Music historian Dorian Lynskey wrote that “history remembers the South Bronx in the 1970s as an urban catastrophe, the ground zero of a city in crisis. Unemployment and poverty were sky high, as was crime … Whole blocks were reduced to ghost towns as cynical landlords torched their unsellable properties for insurance money.”
It wasn’t much better in 1982, during another hot, claustrophobic, chafing summer of discontent. Sweat ran down crevices like pimps down dark alleys. Released that year, the ghetto vignettes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message were its soundtrack, its soundscape.
The song starts with a brooding bassline: slow, stripped down, minimal funk noir with shards of synthesiser. It grips you by the lapels and doesn’t let go for seven minutes and nine seconds.
It's like a jungle
Sometimes it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.
Those opening lines are delivered in the flat, world-weary voice of a man who’s seen too much. Look. You see it through his tired eyes:
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs
You know they just don't care
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise
Got no money to move out
I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.
His voice takes on an urgency as the tour takes a detour inward:
Don't push me ’cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to lose my head.
After a mirthless, paranoid “Ha! Ha! Ha!”, he repeats:
It's like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.
He has nowhere to run.
The bill collectors, they ring my phone
And scare my wife when I'm not home
Got a bum education, double-digit inflation
Can't take the train to the job
There’s a strike at the station.
As the song progresses, the protagonist becomes more animated, agitated, losing his grip:
You'll grow in the ghetto, living second-rate
And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate
The places you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alleyway.
Released on Sugar Hill Records, The Message was largely written by the label’s session musician and producer Ed Fletcher, and featured only one of the rappers of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: Melle Mel.
It radically changed the direction of hip-hop from the party anthems of “put your hands in the air like you just don’t care” to “put your hands where I can see them, ’cause we cops don’t care (a fuck)”. Hip-hop up till then had been aimed at your feet, but this brooding song nested in your head, made you think. As the first socially conscious rap song, The Message laid the foundations for the political hip-hop of later generations.
Unlike many protest songs, The Message didn’t preach, it just took you to the ghetto, showing how Reaganomics was for the rich. The only thing that trickled down were the dregs, if you were lucky. It also taught you about the alienation of labour without dropping a heavy textbook on your dirty sneakers:
If I just got a job
Learned to be a street sweeper
Or dance to the beat
Shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
’Cause it's all about money
Ain't a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.
The Message remains as vital today as when it released 36 years ago, especially in Trump’s racist republic.