Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five - Sugarhill Adventures: The Collection (Cherry Red)

Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five – Sugarhill Adventures: The Collection (Cherry Red)

In the late ’70s and while punk rock was reeling its burgeoning scene, across the tracks the roots of hip-hop were peeping out from beneath the sheets. Grandmaster Flash was one of those faces within the scene, who, along with his Furious Five was performing at parties and live shows and making quite a stir with it. This led to Sugarhill Records signing the group in 1980. Four decades on and although the original five are no longer performing together, you will have your chance at reliving those halcyon days, as Cherry Red have compiled what they have called the Sugarhill Adventures across a series of 9 CDs.

Not just a Best Of collection, the first of these discs includes The Message, released for the first time on CD. This album starts with ‘She’s Fresh’, released in 1982, it features samples of early ’70s tunes from The Jimmy Castor Bunch‘s ‘It’s Just Begun’ and Boobie Knight & the Universal Lady‘sThe Lovomanics’, tunes which embrace a heavy dose of funk, and a brass section that would put a shine on the dullest of surfaces. Here Grandmaster and his Furious Five bring elements of these tunes into the 80s, utilising their brand of street-talk, synthesisers, and beats to create a tune you might be hard-pressed to pick apart the elements of the original. As some of the content here sounds dated, the heavy bass line speaks of a time earlier than its release.

Next, we have a tune that, unlike the previous number, has the original artist running through it as Southend-on-Sea might through a stick of rock. The main hook from Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love’ is used on ‘It’s Nasty…’, with words over the top used to great effect. The sample becomes the sampled, with artists the likes of Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Nightmares On Wax, among those who’ve made use of elements from the number. Another steadfast classic is next, as ‘Scorpio’ emerges. This number makes use of the Vocoder (or similar) to produce a synthesised tone when the vocalist sings. A technique that had first appeared in 1939 during New York’s World Fair and had been used by Kraftwerk and even in the ’90s within Friends, during ‘The One Where Chandler Crosses The Line’. Grandmaster had continued its use in the genre of Hip hop, which did nothing but encourage the use of the technique. ’Scorpio’ uses this to its foremost, almost eclipsing the other instrumentation, but really works, given this was 1981. After a couple of tracks that pay homage to influencers, although adding the method of scratching and cutting between tracks, used most effectively within this genre, track 7 released in ’82 really gets this party started.

The Message’ was a number that hit the spot and which I recall affectionately. With its squelchy synthesisers and MCs storytelling, of life from the perspective of those struggling to survive “…don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head…”, life on social security in America and an impact that still rings true today. A number sampled over 300 times and its loop imprinted on the minds of many. From here the party continues as ’81s ‘The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’ begins. This track lives, breathing the life of  …a live DJ mix of Flash scratching and mixing records from various groups using three turntables”, including among other samples, Blondie’s ’Rapture’. It’s almost as if this is a bootleg recording, taken from a live party, and for 1981, is like a time capsule. It culminates with a further 3 mixes of ‘The Message’ including a 7-minute plus version, finalising the first disc with a 7 Inch Mix of ‘Scorpio’.

Disc 2, features the album Work Party, another first for CD. It starts off with ‘Hustlers Convention’  which as the MC says, “is dedicated to Kool Herc”. The storytelling is colourful. Closing my eyes allows me into the circle of exactly what was being played here. A street hustler bidding to take the shirts off the back of his willing participants. A number torn from 1984, it contains a musical accompaniment ripe with late 70’s Blaxploitation & hard hip-hop beats.

The next number, ‘Yesterday’ speaks of how diverse these musicians are, although bearing NO resemblance to the Lennon & McCartney number. This time it sounds anywhere like a host of 70’s black artists, singing love songs behind a piano. The particular number reeks of a time, end of the concert, where an audience holds aloft their lighters, or today, their mobile phones. Not the most inspirational tune, but shows just how wide their palate is. ‘At The Party’ follows and, like its predecessor, might not be the hottest tip in town. Headed by the late MC Keith Cowboy, an MC associated with having first coined the term Hip-hop. This number is a smooth funked-up tune that, as its name suggests, is based at the party. The MC soon dips out, making way for the vocals, falsetto, and harmonies, in fact, a range of vocal styles, nice, but again not the most inspirational number.

