Lady A.i. speaks to the legendary Melle Mel from Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five with added questions from our Nino (she was initially supposed to do the interview, but alas she was unable so yours truly stepped in). Interesting insights and opinions from one of the founding fathers of Hip-Hop. Not for the faint hearted or those with a mainstream lean.
A.i./Nino: You were the first to do conscious rap that charted… do you feel there’s still room for you to innovate?
Melle Mel: Yeah, I mean there’s nothing stopping me from writing and performing or just doing whatever I want to do. I mean, I don’t think the industry is on that wavelength, but that doesn’t stop you doing what you have to do to keep your talent where it’s supposed to be.
A.i.: Do you feel there are still issues for you to discuss or has it all been said? – Because you know between then and now we’ve had a lot of conscious artists come out like Mos Def, Talib, Common etc.
Melle Mel: Well there are still a lot of things to say; because as far as conscious rap goes, what I do and let’s say what Common does is almost like its two different things, my thing is very plain, there’s nothing esoteric about it. A lot of rappers will say conscious rhymes just to be esoteric. Conscious rap is what it is; it’s a message and you trying to put the word out there and the best way to put the word out there is to make it plain and simple, so it’s not like ‘what is this guy saying?!’
A.i.: So for you Common, Talib and the rest are esoteric?
Melle Mel: I would say for the most part yes. Because it’s not necessarily plain, the meaning behind what they’re saying is not in your face. Whereas ‘The Message’, ‘New York New York’ and ‘The Survival’, those things were in your face, it wasn’t like you had to read between the lines, it was what it was.
A.i.: Do you think there’s a place for that esoteric rap?
Melle Mel: As far as creativity goes there’s a place for all things, they’re just being creative so there’s nothing wrong with it.
A.i.: But I would have thought that if you’re trying to say something then just say it, if you’re trying to keep something hidden then go on ahead and do that. But I think some MC’s portray this image that they have a message, but yet it seems to be under this blanket of abstract / esoteric lyrics…
Melle Mel: Right, it’s like they’re trying to keep it hieroglyphics. But I guess that’s all good too, but you have to make it plain if you’re trying to get your point across.
A.i.: What’s changed in Hip-Hop? How have you / do you negotiate those changes?
Melle Mel: It’s industry, money and image driven and it’s not music driven anymore. All I’m trying to do is maintain the credibility of the music. To make people understand it’s about the music, that’s what Hip-Hop is.
A.i.: What’s the vibe Hip-Hop-wise back in your home city of New York?
Melle Mel: New York is dead as far Hip-Hop goes. New York is a bunch of LA wannabes it’s not like how New York had its own style; now it’s a bunch of guys walking round being Bloods wearing baggy t-shirts. That wasn’t the style of New York and it wasn’t the style of the East Coast period.
A.i./Nino: A lot of artists nowadays seem to be working towards money and record sales. Your fame came purely as a result of talent and underground circulation, with an appreciation and respect that required no MTV aid. What would you say defines success?
Melle Mel: It’s no comparison, as far as what people say, success is and as far as monetary gain and the kind of exposure that a lot cats get nowadays. If you could equate that as success and the price that Hip-Hop culture paid for them being that successful, it’s not worth being that. I tell people, when they try rate the worlds’ greatest MC’s, they try to put cats from our era in a category with cats from other eras, but you can’t really match it… it’s like the real and the unreal. For the most part nowadays you can manufacture somebody’s fame and their resume and they don’t have to have an ounce of talent. Back in the day you at least had to know how to rap and at least had to have some credibility. Now a guy can make one record and in six months make ten times more than I made in my whole career. And that makes him what? Does that make him somebody? Or is he just a nothing dressed up to look like he’s somebody? It is what it is.
A.i.: So are you suggesting a return to the days when you had to earn and pay your dues on the street?
Melle Mel: No, I like it just the way it is. Because you can’t go back to that; first, the street ain’t there no more and second the street ain’t the same. The main thing is at the end of the day, the people left standing, God willing, is gonna be those that are willing and able to further Hip-Hop. Not those that’s just making money and don’t care about the culture and most likely it’s gonna be one of us.
A.i./Nino: The younger heads seem to be holding down the scene at the moment. Do you think this generation’s youth have the potential to do something positive, influential and long lasting in the future of hip-hop?
Melle Mel: Everybody has potential all you have to do is have somebody. One of the knocks that people have against Hip-Hop is legitimate, it is too violent and it’s nowhere near positive. So it’s not like you have to be 100% positive, but you should have some positive elements… these young cats don’t try to help no one do anything… they’re making money, driving a nice car, got bodyguards and for what? And everybody that sees them that has half a head on their shoulders knows he just a big nobody anyway. So you fronting for people that don’t know any better and anyone that does know any better know he’s a bum!
