By the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s two term tenure in 1981, Hip-Hop had already learned from an early age that the system was against it. Birthed in the Bronx, Hip-Hop’s home had witnessed a cross-town freeway pummel through half of its borough, and the other half go up in flames caused by faulty electric wiring and slum lords cashing in on insurance policies. Amongst the despair, Hip-Hop still managed to thrive on the musical expression of its DJ maestros, the acrobatic expression of its b-boy dancers, the visual expression of its graffiti writers, and the vocal expression of its crowd motivators. To any rapper’s delight, The Sugar Hill Gang released one of Hip-Hop’s first singles and propelled them to the spotlight. But the now that there was spotlight, they needed to shine it on a message.
Enter Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. Over drums, bass, and an infamous synthesizer, the first man to call himself an MC, Grandmaster Mele Mel recited the ills of his community and hardships he faced living within it on “The Message”. Mele Mel was an instrumental part in the song being released as well as broadening the spectrum of Hip-Hop content and awareness. This was in 1982.
Twenty-five years later, Hip-Hop music has broken the borders of boroughs to reach as far as Britain and Brazil. The culture is now a billion dollar industry that caters to the senses: hearing the latest tracks while watching your favorite channel. Nowadays, a consumer is only a few clicks away from getting in touch with their favorite artist. But if Hip-Hop tastes so sweet, what stinks? Maybe it’s how that same industry leaves its pioneers to the side like Monday’s trash.
One of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s latest inductees, Grandmaster Mele Mel [spelled newly from his ‘80s credits] speaks with AllHipHop.com about the past, the present and the future of Hip-Hop and his career. With a new album, Muscles Mel aims to prove that 40 is the new 30, if anybody wants to count. In a “Clap & Revolve” era of Hip-Hop, Mele Mel has two tickets to the Gun Show.
AllHipHop.com: First off, what’s going on with the new album?
Mele Mel: The new album is coming out 2007. It’s called Muscles. Sixteen tracks of none other than the great one himself just doing it, and only he can put it down.
AllHipHop.com: What kind of joints are going to be on there?
Mele Mel: We got a little bit of everything for everybody. We got serious Mele Mel stuff, we got some newer kind of stuff, we got some stuff that probably nobody will think of for the next 10 years. The main thing we’re trying to do is establish what I got now. The main thing I wanted to do is have no features and cut down on samples. We want to do a straight album to show that cats from my era can still put it down in this here era. That’s the point that we’re trying to make on all aspects: business-wise, creatively. We are just gonna show that brothers can still put it down, because there’s a misconception from younger cats. They just think that what we did back then was in the dinosaur age and they’re doing something totally new and different right now – that’s the farthest thing from the actual truth. How we’re putting the whole thing together – not only the album but my image and everything that we’re going about doing – we’re doing it just so cats can know our grind is just the same as their grind. Ain’t no difference to that.
AllHipHop.com: So what’s the new “message”?
Mele Mel: My message that I’m trying to bring out is that Hip-Hop has to grow up. The days of grown men trying to run around like they’re young kids, and being reckless and thinking they’re gonna live forever… those days are gone. There’s people my age – I’m 45 – there’s people 50, even up to 55 – almost 60, that love Hip-Hop. They just don’t understand what’s going on now because it’s more projected to a younger generation. So if you try to fall to being about what Hip-Hop’s about, then you’re gonna look like an older cat acting like you’re a young kid and that’s not real and that’s not Hip-Hop either. The message is that Hip-Hop is for everybody. Even my style of Hip-Hop, or what I do, or what I feel is still for everybody. It’s not like “Oh yeah, that’s old school.” But then if Jay-Z rap off a break beat, “That’s new school.” We going to erase all that, it is what it is, Hip-Hop is just Hip-Hop. If I do it – I’m an older cat doing Hip-Hop; if Jay-Z do it – he’s a cat that’s a little younger than me doing Hip-Hop. If a cat that’s 17 do it, he’s just a younger cat doing Hip-Hop. The music doesn’t change and nothing about Hip-Hop change. The elements don’t change and it’s just what it is. People got to get used to cats my age actually doing what we do.
AllHipHop.com: Are there any current artists that have influenced your music today?
Mele Mel: I look at music in a whole. I really don’t have time to pick out a particular cat and get some kind of influence on what a single person is doing musically. But if you look at what how people do things business wise, I would say how Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Eminem and all those younger cats conduct themselves financially is the one thing that cats from my era have to really understand. No matter how good you are or how long you’ve been doing it, the bottom line is: it all works as a business. If you can work it as a business then it makes the creative side a lot more easier. I’ll be watching the cats handle their business… they’re company guys. The guys from my era were never like that because we were out creating music and having fun with it. If we could capture that then we could get the kind of respect we deserve in the industry because we’ll generate our own industry. It won’t be a “Why Jay-Z don’t put [Grandmaster] Caz on?” It’d be like “We on.” We can work with a Jay-Z because we got something for a Jay-Z to do with us. We can just come with a plan, and if the plan is good, everybody works with anybody.
AllHipHop.com: What would you say to a 12 year-old kid who might ask you who you are?
Mele Mel: I always explain, I’m the first MC to ever do it. Before we did what we did, it was just DJing and break-dancing. When we came to the game, we brought the actual Hip-Hop in the Hip-Hop. The art of DJing in itself is not a new thing – people been DJing for years. Hip-Hop style of DJing was new, but, what we brought to the game actually revolutionized things. It was just DJing and break-dancing but when we started doing our thing, rap just shot so far above everything that it dwarfed the whole spectrum of Hip-Hop. And that’s where we came in because we had the slick routines, the vocals, we were the first guys to have an image put to together, and the first ones with stage show. So everything that a good MC could actually get onstage and really be an entertainer, we added to the game.
AllHipHop.com: As the first MC, how would you define an MC then and an MC now?
Mele Mel: My definition wouldn’t change much: an MC is a person that – with or without a DJ – entertains the crowd through the mic with your rhyme and with the crowd response. You are the motivation factor for the crowd. Now, I would guess the definition of an MC is just a guy that makes rap music – he just raps on records. They more or less concentrate on the style of rap. In other words, [comparing rappers then to rappers now] you probably technically have better rappers now, but they’re not better MCs, because if you see them on stage, they’re not good entertainers. They don’t concentrate on that aspect of what MCing is. Even from the way they hold a mic, to the way they walk across the stage – there’s no plan to it. They just come on stage and do what they got to do until the song’s over because that’s the extent of their MCing. You’ll do this for the records, or you’ll have some that do cyphers, but, none of that’s entertainment. When we were doing it you had to be entertaining because it was almost experimental. Even when we got into the record stage, we were going up against The Commodores, the O’Jays, and Cameo; so we had to be really, extra entertaining because it wasn’t like we had a band. You’re five guys running the place on stage – without a band – and you gotta show people that ain’t used to seeing turntables that you’re gonna rock the crowd. There’s no band. Ain’t no drummer gonna be doing nothing up here – we’re gonna do this. That’s the main [difference] between an MC then and an MC now. Just like what Busta said on the BET Awards: he learned from what he did so he’s cut from a different cloth. His whole thing is about entertainment. He’s like a throwback MC from the original. You got cats now who want to say their record, walk across the stage, and have a tough image which is two totally different aspects.