Melle Mel performs onstage during the 65th GRAMMY Awards at Crypto.com Arena on February 05, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Melle Mel Just Wants His Due
Melle Mel is a cornerstone of hip-hop and one of the first to fit what we now call a GOAT rapper. It’s up to him to decide whether that’s enough or not.
This article has been handpicked from the Okayplayer editorial archives and included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative. The article has been edited for context to ensure its accuracy and relevance.
On March 1,YouTube channel The Art of Dialogue released a series of interview clips with the old school rap pioneer Melle Mel. The interviewer, Mighty Bolton, asked Mel a series of questions aboutBillboard’s list of the 50 Best Rappers of All Time. His responses have circulated on social media ever since.
What did he think about Eminem, who landed at No. 5? “Eminem gets a top spot because he’s white,” he responded, adding that Eminem’s style was “gimmicky.” How about Nicki Minaj, who placed at No. 10, beating out Rakim at No. 13? “You know that’s some bullshit,” he retorted. “That’s blasphemy!” How about Kendrick Lamar, who landed at No. 2? “I don’t think you hear Kendrick Lamar in the club like that.” And as for Lil Wayne, who placed at number seven, he had this to say: “You don’t even know his real voice! … Was something wrong with his voice for them to put the Autotune on his voice?”
For longtime hip-hop fans, this is par for the course from a founder of the genre. Mel has dogged younger rappers for decades, from Run-DMC to Public Enemy. It was only last year when Melle Meltold VladTV he could “beat” Eminem in a battle, while Method Man revealed his own negative experience with the rap legend toYouTube host Math Hoffa. “Some of these people that you talking about fuckin’ love you, man. Don’t do that,” Method Man said with a hint of anguish in his voice.
Melle Mel’s Art of Dialogue comments about Eminem in particular generated protest from the likes of 50 Cent and Fat Joe. “And so as much as I love and worship Melle Mel, I think he’s wrong with this one,”Fat Joe said. (Needless to say, Eminem doesn’t need anyone’s defense. He’s the biggest selling rapper of all time and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year. He’ll be fine.)
Why Melle Mel’s opinion matters
So, why do people care about what Mel says now? Perhaps his comments went viral this month because of ongoing #HipHop50 celebrations. Or maybe it’s due to the Billboard list, which is merelythe latest listicle to foment social-media-fueled indignation and debate. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to some of these listicles myself.)
More positively, Mel’s music is more present in the Zeitgeist this year than it has been in decades. Coi Leray sampled the beat from “The Message,” his canonical 1982 hit as a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, for her top 20 hit “Players.” He, Flash, Scorpio, Raheim, and Barshon performed snippets of “Superappin’” and “The Message” at the Grammys this year during its widely acclaimed Hip-Hop 50th anniversary medley. Meanwhile, TV ads for horror-comedy Cocaine Bear used snippets of Grandmaster Flash and Mel’s 1983 single “White Lines (Don't Do It),” particularly Mel’s hook: “Higher baby…until you never come down!” This was then followed up by a “White Lines (Cocaine Bear Remix)” led by Pusha T.
In the Art of Dialogue videos, Mel compared himself to George Washington — and he’s not far off. Yes, Spoonie Gee, Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, Busy Bee, Kurtis Blow, and a handful of others were considered top rappers at the dawn of the studio era in the early 1980s. Even the late Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang, notorious for stealing Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics to make “Rapper’s Delight,” earned some praise for his boisterous and bombastic voice.
Having said that, Mel is arguably the first to fit the description of what we now call a GOAT rapper — someone that everyone around the world knows and accepts as the best in his field. Those other artists just didn’t have the same impact, whether because their influence was confined to the East Coast, fleeting Black radio airplay or, in the case of the underrated Kurtis Blow, misunderstanding over whether his style represented a disco fad or a new and innovative artform.
“The Message” and Melle Mel’s legacy
As Mel frequently mentioned in the interview clips, his legacy stands on “The Message,” the 1982 hit single that he says is “the first conscious record.” It’s a debatable claim. His closing verse, which famously begins with “A child is born with no state of mind/Blind to the ways of mankind,” is a slowed-down version of lyrics from his last verse on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s 1979 debut single, “Superappin’.” Other songs that dropped before “The Message” can also be described as “conscious,” notably Brother “D” with Collective Effort’s “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise,” and Kurtis Blow’s “Hard Times.” Even party songs like The Sequence’s “Simon Says” often included a few lyrics about Black positivity and self-respect.
Still, “The Message” had an impact that superseded all precedents. It topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll forthe best singles of 1982. It landed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on magazine covers across the U.S. and Europe — even though Grandmaster Flash and most of the Furious Five weren’t even on the record. The song was conceived by the late songwriter Duke Bootee (who raps alongside Mel) and produced by Clifton “Jiggs” Chase. Mel only wrote one verse, which essentially copied “Superappin’.” Nevertheless, it’s Mel’s plummy, authoritative performance and adlibs of “A huh-huh-huh!” that everyone remembers.
To use Chuck D’s metaphor on Mel, the late Wilt Chamberlain isn’t the first basketball star. Others came before him including MVPs Bob Cousy and Bob Petit. But he’s the first to remake the sport in his image, one dominated by athletic big men who could dunk, block shots, and score at will. Just like Mel, Chamberlain proved a haughty king who not only called the NBA a “bush league” at his mid-60s peak, butunfavorably compared later superstars like Michael Jordan to himself long after his career ended. It wasn’t enough for Chamberlain to watch subsequent generations build on his achievements with greater athleticism, higher wages, better business opportunities, and global attention. He needed to remind folks that he’s a cornerstone of the sport.
It’s easy to quibble with some of Mel’s cranky comments, like his somewhat sexist dismissal of JAY-Z’s wife Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (“If you can pull one of the top chicks in the game, that’ll do a lot for your status”) and an admission that he may not be fully aware of the likes of Kendrick Lamar (“I’m 90 years old, so…”). As an elder, perhaps Mel should be more generous and patient towards his children and grandchildren, whether they recognize him or not. However, sometimes our elders give us what we need instead of what we want.
“Me, if I’m on the panel, my criteria is an overall 360 MC,” he said. “You had to do the records, you had to do it on stage, you had to have the studio poise, you had to have the lyrical content.” Ultimately, this debate isn’t about whether Mel is ranked too low on Billboard’s listat number 48 (even though he is). It’s about honoring a generation of pioneers that never received their proper due for creating the most popular music genre of the 21st century, whether that’s financially or in terms of critical attention and respect.
What does respect look like in 2023? After Coi Leray’s “Players” became a hit,she met with Flash for dinner and paid tribute to the all-time great. It would be wrong to assume that anyone who wasn’t born in the 20th century doesn’t recognize Mel’s importance. It’s up to him — and not the millions who have enjoyed and built on his accomplishments — to decide whether that’s enough.
“I did not put out this statement and then the next day it goes away,”he asserted in his new podcast, Grandmaster Melle Mel’s Hip-Hop Corner. “On the contrary, I made the statement because I want to keep this thing going, because of the simple fact all of the guys that actually started hip-hop and had something to do with the birth of a genre that took over the whole world and all of the music in it, has no say so in what’s going on in the genre in which we started. This conversation needs to be had so that you can have the true amount of respect.”
Mosi Reeves is a journalist and critic based in Oakland, California. He has written about music and culture for Rolling Stone, KQED, The Wire, Pitchfork, CREEM, and Grammy.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mosreeves and at humthrush.com.
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