Mar 09,2007 00:00
Perfect timing? Or too little, too late?
That's the question surrounding Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, which Monday night will become the first hip-hop act ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group made the ballot for the first time in 2004 and again in 2005, but failed to earn enough votes until the 2006 ballot was mailed out last fall.
Last year was the first time in 12 years that the 10 top-selling albums did not include a single rap release. Perhaps coincidentally, criticism of the music's rote emphasis on sex, violence and bling is growing, even within the hip-hop community.
"Most of hip-hop now is not good music, it's not healthy music," said Melle Mel, 45, the principal composer of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's socially charged 1982 breakthrough hit "The Message," and the group's lead rapper on that song. "So us being in the Hall of Fame is a positive thing, because hip-hop has been so dumbed down."
Positive, perhaps, but also long overdue.
Artists become eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first recording. However, some past nominees - such as The Stooges and John Mellencamp - have failed to get in despite appearing on the ballot several times. (Votes are cast by 600 music industry professionals, including this writer.)
It took Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five three consecutive times on the ballot to muster enough votes for induction. But with its first album, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel," having been released in 1981, the group could have been inducted as early as 1997 - if it had been nominated then.
"If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that being inducted doesn't mean much because hip-hop doesn't have a whole lot to do with rock," said Mel (real name: Melvin Glover), speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "But from a musical and historical perspective, it means a lot. Because they're acknowledging us as a group and acknowledging hip-hop and its influence.
"And it comes at a good time. Because, even for me on the inside looking out, most hip-hop now is just image-driven. They have to re-teach people what true hip-hop is, so that they can have a realistic vision of what the music is about. Because now it's not about the music. It's about the cars and girls and everything the music isn't about."
It is unclear whether this year's induction of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five is the result of the rock hall's recent drive to achieve a more youthful focus - or of a lessening resistance by voters to hip-hop at a time when the music is in a commercial free-fall.
But the hall's nominating committee was trimmed by more than half last year to around 30 members. Younger committee members were added, with the hope they would bring greater appreciation for music from the 1980s.
"We made the committee smaller, but it's still representative of a variety of tastes and eras, and it's a little more nimble and can move quicker," said former concert promoter Joe Peresman, 50, the new president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.
"I think everybody thought there was a need to take it up a level. A lot of bands we grew up with, like The Beatles and the Stones, have already been inducted. Now, we're coming up on a new generation of artists, so what can we do to make things more vibrant?"
Honoring hip-hop, however long after the fact, may be one answer. And honoring the critically acclaimed Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five first seems like an obvious move.
The group traces its roots to 1976. That's when 18-year-old Joseph Saddler, the future Grandmaster Flash, moved with his parents to New York from Haiti in the early 1960s, began experimenting and expanding the innovative turntable scratching style introduced by Bronx-based DJ Kool Herc.
"Even the records we played all came from Kool Herc, he was the main guy," Mel said. "And, of course, James Brown, Sly Stone and guys like that."
With the addition of Mel and two other fledgling rappers, Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins and Mel's brother, Nathaniel "Kidd Creole" Glover, Grandmaster Flash & The 3 MCs was born. Flash distinguished himself by manipulating turntable speeds, cutting from one track to another exactly on the beat, and "back-spinning" (repeating parts of a song's groove by precisely turning a record back with his hands).
"We were years ahead of our time," Mel said, sounding more matter-of-fact than boastful. "If we had the right support structure, we could be just as relevant now as we've ever been."
But Mel readily acknowledges that, left to its own devices, the group would have just churned out upbeat party jams. Instead, it made an indelible mark with such stirring songs as "The Message" (which chronicled the bleak challenges of urban life) and the anti-cocaine "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)," which was later covered by Duran Duran.
Mel credits Sylvia Robinson, who founded Sugar Hill Records (the first rap label of note), for pushing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five to use its music to chronicle social and political issues. Robinson, who also played a key role in the 1979 release of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang, was instrumental in hip-hop's growth, but has rarely received the recognition she deserves.
"Sylvia is one of the greatest producers ever, and she started rap," Mel said. "After we did 'The Message,' it was a good focal point to put out those kind of songs. It wasn't a conscious effort on the group's part to do that kind of material; it was Sylvia's. She should definitely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whether she'll make it there is another story."
Copley News Service