A.i./Nino: As you pointed out one of the main criticisms against mainstream Hip-Hop is the violence and gun culture that seems to be portrayed as a hand in hand part of it. Do you think violence and the battle mindset can be utilized through the art in a positive form or do you think violence needs to become detached from hip hop completely?
Melle Mel: Balance is needed… there was always violence in Hip-Hop, it’s just the violence wasn’t portrayed by the person who was telling the story and it was never promoted by the person who was telling the story.
We all grew up in the ghetto and the ghetto was violent, but what we promoted was the party element of growing up in the ghetto and then later songs like ‘The Message’ came out and it was like a social or uprising element… whereas now 90% of Hip-Hop is talking about selling drugs and shooting people. That takes away the balance, because it’s supposed to be good and bad balanced; not 90% bad and 10% good and then the guys who is speaking that 10% good is speaking in hieroglyphics!… what sense does that make?
In the ghetto you had a choice you can be the bad guy and sell dope or go and do the music thing and make money. Now there is no choice… the music is in itself violent and it is selling dope!
Back then, Zulu Nation was the street gang, me and Kurtis Blow used to be in the street gang and we went from that into Hip-Hop. These young cats twisted it around and use Hip-Hop to further a gang mentality, which makes no sense for the music and for society.
A.i./Nino: Another big criticism is the disrespect of women in hip hop by a lot of mainstream artists. Does it bother you that many of the artists going under the same society assigned ‘label’ as yourself quite openly treat women as disposable objects?
Melle Mel: It doesn’t surprise me that these young cats do what they do, what surprises me is that the young girls make themselves so disposable. There’s a wide margin as far as the number of women compared to the number of men, if women thought so much of that problem it wouldn’t be a problem.
A.i.: True, but there are more women that think in that disposable way than conscious women, maybe due in part to media, conditioning, upbringing…
Melle Mel: Right and that’s what surprises me, if you look at the whole history of rap and especially the history of female rap with the exception of maybe Queen Latifah, there’s hasn’t been one woman who has based her career on speaking on women’s issues and I believe if there was just one, that would probably be the most popular rapper there is in the whole world! Right now if there’s anyone that needs that, it’s definitely women.
But instead like in New York Lil’ Kim is some kind of Goddess… and Lil’ Kim to me is the scum of the earth, simply because it’s one thing for a guy that never shot nobody or sold dope to fake like they do and that’s harmful in itself. But it’s a whole other thing for a woman who isn’t really a freak and who don’t get down like that who then portrays herself like a freak and makes it popular for other women to portray themselves like freaks.
A.i.: True, because then they go out there and become the freak.
Melle Mel: Exactly and when a woman does that, there’s no way she can pull back from that. When you program your mind / body to do something you can’t just stop like that, you continue the process. A lot of them make themselves disposable. A lot of the girls in the USA have a strippers mentality, all they do is wait for some guy to come around and give them money, guys that don’t even care about them, that talk about them like they’re dirt they look for these same guys to be their company and so it leaves them nowhere.
A.i.: Is the world really ready for that kind of female MC you speak of?
Melle Mel: It all depends on the way you go about putting it out there, and also who you are.
When we did ‘The Message’, nobody thought it would be a good record even me; only Sylvia thought it would be good, but the way the public took to the record, it was like we were saying what people wanted to say all these years.
So the key as far as women are concerned is: what do women in the ghettos have on their mind that needs to be said that no one has said yet?
If you can express that and live it out (and living it out is key, you can’t just be any girl you have to be ‘that’ girl… otherwise it’s like being a conscious rapper and only dating white girls… it would work, but at the end of the day you would be exposed).
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 was just a group that mirrored what ‘The Message’ was about. So if you can be the female that can mirror that message then you’ll be the champion of women’s issues.
A.i./Nino: As far as your more recent releases go you still seem keen to learn and develop and don’t want to hide in the ‘old school’ mindset. Are there any things you would suggest 21st Century Hip-Hop has down that the old school didn’t? On the same note, are there any elements of old school Hip-Hop that modern artists would do well to hold on to?
Melle Mel: The only thing I think they could learn is, you have, to a certain extent to stay true to the culture.
The culture of Hip-Hop has done so much to save lives and move people forward to come together as people, black people, white people, all people.
When the majority of people buying your record is white, it’s not cause your music is the greatest, it’s because something happened 25-30 years ago that set a spark that made it so that white people looked from the suburbs into the ghetto and found something so interesting, to the point that nowadays you have white people wanting to live exactly like black people, even having a white person wanting to call themselves a nigger, with pride!
