Librarian of Congress James H. Billington demurred yesterday when asked if he is a particular fan of “The Message,” a 1982 rap hit by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But he assured an audience at the library’s Madison Building that the song came with all the requisite bona fides to secure a place on the library’s new National Recording Registry.
The registry, which began life yesterday with 50 inaugural inductions, is meant to call attention to the problems of preserving this country’s recorded legacy. The registry was assembled using input from the public (mostly from the library’s Web site) and the advice of the National Recording Preservation Board, an advisory panel that includes representatives from all aspects of American musical life.
The recordings chosen include significant troves of folk music, famous speeches, ethnographic recordings and a few representative classical, jazz and pop selections that are already widely familiar to audiences. The recordings were required to be more than 10 years old and be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Those selected include singers from Enrico Caruso to Aretha Franklin, poetry recitals by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, a speech by Booker T. Washington, fireside chats by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and radio broadcasts such as Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds,” which terrified the gullible in 1938.
The new registry mirrors the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, created in 1989. Like that honor roll, it is meant to highlight the problems of archival preservation.
Billington also announced that former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman William Ivey will become chairman of the board of the National Recording Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group created by Congress with legislation passed in 2000. Congress will provide the foundation an as-yet-unspecified amount of money for matching grants to help the foundation raise funds for addressing issues of sound preservation throughout the country. Congress will also provide up to $250,000 for seven years to help the library preserve the recordings on the registry and initiate a study to address the technical issues of sound archive preservation at the Library of Congress and across the country
To demonstrate the problem, Billington held up a plastic bag containing an old wax cylinder, an early recording medium. The cylinder was covered in mold and its contents are irretrievable.
“You can’t clean off the mold and play the recording,” said Billington, who estimates that 50 percent of the wax cylinders made before 1902 have been lost. He ran through a short litany of other materials already lost: A recording of Mark Twain from the 1890s; recordings thought to capture Duke Ellington playing during his radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club in the late 1920s; and vast quantities of radio broadcasts made from the 1930s to the 1950s.
“We are a throwaway society,” he said.
The Library of Congress’s efforts to preserve recorded material also includes an effort to make its vast collection, estimated at 2.6 million sound recordings, available to the wider public. Rights to use much of the material, including Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” are still privately held. With the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month to uphold the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended copyright protections to 70 years after the death of the author or artist, giving the public full access to the library’s holdings is impossible. But Billington says he hopes that individuals or corporations who hold copyrights will work with the library to find compromise. Without their cooperation, the library’s plans to use the Web as a means of greater public access will be limited.
The full list of the National Recording Registry’s inaugural selections is available at Here.
“With ‘The Message’–which Flash didn’t have a lot to do with, he didn’t even want it released! –
–[Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] moved rapping into a far richer field, away from
the nonsense ‘good-time-and-get-down’ lyrics, into pungent social observation with more than a
touch of desperation.”–Paolo Hewitt, “Melody Maker,” October 1982
Born Joseph Sadler in Barbados, Grandmaster Flash was a key figure in the formative years of
hip-hop, spinning records at crowded block parties and disco clubs in New York’s Bronx,
pioneering many of the techniques DJs use today. These parties reflected the tone of early 1980s
hip-hop, which featured busy, brassy arrangements and rhythmically dense but meaningless
lyrics like “bubba to the bang bang boogie, boobie to the boogie” (from the Sugar Hill Gang’s
“Rapper’s Delight”). With its spare rhythm track, shimmering synthesizer riff, and nakedly
direct vocals from rapper Melle Mel, Flash’s 1982’s “The Message” instantly charted a
musically rich, socially conscious new path for the genre.
Grandmaster Flash began working with the Furious Five after 1977, a pairing that quickly
attracted attention throughout New York City and moderate chart success with singles like
1980’s “Freedom.” But though “The Message” is credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious
Five, Flash himself actually had nothing to do with the track. Rather, it was conceived, written,
produced, and largely performed by Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher, with Skip McDonald on guitar,
Jiggs Chase as co-writer and co-producer, and most famously, Furious Five rapper Melle Mel as
co-writer and vocalist.
Flash and the rest of the Furious Five objected to the song’s demo, worried that club-goers would
resist the slowed-down beat and serious subject matter. “He didn’t think people wanted to hear
that s***,” Fletcher later remarked to “The Guardian.” It saw its release only at the insistence of
Sugarhill Records head Sylvia Robinson, who saw an opportunity to take the genre somewhere new. And “The Message” was both musically audacious and lyrically in-your-face: much of the
sonic palette consists of empty space, letting Mel dominate the mix with stark lyrics relating
stories from the black experience in the American ghetto.
The first imagery in the song is bleak and unpleasant: Mel describes broken glass and urine-
soaked stairs, and remarks to the listener, “I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise,” forcing
them to imagine the smell alongside him. He goes on to open the third verse with a memorable
and layered scene:
My brother’s doing bad, stole my mother’s TV
Says she watches too much, it’s just not healthy
“All My Children” in the daytime, “Dallas” at night
Can’t even see the game or the Sugar Ray fight
Hard up for cash, the narrator’s brother steals his mother’s television–which she was using to
watch soap operas all day and night because she doesn’t have a job. Mel and Fletcher’s painterly
lyrics show instead of tell, making it clear to the listener that poverty is both systemic and
“The Message” is also formally ambitious, its verses gradually increasing in length and sonic
intensity as the song progresses. The first verse lasts eight measures, the second 11, the third 13,
the fourth 16, and its final verse lasts a breathless 28 measures. Mel’s delivery is suddenly
aggressive in this climactic verse as he opens with the couplet “A child is born with no state of
mind / Blind to the ways of mankind.” He then relates the harrowing story of a child who grows
up without positive role models and dies in prison, a reflection of the isolating, nihilistic
experience of growing up poor and black in the ghetto.
Between each verse, Mel delivers the track’s iconic hook:
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
If there is a single message that unites “The Message,” it’s that living this life day in, day out
comes at an enormous psychological cost that adds up. To hammer this home, the song ends
with a brief skit where the group is arrested for no reason–a postscript that still reflects headlines
at the time of this writing.
Though it reached only #62 on “Billboard’s” Hot 100 upon release, “The Message” has been
massively influential on the hip-hop genre. According to the sampling database
whosampled.com, its synthesizer riff and rhythm track has been sampled literally hundreds of
times, most famously in a remix of Ice Cube’s 1992 hit single “Check Yo Self,” but also in songs
by Tupac Shakur, Atmosphere, Usher, Mos Def, Pharrell Williams, Immortal Technique, and Even stray fragments of the song have become part of the shared language of hip-hop. “Chapter
13 (Rich Man vs. Poor Man)” by Oscar-winning rapper Common interpolates the line “Cause it’s
all about money; ain’t a damn thing funny” as “Without the money; ain’t a damn thing funny.”
Even the hit Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton” nods to the song
with the line, “Such a blunder, sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder.”
But most influential of all is the song’s searing, personal social commentary, which expanded the
frontiers of hip-hop and paved the way for acts as diverse as Public Enemy, Boogie-Down
Productions, NWA, Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, The Coup, and Janelle Monae. “‘The
Message’ was a total knock out of the park,” Public Enemy MC Chuck D told “Rolling Stone.”
“It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant