Melle Mel: The Man With A Message…Or Furious? The Legend Clears The Air
Melle Mel and Grand Master Flash met as teenagers in the Bronx while breakdancing at an after school function. During a time when The Bronx was in a state of despair a new culture (so new it was nameless) was evolving right around the two future Hip Hop Icons. At the time when the DJ was the music and the music was the DJ. Legends like Kool Herc, Grand Master Flowers, Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, Jazzy Jay and others dazzled ghetto crowds, while providing an escape from the urban decay that engulfed the landscape. You could uprock and break dance to the music and it wasn’t long before the music needed a voice to complete it. The Yin, the Yang and so the rapper was born. This new phenomenon gave the music wings. It flew from the street corners uptown, to the street corners cross town, to the record companies downtown. Now you had the voice, the music, the physical (breakdancing) and the visual (graffiti). A world wide culture and billion dollar industry was born. Remember those two kids from The Bronx at the school break dancing? They are now Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and regarded as influential musicians separately but it’s the work they did together that has their legacies, frustratingly and confusingly intertwined.
Recently Scorpio from The Furious Five made shocking revelations in regards to Grand Master Flash’s contributions (or lack thereof) to their ground breaking classics like “The Message” which is considered by some as the greatest Hip Hop song ever recorded. The world reacted with fury and emotion at the thought of a Hip Hop super hero having even the possibility of a flaw. It had to be jealousy. It had to be envy. Why is all of this coming out now we asked ourselves?
Hip Hop gave us a voice, but if Hip Hop itself was personified and had a voice it might very well be Melle Mel’s. It’s impossible to recite a Hip Hop verse any tempo any sub genre and not sub consciously be influenced by Melle Mel. When they shoot a time capsule into space and they have a 50 word description of Hip Hop culture, Melle Mel will be hired to read and narrate. In a world where words are digital and zip invisibly through a network of “zeros” it’s too easy for people to “get it twisted”. Knowing this we present to you the legendary and tumultuous story of Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, straight from the mouth of Melle Mel , the human blue print of every Rap star to follow.
Yaheard: With so much controversy surrounding Scorpio’s interview about Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five and you being the lead rapper of the group with your voice on the record. What’s YOUR take on Grand Master Flash?
Melle Mel: Flash is a great DJ, don’t get me wrong, but we are known for making the same record that he really never made. He had a 15 year run, been all over the world, no one really said nothing about him not being on the record. At the end of the day…number one it’s a business and number two, every time I see the dude he’s looking at me like i’m a back up dancer…don’t do me like that. I’m a respectable dude in my business I represent what I do and I’m on my game 24/7, don’t nobody ever see me on an off day. So for me to have respect from the whole Hip Hop community, then to see a dude… we grew up together, we started out together, we built the legacy of Grand Master Flash and The Furious together, so how it turns out…okay Flash your winning, whatever beef we had back in the day, up to now…your winning and you won, but don’t look at me like i’m the low man on the totem pole , like you did something I didn’t do, we did all the heavy lifting, when people got wind of Hip Hop as a business that’s when the DJ started taking a back seat.
Yaheard: What separates Grand Master Flash from other pioneering DJs of Early Hip Hop?
Melle Mel: What separates Flash from every other Dj…Flex, Capri, Jazzy Jay… what separates him from all those other guys is emceeing started on his set. Then what separates him again is some of the greatest records in Hip Hop is still under his banner, even though he was nowhere around when the records were being done. All those things are true but he doesn’t want to give credit for any of at. At the end of the day, he can’t get the same shine if he does. Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five is a long ass name so they never say Furious Five.
Yaheard: How did you meet Grand Master Flash?
Melle Mel: We was breakdancing. We used to breakdance at an after school set up. He was with Mean Gene, and he came and he danced, it was Mean Gene and the guys they were with, against me and Scorp and our little crew and we burned them. We were just wanna be B-boys then. I don’t know if Flash’s family is from The Bronx like that, I don’t know anyone who knew him as a little little kid. When we first knew Flash he came into our neighborhood with Mean Gene. Mean Gene is Grand Wizard Theodore’s older brother and they were together, and that’s how Theodore learned how to DJ, because the equipment was at his house. Flash was with Gene and them and Theodore saw Flash and Gene and that’s how Theodore got started.
Yaheard: What was the state of Hip Hop at that point?