Next, and this is where the party really gets started, on this disc at least, is ‘White Lines’ or at least the U.K. Mastermix. This is a tune that has truly made it into the public psyche, sampled 64 times and in the proceeding years even covered by Duran Duran among others. Using samples themselves, this is a modern-day classic even inspiring the Netflix thriller of the same name. The track is a cautionary tale explained in the lines “Little Jack Horner, sitting on the corner with no shoes and clothes. This ain’t funny, but he took his money and sniffed it up his nose”. Using one of the greatest bass lines of all time, this number has stood the test of time.

Next is ‘We Don’t Work For Free’ and is a subject I will pick up later on, ‘The Truth’ follows this and includes the line; “…I’m the legend in leather, the lord of the rhyme and if you can’t see that you must be blind. I always wear black and I always will, ‘cos I’m dressing for your funeral…”.  Apt that the following track is ‘World War III’, a 7” I remember buying from Woolworth, at a time when relations between the US and USSR couldn’t have been frostier. It begins with the lyric “Life is a game of business and in the end, we sight (pray to god)…”, under which a heavy bass line and beats run. This most alarming vision is amplified as the lyric “…1,000 miles away from home, a mortally wounded soldier dies and on the bloodstained battlefield, his life flashes before his eyes. Before he died the man saw Jesus and Jesus Christ took his hand and on the soldier’s dying breath, the good Lord took him into the promised land…”, elevating this feeling of paranoia. As I see it, this is not just another anti-war song, but is possibly the most honest telling of exactly what war post-1944 was likely to be. The line I took with me is “…war is a game of business, a game we shouldn’t play…”, but sadly it’s not me you have to persuade, and seems that some have learned little. Oddly, the musical direction changes, as seems to have been the case throughout earlier sections of this set and the playlist is back wearing flares and wide collars, as the soundstage is suppressed and edges appear fuzzy. The chorus “You can’t keep running away…”, possesses the aura of a late 70s/early 80s club, the MC talking through a deep highball, not their best moment, but certainly a learning curve.

The New Adventures Of Grandmaster’ follows and I guess is another episode in ‘the Adventures of’ series, but rather than a bootleg recording taken on the street and feeling so, this breathes the stale air of a studio, overused and in need of a shot or three of Air-wick. Now we indulge in the first of a swathe of remixed versions of ‘White Lines’, concluding this disc with an edited version of Ben Liebrand’s. Having been aware of this Dutch producer for some time, the fact that this is only the edit leaves me salivating for the full mix, but maybe later on in this collection.

Over the remaining 7 discs, the box set’s compilers have a greater offering of the artists’ remixes, almost 7 and a half hours worth. Some of these tunes haven’t necessarily been featured in the earlier part of the collection, so first up is ‘Superrappin’’. This was their first tune, released in 1979 and prior to securing a deal with Sugarhill Records. Unlike a few of the earlier recorded tracks, this still sounds fresh, I particularly like the nature the vocal takes, not just harmonising, but each of the five MCs taking turns to offer their vocal. Featured are versions of ‘Superrappin’’ and a number I always thought Wham was the first to record ‘Freedom’. Here not just the full 8’18” version is offered, but its instrumental, as well as the 7” version, both with interesting use of the kazoo! ‘The Birthday Party’ wasn’t just the band Nick Cave performed with, but Grandmaster had the same idea, releasing a track of the same name in 1981. Similar in tone to the previously released ‘Freedom’ and again sampled by several artists, ‘Real Hip Hop…’ by Jazzy Jeff among those.

