Grandmaster Flash: Criticizing capitalism and dismantling racial stereotype
'Hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity and community.'
Tricia Rose, Black Noise
Hip-hop culture surfaced in the late 1970s as a result of the cataclysmic deindustrialization of New York set to repress generations of African-Americans by disintegrating their urban culture. Grandmaster Flash (né Joseph Saddler) is the pioneer of hip-hop, he constructed political narratives through music to protest urban conditions and condemn the socio-political issues within the state of New York. Music is his precious vehicle of expression and serves as a platform to popularize black public opinion. The debate surrounding the connotations of hip-hop is delicate, Bakari Kitwana projects, ‘what good is rap music if it does nothing more than give young blacks the opportunity to “dance to our own degradation” and if it enriches only a few at the expense of the many?’ (Hip-hop Studies Reader). However, rap music is an art form that has the capacity to undertake the role as a catalyst for change by challenging the federal authorities and passing the mic to the African-American working-class urban community. Back in the eighties, Flash gave the young black generation hope for a restored future, encouraging these youngsters to pursue the political “messages” drawn out by their predecessors.
The rise of a neo-conservative discourse initiated in 1981 under the wing of Ronald Reagan, lead to a significant shift to the right in American public opinion, which generated enduring aggravated racial and gender discrimination. Reagan emphasized an increased transnational corporate control of the market and domestic economic health, and the power of finance over production, impacting urban employment structures. Industrial factories and blue-collar jobs were overwhelmed by the birth of service corporations, which restructured America’s labour force and intensified the deteriorating employment market for working-class urban communities. The Republican administration further eradicated federal funding for social services, widening the gap between classes and races and exacerbating post-industrial oppression. African-Americans living in cosmopolitan areas of New York were relocated to poorer districts such as the South Bronx, intensifying racial partitioning, Rose describes this relocation as ‘a brutal process of community destruction and relocation executed by municipal officials and under the direction of legendary planner Robert Moses’ (Black Noise). Under the guise of ‘urban renewal’, Moses imposed the Cross-Bronx Expressway, routing straight through the borough and requiring the demolition of 60,000 Bronx homes, once again demonstrating the premeditated neglect of the African-American minority. Seemingly, the post-industrial urban landscape of the 1980s represented a metropolis of racial and gender splits, ostracising and segregating the black working-class from American society.
Grandmaster Flash incorporates political narratives into his music to protest to urban social conditions surrounding African-Americans in New York. Flash dismantles racial stereotyping and publicizes the degradation of deindustrialization through his lyrics to criticize consumer capitalism corporate expansion and expose the racist opinions of federal hierarchies.
The Message is the debut album from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, composed of DJ Flash and five rappers, Cowboy, Melle Mel, The Kidd Creole, Scorpio and Raheim. Four songs from the album, ‘The Message’, ‘Message II (Survival)’, ‘It’s A Shame’ and ‘New York, New York’ particularly brandish the de-industrial social conditions, capital flight and re-segregation in the South Bronx. ‘It’s A Shame’ poses an immediate stance against establishment authority and capitalist greed through the lyrics and composition of the song. Lyrics such as ‘Greed! Why not share? Cause to share shows that you care for everybody’, expose the greed of bourgeois authority and publicly shames those in power. The beat is dislocated, which alludes to the ruptured and fragmented community of the South Bronx as a result of urban renewal, this is also accentuated by the staccato rhythm. The song is structured in a conversational manner contrasting to other genres of music and takes the form of call and response, which was popular in traditional African and Caribbean music such as Harry Belafonte’s ‘Day-O’ and inspired by musical traditions originating from the slave trade. This corresponds to Rose, ‘hip hop music relies on a variety of Afro-Caribbean and African-American musical forms in the face of a larger society that rarely recognizes the Afrodiasporic significance of such practices’ (Black Noise). By incorporating the traditional call and response technique, Flash is sounding his protest to corporation politics out through the ears of African-Americans as a collective and urging them to unite as a black nation.
