Kurt Loder’s review of this now-classic rap single, from Rolling Stone, Sept. 16, 1982. This was widely considered the first serious, “political” rap song, and influenced a generation…
This seven-minute single, the apotheosis of black rap music, is the most detailed and devastating report from underclass America since Bob Dylan decried the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll – or, perhaps more to the point, since Marvin Gaye took a long look around and wondered what was going on. With “The Message,” rap heroes Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five pick up the smoldering funk banner fumbled some years back by Sly Stone and wave it anew. Like all great artists, Flash and company disdain mundane political pieties–they issue no call to sack the cities, nor do they suggest hope in rallying ’round some glib politician. Devoid of partisan overtones, their straight-faced rundown of the current cultural environment must be immediately convincing to any urbanite–of any color–caught up in it: “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder/How I keep from goin’ under.”
This seductively syncopated plaint weaves in and out of a series of freshly startling images of life in the universal ghetto: crazy old women eating out of garbage cans; young girls, newly arrived in town, drifting toward pimps; families stunned nightly by TV soaps – a problem for the man of the house only in that he “can’t even see the game, or the Sugar Ray fight.” Everywhere there are “people pissin’ on the stairs/You know, they just don’t care.” And the future looks equally hopeless: young children, crippled by an inept educational system, and bored in schools where “all the kids smoke reefer,” look up to the street dudes “drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens.” Thus begins a brutal road that leads ultimately to prison, and death at an early age.
Overwhelmed by all of this, one singer says, “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.” Who cannot identify with that? Who, aside from the cozily ensconced political leaders who have maneuvered us all into this mess, could fail to get the message?