Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five [extended]

  • "The Birthday Party" [Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981] B+
  • The Message [Sugarhill, 1982] A-
  • Greatest Messages [Sugarhill, 1983] B+
  • Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five [Sugar Hill, 1984] B+
  • They Said It Couldn't Be Done [Elektra, 1985] C+
  • The Source [Elektra, 1986] C
  • On the Strength [Elektra, 1988] C+
  • Message From Beat Street: The Best of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five [Rhino, 1994] A
  • The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five: More of the Best [Rhino, 1996] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: "The Birthday Party" [Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981]
The most spectacular of the Sugarhill crews on stage is also the hookiest on record, thanks to Flash's spinning--he can make his turntables give forth like a horn section of kazoos or electric soprano saxophones. But if "Freedom," their Sugarhill debut, made aural graffiti-writing seem like a political act, here they remind us of its nuisance potential--it's fun to hear the Five's birthdays, and nice that each of us has one, but the idea is thin and so is Flash's hook. Next: "The Rent Party," in which we all get to shout our addresses. B+

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message [Sugarhill, 1982]
Their belated first album tries to be commercial, to touch a lot of bases with a broad demographic, but it's anything but formulaic. On the contrary, it's an act of self-expression--they do consider Rick James a hero--and thus experimental like albums used to be. The only instant killer is the opener, a borrowed funk showpiece featuring calisthenic bassist Doug Wimbish and three-handed drummer Keith LeBlanc. But in the end every experiment justifies itself, from the one Rahiem wrote for and performs like Stevie Wonder (he can actually sing, thus distinguishing himself from Kurtis Blow, Joseph Bowie, and the entire population of the United Kingdom) to the vocoder number to the idealistic Spinners-cum-Edwin-Starr impression to the one Rahiem wrote for God and performs like a believer. A-

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: Greatest Messages [Sugarhill, 1983]
Establishing vocal individuality without entering the cartoon territory that is funk's comic blessing and romantic/realistic curse, they locate rap somewhere to the left of the hardest hard funk tradition, James Brown circa "Sex Machine" and "Mother Popcorn," rocking the body by pushing the beat (like Trouble Funk or the Treacherous Three) rather than teasing it (like Spoonie Gee or Soul Sonic Force). This almost athletic physical excitement, this willed and urgent hope, has been the core of their real message no matter what party slogan or all-night boast they've set it to. It's a disgrace that Sylvia Robinson's latest attempt to cash in their rep fades away to the forty-five edits that never did a thing for them--even "The Message," which doesn't lose a word except its coda, surrenders an unbearable tension along with its instrumental breaks. Culturally depriveds who don't own such twelve-inches as "Birthday Party," "It's Nasty," and "The Message" itself are advised to settle if they have no choice. B+

Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five [Sugar Hill, 1984]
When he's most original, Melle Mel's political chops are startling: "Hustler's Convention" closes with a right-on analysis, "World War III" resists thanatos and reminds Vietnam vets that they were dumb to go. But with Rahiem and Creole and Flash gone, idealism and romance are totally perfunctory, and original clearly ain't where they're heading: from the Prince rip to the Run-D.M.C. rip--both expert, enjoyable, even a little innovative--they come off as 1984's answer to the Sugarhill Gang, pros whose aim in life is to make more than chump change off whatever's on the street. Also, they can't sing. B+

Grandmaster Flash: They Said It Couldn't Be Done [Elektra, 1985]
I was and am rooting for Flash, Creole, and Rahiem--they have good hearts, and from the Fats Waller cover and the way "Iko Iko" sneaks scratch-style into the lead cut, you can tell they're trying. But Creole isn't powerful enough for a lead rapper, Rahiem's crooning is wimp ordinaire without bombast for ballast, and sometime Herbie Hancock vocalist Gavin Christopher not only isn't anywhere near as funky as the Sugarhill gang (which I assume everyone knows) but has none of the pop production flair that might move them into Rick James territory, assuming that's even a desirable destination any more. And the words! "Sign of the Times" is the kind of confused protest you could hear on sucker twelve-inches a year ago, "Jailbait" isn't so fucking good-hearted, and "Girls Love the Way He Spins" is the claim that's supposed to make the competition hang up their mikes and go home. Why do groups break up? It's enough to make you lose your faith in capitalism. C+

Grandmaster Flash: The Source [Elektra, 1986]
Their original-is-still-the-greatest message might seem more original if they weren't still using some of the rhymes they introduced back when they and their brother Mel were number one. Imagine Wings getting back at John for "How Do You Sleep?" with a concept album and you'll have some idea of how thoroughly they waste these beats. C

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: On the Strength [Elektra, 1988]
Like a big band that costs too much to put on the road, their fluid five-man rat-a-tat-tat is a throwback to a more innocent era; their attempts to keep up--their "boyee"s, their samples, their Steppenwolf cameo--are depressingly flat. And despite an amazing "I have a dream" cover, Mele-Mel's return doesn't do all that much for their moral fervor. A "Gold" worthy of the subject wouldn't slip past miners and murders on its way to the IDs, and to hear onetime love man Rahiem make pimp jokes is to wonder just how he'll get by after their next label drops them. C+

Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five: Message From Beat Street: The Best of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five [Rhino, 1994]
They start out as street kids trying to get over, their idea of a sales gimmick "The Birthday Party"--because everybody's got one, and because in 1981 that's still considered reason for celebration. Up till "It's Nasty" they specialize in hard dance music no more serious than, oh, Tony Toni Toné's. But unlike Kurtis Blow, their only rival on record until Run-D.M.C. change everything, they think like consumers, striking poses that look good on the corner, not the stage. And then a Columbia student they know writes "The Message" and it dawns on big-voiced frontman Melle Mel (and hard-nosed label owner Sylvia Robinson) that with his street cred he can put its message over. Although their protest phase may sound naive to the ignorant, it looks at the inner-city same-old with a freshness and moral certainty few have matched since, and played, scratched, or synthesized, their beats seize history. "Wheels of Steel" would have made a more poetic intro than the redundant 1994 megamix. But this is how rap began. A

Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five: More of the Best [Rhino, 1996]
Beyond the extended "Flash to the Beat" and the essential "Wheels of Steel," these 12 tracks were recorded '84-'87, when they sounded a little lost. Heard as musical form rather than cultural positioning, however, they flesh out Flash's beatmastery, grandly intricate yet stone solid, and establish that Melle Mel beat Chuck D to the game--the fire-and-mutant-dogs "World War III" hits like "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and lays down political science in the bargain. A-