Can You Understand The Message?
Dating back to the times of slavery, the black community in America has historically used music as a vehicle for self-expression and introspection. The blues was the original form of musical self-expression, and was conceived from “field hollering”, the melodious manner in which slaves working the fields and forests aired out grievances and gave their opinions on their present situation. The use of music for communal empowerment and expression of self within the black community is still seen today, but is seen in the more contemporary genre of hip-hop music which originated in the early 70s in the New York Inner City. Grandmaster Flash is credited with being one of the original pioneers of the hip-hop movement and musical genre. The idea behind the hip-hop movement was one of peace - solve problems with words not guns; and “The Message”, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s most popular song released in 1982 off their album The Message, served to embody perfectly the group’s creed. Similar to how it is possible to understand the problems and qualms the slaves had by listening to the blues, understanding the contemporary problems of the black community was made possible via the hip-hop medium. “The Message” discusses and boldly brings to the forefront issues of poverty, the cyclical nature of socio-economic stagnation, the plight of women, and lack of education,, all pressing issues that plagued the black community specifically those living in the inner city. In this paper, I will carefully examine several technical musical elements of hip-hop music as seen in “The Message”, its lyrics, instrumentation, vocalization, melody, tempo, mood, and illustrate their impact on the aforementioned thematic content of the song. Furthermore, I will affirm that hip-hop music, like its predecessor the blues, is a thriving mechanism for self-expression, a product of resistance, and if applied appropriately, a thriving facilitator of awareness and catharsis.
Grandmaster Flash and his musical partners The Furious Five founded the hip hop movement in response and resistance to the turbulent condition of the black community in his Bronx neighborhood where the crack epidemic was ravaging the social infrastructure, and black on black violence was on the rise as a result. They’re aim was to create harmony through music, and create an alternative form of venting emotion rather than turning to violence. Using catchy disco and reggae beats, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five created the hip-hop sound, and thus a platform for the inner city youth to express anger with words, not weapons was created. While the beat and instrumentation of a hip-hop song drive the rhythm, augment the melody, and influence the mood and overall tone, its lyrics carry the majority of thematic weight. The resulting interplay of the lyrics and the instrumentation serve to encapsulate the song’s universal message. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, is no exception.
Specific instrumentation and varied methods of vocalization combine to generate song’s mood, which serves to complement its lyrical content. This interplay is seen explicitly during the opening seconds of the track. Following the initial percussion, the first vocalization heard is the stern, forceful, metaphorical decree “It’s like a jungle. Sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under” – effectively preparing the listener for a discourse in coping with struggle. This feeling is immediately reaffirmed by the instrumentation, the sound effect of glass breaking, followed by the opening line “broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.” Grandmaster Flash uses the metaphor of the “jungle”, to insinuate the unpredictable, volatile, animalistic nature of life in the inner city which pits hungry soles amongst one another to fend for themselves. The second image he brings into play, of people urinating in...
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