Melle Mel: At that point it wasn’t Hip Hop because it was just basically DJing. Hip Hop didn’t come into play until we started calling ourselves “Mc’s”. Even Coke La rock he didn’t call himself an MC, he was just a guy who kind of talked on the mic. He just wasn’t a DJ. When the culture really started evolving was when Mc’s came into play. That brought the most people as far as fans. People were uprocking way before people started doing backspins. I started out as a B-boy but I couldn’t do a backspin. So what put the game in advanced mode was the fact that there were emcees, and where all the guys from all of the neighborhood wanted to MC and the people in the neighborhood wanted to see emceeing. So it gave it the shot in the arm that it really need to be the business it turned out to be now. As of right now the major part of what you would call Hip Hop is still emceeing. It’s basically you know making records rhyming.
Yaheard: If we can go back to when you were going to sign with Sugar Hill Records. Lets say it’s the night before you’re going to sign. Take us back to that night?
Melle Mel: At that time we were the number one Hip Hop group . What happened was somebody from Sylvia’s family called. He approached Flash and Flash was the one that talked to Sylvia and then he came to us and suggested that we go sign with them, because previously we had signed with Bobby Robinson but he was like a minor league he had The Treacherous Three, Spoonie G. He was Spoonies uncle he had The Funky Four he had all of us on their label but their label wasn’t really good enough to promote. We thought it would be a good idea to sign with Sugar Hill Records because they were the major label and we all agreed we would go do the song and they had the track “Freedom” ready. I wrote the song, everyone wrote their rhymes and the rest is history
Yaheard: When you went into the studio was it known that Grand Master Flash wasn’t going to cut on the records or was it a surprise when you showed up?
Melle Mell: He talked to them first. He heard the tracks he knew everything that was going on and he wasn’t going to be scratching on the record, but you know if you listen to “Freedom” how it’s set up it has certain intonations in the record because of the hits and how i wrote it. You would think that Flash actually did something on the record but he’s not thats just the band… you know… “Flash one time .. Flash Two Times”. That was just how the record was designed how it was arranged and I wrote it in. It wasn’t like we got to the studio and he was ready to scratch, and they said “Flash it’s not going to be no scratching”. It wasn’t like that, he heard the track before I even heard it, we came together and everyone wrote their rhymes and we did the record.
Yaheard: So in the early days of Hip Hop the DJ didn’t have a place in the recording studio but was still in the group because he spun the music live at the clubs and the parties. Is this the case?
Melle Mel: Yes because the DJ is the equivalent to the band, he’s the music. From the aspect of the streets, even before the records, until emceeing got popular it was really only about the DJ; the Hercs, and Flash, the first Grand Master Flowers, the original Grand Master, The Disco Twins. It was all about DJs. Then when we started. After we started calling ourselves Mc’s then the young kids in the neighborhood, the Kool Moe Dees and Spoonie Gs before they did records they started doing their own thing on the mic. By the time it got to records, DJing started taking a backseat to rap.
Yaheard: How did DJs fit into other pioneering groups? Was it the same for them?
Melle Mel: Sugarhill Gang they had a DJ and they dropped him. The Treacherous Three they had a DJ, and when they put out records they didn’t say Easy Lee and the Treacherous Three they just said Treacherous Three. Had we did the same thing we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. I was 16 going on 17 years old, that’s what we all thought. We stayed loyal to Flash. I mean he was Flash, how do you undermine? Why would you cut the dude off? It’s not like he did nothing, like he was on drugs or he was an alcoholic, so why would we? We never had no reason to cut him off it was Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, we though we were going to stay together but that didn’t happen.
Yaheard: When was the first time the legal battles started? When was the first time you went to court against Grand Master Flash?
Melle Mel: I’ve never went to court against anybody. Flash and the rest of the group took Sylvia to court for non payment of royalties and me knowing how everything was going to play out, this is in like 83 going into 84. I didn’t think we needed to have all that down time trying to go waste time going to court, when all we had to do was make another hit record and we could control our own destiny. That’s just the nature of the game that’s the way it is then and thats the way it is now. The whole group left and they got a lawyer and they took Sylvia to court, and I reached out because i had written “White Lines”, and that was going to be the next record and I went to studio and I cut “White Lines”, and in that year I had “White Lines” and “Beat Street” and the Chaka Khan song. That was the best year as far as me doing the records on my own. Then I did the Miami Vice soundtrack, that was in 1984. It wasn’t like there was bad blood after “White Lines”. Cowboy and Scorpio we toured together. Creole and Raheim stayed with Flash and they signed for a record. And their record, their project, it wasn’t as successful as ours was at Sugar Hill going into 85 and all that.
Yaheard: So you maintained a good relationship with Sugar Hill Records?
