During this past year of cutbacks and rollbacks, the sharpest cry of protest has come on a 12-inch single from Harlem: "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. This seven-minute rap has become an anthem for frustrated urban teen-agers, galvanizing them like nothing since Stevie Wonder's 1973 "Living for the City." Like the Wonder song, "The Message" graphically describes the struggle for survival in poor neighborhoods and includes a dramatized encounter with the police.
Wonder emphasized race discrimination; Grandmaster Flash stresses class discrimination. Wonder idealized perseverance; Flash ominously warns of a breaking point: "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." Wonder supported his tribute to determination with grand, majestic music; the tension in "The Message" is reinforced by the lean, riveting tick of the Sugar Hill studio team, creating intimidating spaces around your feet. An unwinding synthesizer figure adds a disturbing fatalism to the angry, dryly spoken rhymes. The record achieves the spare, frightening sound of ice cracking while you're skating on it.
The song is now the title track and high point of the group's first album (Sugar Hill SH-268). Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five will headline the annual New Year's Eve "Party with the Stars" at the Capital Centre tomorrow night. Also on the bill are Kurtis Blow, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, Starpoint, Experience Unlimited and Atlantic Starr.
"The Message" was a big breakthrough in both form and content for the rap music movement. Previously, the rappers had simply toasted themselves in boasting couplets over a "borrowed" rhythm track. Instead of such overstated bragging that implicitly supported the "pimp myth," "The Message" is a concisely understated confession of frustration that sharply attacks the flashy "Superfly" image. Instead of singsong doggerel over a familiar funk riff, "The Message" is a dramaticallly delivered, subtly phrased monologue with music tailor-made for the words.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the album lives up to the breakthrough single. The new Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five single, "Scorpio," is a mechanical exercise in voice distortion every bit as boring as those by Euro-funk bands like Kraftwerk. The ballads are standard soul workouts while "It's Nasty," a clever reworking of the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love," unveils the group's refreshing humor. All the cuts show off the brilliant distillation of modern funk by the Sugar Hill studio band, anchored by bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith Leblance. Sylvia Robinson's compact production keeps each element of the mix in bright focus.
Kurtis Blow became one of the first rap stars with the dextrous bragging word play of his hit single, "The Breaks." His endless variations on that song lost steam, and this year Blow also tried social relevancy with a recession-priced EP, "Tough" (Mercury MX-1-505). Unfortunately, Blow's protest amounts to nothing more than jive elaborations on the idea that times are tough. Blow's band plays a formulaic beat that quickly grows monotonous. Blow himself delivers everything in the same self-congratulatory, smirking voice that soon becomes tiresome.
Much better is Trouble Funk, the best of Washington's "Chocolate City" funk bands, whose recent album is "Drop the Bomb" (Sugar Hill SH-266). Unlike the Sugar Hill rappers, Trouble Funk is a self-contained 10-man band that has honed its skills at big dances in the Washington Coliseum. With three percolating percussionists and a precise, piston-pumping horn section, Trouble Funk serves up one of the fattest, grabbiest dance beats anywhere. The songs are devoid of social relevance (the title refers to the bomb of "funkativity"), but are great party stimulators.
The six original tunes successfully straddle the boundary between funk and rap. The four horns blow with one voice, punching out the catchy melodic hooks of funk. Between horn riffs, the rapping vocalists urge the crowd: "Get On Up," "Let's Get Hot" or "Pump Me Up." As opposed to the sparse beat of "The Message," the Trouble Funk beat is multilayered. The severely syncopated bass-drum groove is accented by synthesized hand claps. Sharp, clipped rhythm guitar and a clatter of cowbells and woodblocks keep the rhythm moving forward impatiently. There's nothing innovative here, but nothing boring either.
Rare Essence, another of the "Chocolate City" funk bands, released a 12-inch single this year: "Body Moves" (Fantasy D-205). For nearly nine minutes, the song moves ambitiously from section to section with dramatic changes in style and dynamics. The 13-man band begins with a jazzy reverie and then settles in to a mainstream funk song reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire. The choir of voices chants the lyrics to a simple but strong melody as guitars and keyboards fill in the spaces with wriggling lines. The song then shifts into a fusion keyboard jam and then shifts again into an African percussion jam. A light touch by producers Chuck Brown and Jas Funk (James Thomas) create a sinuous rhythm groove that ties the song together.
Starpoint is an Annapolis-based funk sextet solidly anchored by the rhythm section of the four Phillips brothers. Lead singer Renee Diggs has a soprano that leaps upward from the groove with gravity-defying exhilaration. Unfortunately, the Phillips brothers have written eight pedestrian funk exercises for the album "All Night Long" (Chocolate City CCLP-2022). The songs don't have enough rhythmic drive to test the band nor enough melody to inspire Diggs. Moreover, none of the solos is especially interesting, and Lionel Job's production leaves the album sounding flat.