Herc Your Enthusiasm (14)

By: Adrienne Crew
August 15, 2013

message

Fourteenth in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating old-school hip hop.

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GRANDMASTER FLASH & THE FURIOUS 5, FEATURING MELLE MEL AND DUKE BOOTEE | “THE MESSAGE” | 1982

Where were you the first time you heard “The Message,” hip hop’s first socially conscious record? I heard it in September 1982 during my freshman year of college. I had to close my eyes to listen, really listen, to the word-images in the lyrics. Only then was I able to understand the song’s innovation, especially by the third verse:

Neon King Kong standin’ on my back
Can’t stop to turn around, broke my sacrophiliac
A mid-ranged migraine, cancered membrane
Sometimes I think I’m going insane, I swear I might hijack a plane

Up until then, I had always considered hip hop aural wallpaper — like disco. But “The Message” was different; it was like listening to a Norman Lear sitcom with no laugh track.

Years later, the song’s co-writer/producer, Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher told the Guardian UK that he was trying to make the lyrics cinematic, in order to broadcast the song’s message: “The neighborhood I was living in, the things I saw — it was like a jungle sometimes in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”

Whenever I listed to the song, in my head a Seventies-era single-screen theater plays loops of urban decay and neglect in Ronald Reagan’s America. I see the opening scene of the 1971 movie Panic in Needle Park, in which junkies gather near 72nd Street to hustle enough money for another fix. I see the Times Square street scenes from 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. I see the burnt-out South Bronx landscape as depicted in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981). I see Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver (1976).

“Neon King Kong standin’ on my back” — a monkey-on-my-back addict’s metaphor for Manhattan looming over the rapper’s consciousness — is my favorite line. I wonder if the 1976 remake of King Kong, helped inspire Fletcher’s word choice? I also think of Magilla Gorilla, a late ’60s cartoon about an unmanageable pet shop gorilla; there are those who claim the cartoon lampoons the era’s move towards racial integration.

“A mid-ranged migraine, cancered membrane” torments our narrator, whose obsession with sickness and disease was a common refrain throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s. Remember all those terminal illness movies: Love Story (1970), Brian’s Song (1971), Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983)? Does this song foretell the epidemic of AIDS — at first known as the “gay cancer” — that would eviscerate African American and homosexual communities in the years to come?

As for the hijacking lyric — this is perhaps a reference to the 1981 heist movie The Pursuit of DB Cooper, the true story of a hijacker who got away with a pricey ransom and disappeared, becoming a folk hero in the process. Or else a reference to Skyjacked (1972), Superchick (1973), or Airport ’77 (1977)?

“The Message” classified new types of urban distress moving into our cities as the 1980s got started. Some heralded it as a wake-up call, though Melle Mel and Duke Bootee weren’t telling us anything new. They just delivered it in an irresistible new format.

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2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

HIP HOP ON HILOBROW: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM series (25 posts about old-school hip hop) | DJ Kool Herc | Gil Scott-Heron | Slick Rick | Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels | Afrika Bambaataa | Biz Markie | U-God | Slug | Adam Yauch | Ghostface Killah | DJ Run | Flavor Flav | Scott La Rock | GZA | Schoolly D | Aesop Rock | Terminator X | Notorious B.I.G. | Melle Mel | Doug E. Fresh | Kool Keith | Rick Rubin | Rakim | Ol’ Dirty Bastard | Madlib | Talib Kweli | Danger Mouse | Kool Moe Dee | Chuck D | Dizzee Rascal | RZA | Cee-Lo Green | Best Ever Clean Hip Hop

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2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

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What do you think?

  1. The first time I heard it I was in New Jersey too, same year as you, two or three houses from the Maginot line between Plainfield (riot-ravaged and left to rot in permanent punishment) and my own “North” Plainfield (sitcom suburbia). The Message drifted across the line on the now-abandoned airwaves. Planes got hijacked so often in the decade before that every pilot had a map to Cuba just in case, and this record was the last we’d hear for another decade or three about why “terrorism” gets provoked — though it was also the first vanguard popsong since “Sweet Jane” to depict the normal domestic existence most of us work for. Realistic pressures from above and shared dreams among us are what’s truly dangerous to the powers that be to hear the message get out on — but it can’t be un-received.

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