‘The Message’ overtly highlights the living conditions of squalor and violence due to the government’s abandonment of poor African-American communities. This links to S. Craig Watkin’s statement that ‘The Message’ is ‘rap’s initial foray into social and political commentary. The song crafted a revealing window into the conditions of urban blight that were ravaging many of America’s biggest cities in the 1980s’ (Hip Hop Matters). The decaying neighbourhood is particularly projected through the lyrics, ‘broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know that they just don’t care’, ‘Got no money to move out, I guess I have no choice, rats in the front room, cockroaches in the back, Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat’ – Flash sounds out the degradation of the ‘jungle’ of the South Bronx and the war on drugs and violence that so catastrophically devastates young African-American lives. The violent themes on this record were a cry for change which were morosely misunderstood by white the American middle-class who associated the violence in hip hop music directly with black race. However, the government should have been held accountable for the devastating crime and violence, not the African-American community – Rose states, ‘these communities are more susceptible to slumlords, redevelopers, toxic waste dumps, drug rehabilitation centres, violent criminals, red-lining, and inadequate city services and transportation’ (Black Noise).
Flash draws the ear to issues of unemployment, ‘If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper’, low-brow and low-paid blue-collar jobs were the only opportunities scarcely available to men like Flash. At the end of the track, he emulates the inescapable vicious circle that awaits black youth:
‘Till one day you was found hung dead in your cell, It was plain to see that your life was lost, You was cold and your body swung back and forth But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song Of how you lived so fast and died so young.’
It is important to observe this poetic ending, Flash protests that if the government continue to segregate the African-American society from those benefitting from the capitalist action of the government, the discriminating conditions will linger to own black youth and unequivocally culminate in fatal endings for many black lives. The form of rap used by Flash shies away from a harmonious melody towards a powerful, emotive spoken word that can project to a nation in the arrangement of a political speech. Flash employs his iconic cut and mix technique to intricately weave his messages, he intertwines different electronic sounds generated from samples from multiple records on turntables. He incorporates techniques such as scratching, back-spinning and added break beats that contribute to the raw, gritty and dark texture of the album, thoroughly distinguished from the commercial and mainstream music comprising the industry.
Both ‘Message II (Survival)’ and ‘New York, New York’ draw on similar themes of corporate expansion and poverty. ‘Message II’ hammers the trial of survival in the African-American neighbourhood, ‘It’s called survival, only the strong can survive’ is repeated eighteen times, forming he chorus of the song. A poignant lyric, ‘God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too because only god knows what you’ll go through’, draws on the inevitability of a life of isolation subject to racial stereotype. On a more positive aspect, the upbeat tempo and funky beats behind the lyrics of both tracks urge the minority community to come together and dance as protest.
In the eighties, the hip-hop was ‘owned’ as an industry by white corporate conglomerates who exploited artists and their talent to benefit financially. Watkins agues, ‘despite the corporate takeover of hip hop, the movement’s die-hard troops have continued to maintain that hip hop still belongs to the people and communities that inspired its formation’ (Hip Hop Matters). The hip-hop movement is more than a ‘dance’ to black degradation, it serves as a platform for the black voice to insight and promote meaningful change within the bureaucratic and conformist society.
Frustratingly, the misconceptions around rap and hip-hop continue to pervade our modern society. The intricate skill and profound intellect channelled through hip-hop must be recognised outside of the industry. This art form is a component of history and integral to the continued (maddeningly still!) fight for racial equality and black empowerment across the globe. When reflecting on Grandmaster Flash, his role in society and global career half a century ago, it is saddening that much of what he was fighting for persists today.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Message, Sugar Hill Records (1982)
‘CALIFORNIA: Victory on Sugar Hill’, TIME Magazine, (17 December 1945)
Foreman, Murray, Neal, Mark Anthony, ed., That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge, 2004)
Rose, Tricia, Black Noise, (Wesleyan University Press, 1994)
Watkins, Craig S., Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement, (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2005)