The following disc features 4 mixes of ‘It’s Nasty’ (Genius Of Love)’ , as well as 2 parts of ‘The Adventures of…’, a very nearly 11-minute version of ‘Flash To The Beat (Parts 1 & 2)’, along with a cut-down version, first released in 1982. This was a number that went back to Flash and the Furious Five’s earlier method of live street recording, especially worthwhile for the bassline offered. ‘Showdown (With The Sugarhill Gang)’ wraps up this fourth disc. Versions galore of ‘Message II (Survival)’ begin disc 5, a number I think you would probably refer to as a continuation of the original ‘Message’. This version of the original bears a less memorable bass line, albeit with a stronger story within its vocal. ‘New York, New York’ is a more streetwise take on the city than was depicted by Frank Sinatra and features 4 versions.  An almost 8’ 12” mix. 3 versions of ‘Jesse’ conclude this disc, a bass-heavy journey into funk and electioneering for Democrat Jesse Jackson when he went up against Ronald Reagan in the ’84 Presidential elections. With a similar message to D’Ream’s 1987’s ‘Thing’s Can Only Get Better’, this number goes further, offering the chant “Vote, Vote…Everybody get out and Vote…” and talking on behalf of America’s divided society. Electronic instrumentation plays on the front line with a heavy bass line driving the track. This is certainly a moment in time, even if Reagan went on to hold his Presidency.

Mention this band to most and the number that will still come to mind, even 40 years on is ‘White Lines’ and this set does not disappoint. Disc six serves 6 versions, the 7’39” leads the pack. With its riding bass line, lyrics “…get higher baby, higher baby and don’t ever come down…”, with a fiction I’m unlikely to experience, is a wonderful trip, if you’ll excuse the pun. Christmas 1984, saw me receive the 12” to Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel For You’ & disc 7 sees Melle Mel use the “…Chak, chak, chak, Chaka Khan…” sample within his remix (part 1) to ’Step Off’ a tune where early use of the sample is demonstrated as Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ is used to great effect as the number proceeds. The use of rap is beautifully displayed here and is not done to intimidate, but like Shakespeare, it trips off the tongue as well as any of the author’s works. ‘We Don’t Work For Free’ leads disc 8 and a number which demonstrates how this form of music was seen in the late 70s. Apparently “Until he was approached by promoter Raymond Chandler, Flash performed in the style of the times, for free”, Chandler saw the artist’s commercial viability, “with Flash agreeing that Chandler promote him and charging entrance fees, although Flash could not believe anyone would pay to see him spin records”, how times have changed.

The disc continues “Three, two, one… World, war, three…” as a number very apt in today’s social climate comes into view, but unlike the number heard on the album Work Party, this sees both the 7”, headed by the long version, certainly worth a spin, over 8 minutes of “…totally destructive, radioactive, death in flames…”, all this gloriously described as “Reagan-omics”. At the time this music was at its height, another great televisual treat of the time was Miami Vice, starring Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson in the lead roles. Like The Damned’s ’In Dulce Decorum’, which saw its inclusion in the program boost the band’s standing, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five had‘Vice’ included in the show and with the colourful presentation alongside, this number fitted like a glove, especially Busy Bee’s name check at the beginning of the number. The track has a powerful drive, led by guitar and the vocal “Vice”, before the lyrical description is brought in. From The Bronx to Miami, name-checked in the song, 1,100 miles had been travelled in the blink of an eye. From the first series of the show, although I remember a single being released for this number, I cannot find any chart placing details.

The final disc offers 4 versions of ‘The Message’, including DJ Richie Rich’s 6’23” laid back remix, which stood in contrast to Cutting Edge’s Old School Mix, which at a shade over 9 minutes took a Roman Olympics theme, to start its progress. Although it has to be said that the ‘Unititled’s Nothin’ Touchin’ The Original Mix‘, with its faster paced presentation, at just under 9 minutes takes the crown in this instance.

To wrap up this boxed set, for me it’s the ‘Ben Liebrand Remix’ that really sets the pace. I’d talked about his edited remix on ‘Work Party’ and I had to wait until the final track before I was allowed a peek into the full version. At 6’43 I was surprised to see that this wasn’t the fullest version, as at 8’08” the ‘(Back From The Dead Remix)’ certainly holds its own, with the easy-to-interpret “you wanna cop some blow” the first words you hear. Perhaps slightly more acid in its interpretation than Liebrand’s telling, but I think I’m going to remain true to the Dutch producer’s telling.

This set is like a rabbit hole, down which you might find other audible treasures to investigate. From this process, I found German DJ DJ Tomekk, who has worked with not only Grand Master Flash but also Flavor Flav among other artists. This is a rabbit hole I’m quite happy to inhabit thanks to these Sugarhill Adventures.

Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five - Sugarhill Adventures: The Collection (Cherry Red)
Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and The Furious Five – Sugarhill Adventures: The Collection (Cherry Red)

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.