that “[…] a man with a tow truck repossessed […]” his car.
The second strophe is built up similarly. First he describes the life of a homeless old woman and at the end adds that there was a girl asking for social security who did not get help but had to search for a ”pimp” because she was not able to “make it on her own”.
What is also remarkable about the lyrics is that the usage of colloquial terms is quite frequent. This restricts the target group the song is addressed to, because a lot of slang and colloquial terms. The third strophe describes the poor situation families are involved in. They watch too much TV and are menaced by bill collectors and costs. His job badly payed and he fears that he cannot arrive at his work because of the strike at the train station. Again he cannot think of a realistic way to escape the situation.
The fourth strophe is concerned with school education and the lack of money. He says that even the teacher treats his son like a fool and that you cannot achieve anything without the right amount of money “in this land of milk and honey.”
The fifth and last strophe describes the development from being a child to a grown member of this part of society. Children grow up innocent and have no influence over where they are born and raised. The worst part is that these children take drug dealers, panders and criminals as role models because they have at least achieved to own a few luxury things in life. So they have an early start as criminals in this surrounding. He describes the development of these children as fast-living but not long-lasting life, with “live fast – die young” notion.
When talking about GF’s message one should not forget to take a closer look to 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 going under.
This chorus incorporates the forlornness that dominates the song in which the main character tries to survive in this urban jungle. It makes him wonder how he keeps from going under meaning that he is not aware of what keeps him over water to survive in this social environment.
Closing there is to say that the subject matter picked out as central theme in the lyrics is congruent to the music video’s depiction. Several lines in the lyrics match to the moving pictures and sounds within the video itself and therefore they support each other mutually.

Visual Concept

From the beginning on the video starts with pictures of a suburban city. A lot of traffic and people can be seen. The pictures are zoomed in and out matching to the rhythm of the song. The camera work is shaky and it seems as the viewer is directly involved in the video process. This is helpful for the identification of the viewer with the artists in the video. Additionally other movements in the video are matching to the rhythm in general, for example the disappearance of images and the upcoming of a new one. In terms of music there is to say that the rhythm of the song is held very simple so that it is easier for the audience to follow the lyrics. Additionally pictures and sounds support the meaning of words.
The location of the video is not a set stage but recorded in real streets and places to guarantee authenticity and “being real”. For hip hop artists it is common to be seen with his (or her) posse. GF’s posse is omnipresent during the whole video. This phenomenon is still visible with different rappers on stage, since they have always one person or more on stage at the same time as support. Showing where one comes from was one big topic of hip hop music in the starting years. This concept is realized in this particular music video.
Another aspect of the music video is, as already mentioned before the matching images and sounds to the lyrics. While the images move fitting to the music’s sound other matching items appear. An example for this match is for example the line “[…] crazy lady, livin’ in a bag, eatin’ outta garbage pails[…]” is supported by the image of an old lady sitting on the floor.
Another example is the “broken glass everywhere” supported with a matching picture and the sound of a glass that breaks. This is part of the introduction to the scenery and highlights the dirt and waste of the city.These phenomena appear during the whole video also in form of the tow truck that takes GF’s car when he tries to escape the situation
The last minute of the music video is designed as an outro of the video. The gang meets at a street corner when a police car drives by and arrests the whole gang even though they try to make clear that they did not do anything that would justify the arrest. The outro is designed as a short film at the end of the video and gives the final proof of how seriously bad the circumstances in these ghettos and suburbs is really like.

The video is a realistic depiction of the circumstances at the beginning of the 80’s in American suburbs and ghettos with a synchronous depiction of words and moving pictures which helps people to understand the situation and the circumstances poor people, and partially foreigners and immigrants of many nationalities have to bear up against. People who are interested in hip hop, rap and the beginnings of this music genre definitely have to deal with GF as well as for example The Sugarhill Gang, DJ Kool Herc, Ice Cube and many others to understand where this music genre comes from, and how it developed itself to what it is nowadays: a successful, mainstream and famous genre.

[1] In the following Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are abbreviated with GF for better legibility