Melle Mel: Yeah…like I said I had the best year of my career when they was going through their court case with Sugar Hill. The Chaka Khan song was the record of the year at the Grammys and American Music awards and we did the Miami Vice Soundtrack and it sold like 15 million albums. It was huge. I didn’t want to have my little get down stifled up with a court case because that takes years you don’t got years NOT to record. You got to do it now, and actually what I did in ’84 that still helped Flash. It helped him, because he knows to this day when I did “White Lines” he wasn’t even signed to the label.
Yaheard: Did the rest of the group resent you at that point? They are going through a court case and you were in the movie Beat Street.
Melle Mel: No, because I explained to them I wasn’t going to have my whole situation tied up in that court case that was going to take years. They said, “we got a good lawyer”, and I’m saying it’s not going to be an easy to solve situation. It wasn’t like he got any money, the only thing that came out of it was that he had the right to use the name Grand Master Flash. Nobody made money off it. Nobody really “won” nothing. There was no money involved. He got to use the name Grand Master Flash.
Yaheard: Lets think hypothetically. Let’s say Hip Hop never leaves The Bronx. You drop “The Message” and it never picks up. 30 years later you’re just in The Bronx locally. No one around the world knows you. Would you still feel the same way? What’s more personal to you, Grand Master Flash disrespecting your legacy or Grand Master Flash disrespecting your money?
Melle Mel: It’s personal and it’s business. Personally because when I see the dude like i said he’s got this way about him like he’s trying to snub his nose, that’s how it’s personal. This is why. It took the whole group Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and all the promotion Sugar Hill Records and all the promotion they put behind the group, it took all of that and all of these people to make the name Grand Master Flash the name that it is and he just takes that and says, “f**k y’all it’s my name i’m going to do what I want to do …f**k Sylvia… f**k Mell… f**k everybody. I’m Grand Master Flash, nobody has the right to use that but me”. Now legally he’s right, but morally and rightfully he’s wrong because he’s the Dj of a group that just so happens to be the greatest group in the history of Hip Hop. Without those records and without us signing to Sugar Hill and our name being involved with their team he would be Theodore…he would be…you know Charlie Chase…he would be Easy Lee. Flash is up there with with Kid Capri and Flex and them on that third level even beyond because he’s still known for doing some of the greatest work in hip hop, but he wasn’t involved in none of the records. So he has a status thats much higher now, but he’s not giving nobody credit for it.
Yaheard: Did Sugar Hill Records really suggest that he not be in the group?
Melle Mel: Yes they wanted us to fire him.
Yaheard: What’s Sugar Hil’s incentive to fire Grand Master Flash at that time?
Melle Mel: Their whole thing was like Flash was acting. Like one time when we was doing “Freedom” and then when he finally heard the finished song, he starts crying just acting real funny and shit. They want you to act the way they want you to act, and he always had little funny ways. We knew that, but they didn’t know that and they was like “nah you gotta get rid of the DJ, he’s going to become a problem”, maybe they might’ve known something that we didn’t know. Our whole thing was we came up together, he’s our brother, we gonna rock with him. You don’t have to be around him, he’s our guy. Whatever the problem is we will handle it, but hindsight being 20/20 we should’ve cut him off.
Yaheard: Did Grand Master Flash invent the crossfader?
Melle Mel: That’s not true…no.
Yaheard: So when did all of this turn ugly? Can you recall the exact day in your mind when you thought, “this is not going to work”?
Melle Mel: It never turned extra ugly until now actually. Before now, it was just right after we did the Gold album. The album didn’t do that well. We sat in the park and then we was trying to figure out what we was going to do as a group, and Flash’s last words were, “I’ll help y’all do an album, but I don’t want y’all using my name.” He said that! And from that point up to now…like I said it never became an issue. Flash can go do whatever he wanted to do. Flash making money and my life being what it is right now, I’m not really worried about that. Where i’m insulted is you are ungrateful motherfu***, you’re supposed to give someone credit. Even to this day I give Miss Robinson the credit for her being the main source behind us doing the record “The Message”. Which to this day till forever it’s going to considered the greatest Hip Hop record ever made. Flash doesn’t give anybody credit and it was my call! I could’ve turned the record down because nobody wanted to do it. It was supposed to be a Sugar Hill record. We had a record out at that time, but he don’t give nobody credit for that. He had 15 years of going around the world and doing DJ sets and playing “The Message”. Then when it’s, “What would it take to get the group down? What would it take to get Mell on a track with you?” He turned all that down.
Yaheard: Do you think money is Grand Master Flash’s motivation?
