Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gloss Of The Ghetto: A Reflection Of 80's Rap, Crack & Hip Hop

In its early inception hip hop started off as a way to keep the party pumping which gave way to a forum for bragging and bravado.  Eventually it evolved into a genre of music representing a voice for underserved communities that were forced to suffer in silence. During its origin, hip hop didn't focus much on people's frustrations, pain or oppression but instead it offered a funky outlet for party themed music and fun.  However in the 1980's it took a drastic turn as a result of three major events: the Ronald Regan presidency, the Crack Epidemic, and “The Message.” This essay will take a deeper look at the song “The Message” and link issues that occurred during the 80’s to the lyrics that  made one of the greatest songs in hip hop history.

The Message

"The Message" is an old school hip hop song by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that Sugar Hill Records released as a single in 1982. The song was written and performed by Sugar Hill session musician Ed "Duke Bootee" Fletcher and Furious Five MC Melle Mel.” It was a song depicting all of the performer’s frustrations with underrepresent neighborhoods, but unlike other songs that of at the time and similar in content, this one received the most attention because of its strong emphasis on lyrics instead of the beat. In an era where the music was upbeat and coated with a party theme, “The Message” was a defiant rallying outcry that so many had been waiting for. With hard hitting lyrics that spoke about raw truth and painted the sad picture of their surroundings, the Furious Five exposed the crisis within their community that was overlooked and forgotten. But to understand the cultural significance of the song, you must first understand what was going on in 1982 when the song was released. Republican candidate Ronald Regan was President of the United States, the Crack Epidemic was beginning to take over the inner city streets thus giving way to gang violence, murder, and increasing the number of homeless, and, unlike the Civil Rights Movement, there really was no transcending person that could represent a group of people who clearly needed a voice.

The Effects of the Regan Era

“My brothers doing fast on my mother's TV. 
Says she watches to just not healthy
All my children in the daytime 
Dallas at night
Cant even see the game or the Sugar Ray fight 
Bill collectors they ring my phone 
And scare my wife when I'm not home 
Got a bum education 
Double-digit inflation 
Cant take the train to the job there’s a strike at the station 
Me on king kong standin on my back
Cant stop to turn around, broke my sacroiliac Midrange, migraine, cancered membrane 
Sometimes I think Im going insane, I swear I might Hijack a plane!”

Ronald Regan was President of the United States for eight years from 1981-1989 and during his reign he was known by many as the protector of business and special interest and the oppressor of the poor and minorities in America. While in office, he refused to publicly acknowledge the growing HIV and Aids Epidemic until 1985, lowered income taxes for the top money earners in the U.S. from 70% to 28%, increased the already overgrown Military budget, and cut nonmilitary budgets like Medicaid, food stamps, and educational grants, he wanted an America with less government control and more private prosperity, and because of this blacks and brown communities suffered mightily.  When Regan was president, the racial difference between incomes increased heavily; for example “In 1978 there was a 6.9 percent difference between black and white families with an income lower than 5000 a year, by 1985 that number had increased to 9.6 percent. It was also during the 80’s that nearly 1 out of every 3 blacks had an income that placed them comfortably under the poverty level. It was financial crisis like this for the black community that helped to spark the excessive criminal and gang activity that The Message spoke about.

With so little financial opportunity for blacks during this time, there were only a few options that one could attain, and in the song they are listed so graciously in the lyrics:

“You'll grow in the ghetto living' second-rate 
And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate
The places you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alleyway”. 

In the above lyrics Melle Mel paints a grim picture for what the lifestyle of a child growing up in a black family is, with such a bleak outlook and a negative environment he see’s that the main sources of motivation for most young black men and women turns into some of the worst options, this is expressed in the following excerpt.

“My son said, Daddy, I don't wanna go to school
Cause the teacher's a jerk, he must think I'm a fool And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper or dance to the beat, shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps”.

The Crack Era

“You'll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin' big cars, spendin' twenties and tens
And you'll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh”.

More than anything else, the Crack Epidemic 80’s hit Black communities the hardest in the 80's.  It was sold at prices as cheap as $2.50 for a gram and quickly became an infamous, more affordable and more addictive version of cocaine. Soon the star basketball player in the neighborhood could sell crack and triple his worth, giving off the perception of a street celebrity, and because it was so cheap and an easy high, people especially gateway users who sought a stronger high than marijuana, jumped at the chance to try it out which led to an increased number of addicts. The rise in drug trafficking and gang violence over turf pushed Regan to pass stricter drug laws which put more people in jail, but the crack epidemic had its biggest impact on children. “When the drug first hit the streets of New York in the 1980s, the city had 17,000 children in foster care. A decade later, that number had soared to 50,000.” Crack houses became something of a norm in inner city neighborhoods, with gang members and drug dealers now controlling these neighborhoods. With an environment as oppressive this it is clear where the motivation for this song comes from.

From these supporting factors it is clear that within “The Message” an artist was venting about the struggles in his community, but it would be wrong to ignore the factors that helped to influence the deterioration of these neighborhoods, nor would it be possible to make this song without these factors occurring. As stated earlier, “The Message” was not the first song to speak about the horrors occurring in Black neighborhoods all across America, but it definitely was one of the most influential and helped to start a new chapter in the young genre. It spurred other artist like “Public Enemy” and “NWA” who had their own way of confronting community issues, all which motivated by gang violence, unemployment, and drug addiction, became heightened during the Regan and Crack Era.

Just like hip hop, “The Message” started off with a beat, a simple beat, a few men chose to add relevant content onto the sweet melody, and in return produced one of the greatest songs of our time removing what had once been a musical Gloss of the Ghetto from Hip Hop.#

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