A.i.: How do you deal with labels now that was different then?
Melle Mel: The difference is you don’t have to deal with them, the way the labels are set-up and with how the internet has changed what the industry means, you don’t need a record company; you can be the record company. The last couple albums I did we put them out ourselves, it’s not like they were highly successful, but we did put them out ourselves, so you don’t need the record company, you just need the money to get them out there, I think when you get to the point where you know more than the record company knows then you should be putting your own stuff out.
A.i.: Do you have any advice for those about to sign on the dotted line?
Melle Mel: Make sure you get someone to look over the contract, the business is right and make sure the company is good enough to promote your product in the way you think it should be promoted.
A.i.: What prompted you to get back onstage?
Melle Mel: We were always doing little shows. Kurtis came with the idea of putting the whole thing together with the Sugarhill Gang and doing the Big Three. I thought it was a good idea to take Hip-Hop in a more mature direction. Not corny, but mature, getting shows that the whole family can go to.
A.i.: What do you look for from other MCs live performances?
Melle Mel: There’s no rule book, but just get out there, put a good enough effort to entertain the crowd and be an MC. Bring the party and make it interactive… you have to project into the crowd so they project back.
A.i.: So bringing that block party element…
Melle Mel: Yeah, you gotta make people think that whatever you’re doing is what they’re doing, you gotta make them feel like it’s theirs, their time and their music. Because you gonna do it a thousand and one times and they’re probably gonna do it like five times in their lifetime if they’re lucky.
A.i./Nino: Do you find that the pressure to be a responsible role model takes some of the fun, experimentation and freedom out of your art?
Melle Mel: No not at all. There are certain things I wouldn’t say anyway. Having a good time is never gonna go out of style and in terms of writing about the streets you can write about the streets with the same intensity that these young cats write with, but just don’t make it negative. Like, if you telling a story and there’s profanity as part of that story then there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re just using profanity to glorify something that’s not even reality, then there’s something wrong with that.
So, for me, there’s no pressure in being who I am in 2008. All the formula and mechanics I need to do what I have to do, I have that and it’s easy to put it out there; the hard part is getting the money to move the industry in the direction where they understand that there’s a place for what is about to happen.
A.i.: Why do you think Hip-Hop had such a huge effect on society, politics and every other genre of music?
Melle Mel: It has solid raw beats that come from other forms of music and then the vocal part of it is like some guy just talking to you. So, unlike with singing where if someone sang to you, you might not like the song, but if you’re talking to someone, you don’t like or dislike it, you just have to understand it.
A.i./Nino: Do you ever wonder what your life and the rest of the world would be like, without Hip-Hop? Like, if Sugar hill Gang had never released ‘Rappers Delight’ and Graf never became chic, or ‘Style Wars’ and ‘Wild Style’ had never hit the screens…?
Melle Mel: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I would have been dead or in jail.
A.i.: Where would you like to see Hip-Hop in 20 years?
Melle Mel: That it will level out and be more balanced. I’d like to see ‘that’ female MC that we were talking about. I can’t see a man doing that, because young men are ego driven and machoistic [sic]. I’d like to see Hip-Hop as not a male dominated thing and that it would deal with more women’s and family issues.
A.i.: I'm trying to imagine in 40 years what it'll be like, whether it'll be like a Motown reunion, but with Hip-Hop artists instead, you know like old school Hip-Hop performances in casino’s in Vegas…
Melle Mel: Yeah that could be a possibility.
A.i.: Who influenced you and your work coming up?
Melle Mel: James Brown, Sly Stone, Last Poets, and the streets – it dictates a lot of what’s going on.
A.i.: As far as Hip-Hop music videos go. Do you prefer the older ones? Are there any recent ones you can name that you really enjoyed and think gave Hip-Hop a just representation?
Melle Mel: I was never big on watching videos and as far as MTV I never did or do watch it and probably never will. When they started making videos, for me it was another way of taking Hip-Hop out of the hands of the people who created it and into the hands of people who just wanted to mould it into what it is today.
A.i.: Are you into any UK Hip-Hop acts? Do you know a lot about the scene over here?
Melle Mel: Not really.
A.i.: What can we expect from you this year?
Melle Mel: The ultimate plan is for the tour to be a yearly vehicle for true Hip-Hop to expand, and for us to do all of the things we couldn’t do back in the day. Hopefully from September / October we’ll also do a run of the ‘No Profanity’ tour.
A.i.: Will there be an age limit at these gigs on the tour?
Melle Mel: No, it’s all about the family; the youngest can come and have fun too.
A.i.: What have you got planned after this tour is over?
Melle Mel: Get back in the gym and rest before the next tour.