Melle Mel: I don’t think it’s the money because if the group got together we could make more money than what he’s making. If we got together and recorded and toured we could make five times more money then he’s making. If Run and them can get a hundred we can get a hundred! Maybe even more than that, we are an important group. For whatever reason he just wants to see himself as the most important thing that happened to this group and he’s just not. It took outside energy to make the group what it is. It wasn’t just that Flash was a great DJ. The last conversation i had with Flash he told me he would be just as big now if we never did “The Message” and I just hung the phone up on him, because I knew he was out of his f***in’ mind.
Yaheard: In a perfect world, tomorrow if Grand Master Flash says lets do a tour. Is everyone in the Furious Five down with that?
Melle Mel: Of course everyone is down with that. Nobody has a problem working together other than Flash. When “The Message” went into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame we could’ve toured. He wouldn’t even sit with us at the VH1 honors.
Yaheard: What would you say to somebody who would read all of this and say “Melle Mel” is just a hater
Melle Mel. I would say they’re right. Im supposed to be mad. If you created something from the ground up that nobody can say they did… we created something from the ground up and built a name that became a household name around the world. Now the part of the group “name” The Furious Five didn’t but Grand Master Flash did, and forget the money, he got a lifetime achievement award from the Source Awards and didn’t even mention The Furious Five. I’m supposed to be mad, and I got no bones about being mad about shit. The name of my group is THE FURIOUS FIVE we were never the Happy 5. I know how to channel and make it entertaining. If I wasn’t mad I wouldn’t be human. I have more to do with Flash being Flash, than Flash has with Melle Mel being Melle Mel. If I made a cure for cancer today that headline tomorrow would be Grand Master Flash cures cancer. That’s the bottom line
Yaheard: During your performance in Aruba when they are announcing your name the announcer says your accolades and then says “introducing Grand…Master… the crowd screams “Flash” while he say’s Melle Mel. Do you recall that?
Melle Mel: I can’t get away from that. At the end of the day he won. I don’t have a problem with that. on the same token, don’t give me your ass to kiss. At this point he has to go through scorched earth tactics to get some light so he can shine on them. How’s Flash doing? He’s doing great, its all good and we still doing our thing. It was never f**k Flash, it was never nothing like that. It’s like that now because it’s not going to be a point in the game where we are going to enjoy the fruits of our labor like he is. He’s enjoying the fruits of all of our labor.
Yaheard: Do you believe that Hip Hop legends deserve to have these kinds of stories protected for the sake of the Hip Hop culture? Do we need to know if a super hero needs 3 or 4 bounds to leap a building? What do you say to someone who says why not move on and focus on the next chapter of your legacy?
Melle Mel: We felt that way too. 15 years, 20 years, whatever it was Flash just did whatever he wanted to do. But the reality is that I’m never going to be able separate myself from his name. If I make a record tomorrow and it becomes a number one record Flash becomes attached to it. The only thing we can do is what we are doing right now. Before that we never said nothing. I’d see Flash and he’d give me that little hand shake.
I was with him when he first put the backspin together he was only doing it with one turntable and i said Flash why don’t you try to do it with the other turntable? We were in the house trying to put the routine together. I bled Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. When he won I won. Now he got so cocky with it if we try to say Grand Master Melle Mel, whatever we can say to try get a promoter to do a show he’s sending out letters, “you cant use the name Grand Master”. So the only thing we can do is do what were doing right now so everything is clear in the air.
Yaheard: With part of the spirit of Hip Hop being to “put someone else on” in other words guiding someone, or passing on skills or knowledge to someone coming after you? Many people don’t know that you were one of the first big names to work with Lady Gaga before she was Lady Gaga. Do you believe that Grand Master Flash has done this?
Melle Mel: I consider Theodore (to be) Flash’s prodigy. A lot of the stuff Theodore is known for though, he had his own skill set. In other words, Theodore is his prodigy but doesn’t Dj like Flash
Yaheard: Bringing it back up to the present if “The Message” as a song is getting accolades and awards, why don’t you have a leg to stand on to just do it as the Furious Five if it’s just you guys on the song?
Melle Mel: When they inducted “The Message” into the Grammy Hall Of Fame, not Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five. They contacted him first and he wants to do it with LL, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Rick Ross. That’s what he was going to do because they called him first, they didn’t call Sugar Hill they didn’t call us. He was going to do this. Joey Robinson told the people from the Grammy’s he wasn’t going to give them the rights to the song unless we go on stage with him. To anybody who has an assemblance of marketing and promotion they have to use the name Grand Master Flash and he gets that. So they call him first. They flew him in, gave him a clothing budget for a record that he wasn’t even on that he knew he wasn’t on the record. If he had any morals about himself he would say, “just do the record with Melle and them i’m not even on the record” who cares?
Yaheard: What can younger Hip Hoppers learn from this?
Melle Mel: It’s in regards to life. Don’t read your own press. That’s where a lot of these guys go wrong, believing all that gangster sh**t don’t get caught up in all of that. You’re a person first, as long as what you do to make money and do records, don’t get caught up you know in the belief. Pac and Biggie got caught up in that shit you make records, it’s not that serious you’re making a record. On the business end of it you got to understand your brand. If I would’ve understood that early on I would’ve did more to promote Melle Mel’s brand. I wouldn’t have put all of my eggs into the Grand Master Flash And The Furious Five basket. I was thinking “we’re from the street, we’re coming in together and we’re going out together”. You gotta understand your brand and don’t take what come out of your mouth on these records so serious…it destroyed these records and it destroyed the streets. If hip hop ever had a downfall that’s the downfall. Rocking the house. Thats a foregone skill set. You don’t see just a DJ on stage cutting and rocking and the rapper is rocking like that. I seen one of those kids who was down with No Limit and he was doing a routine with him and the DJ it almost brought tears in my eyes, and it was dope that he got that from us. I don’t know if he did consciously but that’s the first skill set, they rocking that house. Just for Flash to deprive people of that, I don’t know what his motivation is. It’s very sad because he’s depriving the public not just our people but people out there who NEED to see it but they’re not going to see it because he just wants to be Grand Master Flash.
Yaheard: You’re in a position to change the way beef in all of Hip Hop is perceived and dealt with forever being pioneers. If after 30 years Grand Master Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five sit down, talk it out and show the new generation and all the world they can get back on the same page, it would be one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the culture. What needs to happen for that to be a reality, and what would you say to Grand Master Flash if he’s reading this?
Melle Mel: I’m a professional if the right deal is on the table there’s nothing to discuss. As long as I know what I have to do and Flash knows what he has to do there’s nothing to discuss. I never lived with Flash…we were cool… but at night he had his own set of friends and I had my own set of friends. I don’t consider this a beef, there’s nothing personal about Flash himself, that’s all over my head. It’s just the fact business wise as to what I have to do. It’s not a beef. If I was to see Flash it’s “Yo whats up Flash”. If the right deal was on the table today we could do a show tomorrow. I’m a professional. It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel, because I tell people all the time, you got all these young guys out here putting out whatever they are putting out, and can’t nobody tell me its all great product. I can at least do that (laughs). We gotta record. I’m not trying to put an album on YouTube for free. I’m not trying to go that far. You can’t really sell nothing that you already gave away, once you catch fire you can change the game. My whole thought process on the evolution of Hip Hop and where it’s going…Hip Hop it can’t go no younger, it can’t get no dumber, it has to get mature. You have to bring it up. It can’t get no worse, so the only way you can go is the other way.
Yaheard: If Grand Master Flash is reading this what would you like to say to him directly?
Melle Mel: This simple, you’re not better than me. You’re as good as me but you’re not better than me. I worked with Chaka Khan, I worked with Quincy Jones, I did Beat Street with Harry Belafonte. When Duran Duran wanted Grand Master Flash they did my song, they did “White Lines”. I did all the heavy lifting. When you come around me, don’t come around looking down on me. I’ll give it to you, you are as good as me, but you’re not better than me.
Will Hip Hop ever see their favorite superheroes combine forces once again, and deliver a message that’s undeniable on wax, on the stage and even on the street corner? Is it fair to the fans when a group like Sam and Dave perform for 30 years, yet never speak a word off stage, mimicking a chemistry that once was? The Police can sell out a stadium anywhere in the world, yet supposedly Sting and Staurt Copeland can’t even be in the same room together. Is Hip Hop different? Is it the only genre of music that is based off a culture of camaraderie and brotherhood? A lifestyle where you can go from rags to rap royalty. Has the culture that was built off of peace, love, unity, and having fun gone so corporate that having integrity drastically shrinks the pay check? I sincerely wonder what the other young kid from The Bronx brake dancing at the school thinks about this, because its 40 years later and Grand Master Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five period still matter very much to the past and future of Hip Hop.
Yaheard.Com offers this same platform to Grand Master Flash in regards to anything related to Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five. Melle Mel and Scorpio maintain that they are willing to meet with Grand Master Flash in any forum private or public.
Grand Master Melle Mel and The Furious Five’s “White Lines” was directed by then New York University film student Spike Lee
Grand Master Flash And The Furious Five “The Message” was voted the greatest Hip Hop song of all time and features lead vocals by Melle Mel