Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five – Sugar Hill Adventures: The Collection: Album Review

Sugar Hill Adventures impressively brings together the complete recorded output, for Sugar Hill Records, of hip-hop legends Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five.

Release date: 24th June 2022

Label: Robinsongs / Cherry Red Records

Format: 9 CD Box Set / 2LP

Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel &The Furious Five were pioneers of hip-hop, and this collection from Robinsongs/Cherry Red Records, brings together the albums, The Message, and Work Party (credited to Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five), with all their Sugar Hill singles, in full length, remixed, instrumental and edit versions. Over nine discs, their entire Sugar Hill Records output is covered, accompanied by a very informative booklet.

This reviewer first came across Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, in an incendiary live performance, of The Message, in 1983. It took place on The Tube, a music television programme that went out live on a Friday night. The mix of floor shaking beats, socially conscious rapping, and an immediate rapport with the live audience, was mesmerising. At one point in the performance Melle Mel asks the audience to put up peace signs if they believe in peace, which they do on mass, going on to rap “…peace on earth, that means no more wars”.  Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were in at the early development of hip-hop. They were a superb collective, made up of virtuoso DJ, Grandmaster Flash, MC Melle Mel, together with fellow rappers Keef Cowboy, Kidd Creole, Scorpio and Rahiem.

There is an excellent Netflix series, Hip-Hop Evolution, which in the first episode, The Foundation, explores the beginnings of hip-hop. What emerges from the documentary is the very important role Grandmaster Flash played, in developing techniques and sounds that enabled turntable decks to become an instrument in hip-hop music. Another key strand that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five pioneered in hip-hop, was the expression through rap of socially conscious words, that described and commented on inequality and oppression. Building of course on the heritage of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. 

The group were signed by Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records, and an artist in her own right. Sylvia Robinson has been acknowledged as key to the commercial evolution and success of hip-hop, releasing the era defining singles Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message.

Proceeding to the first Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five album, 1982’s The Message. The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel, on the album, was an early single for Sugar Hill Records, which showcases Grandmaster Flash’s precision edits, blending samples from many songs (including Blondie’s Rapture and Chic’s Good Times) and breakdowns, including the iconic bass line from Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. A breakdown involves isolating musical sections, where all the other instruments drop out, just leaving the drums or bass or both in combination. Melle Mel’s rap flows in and out of the mix, adding another musical layer.

The Message, the group’s iconic breakthrough single, is there of course, in all its seven minutes plus glory. The music is simply stunning, with the core instrumental trio on the album, of Doug Wimbish, bass, Keith Leblanc, drums, and Skip McDonald, guitar (from industrial hip-hop and funk band Tackhead) delivering some wonderfully agile and melodic deep funk rhythms. Melle Mel’s rap is edgy and poetical, as the social realism in the words detail the pressures of urban living resulting from inequality and oppression.

The album also provides a heady mix of musical styles. For example, It’s A Shame, samples the fantastic Motown records hit of the same name, by The Spinners, and has an electro feel, with a great combination of rap and soulful vocals. The following track, Dreamin’, is a lovely soul ballad tribute to Stevie Wonder, with some stunning slapping bass lines from Doug Wimbish. 

The signature single from 1983, White Lines (Don’t Do It), followed Grandmaster Flash’s departure from the group, and is heard to full effect on disc six in the Long Version. The beginning sequence of rumbling electronics and percussion, leads to the introduction of a towering bass line, that propels the song’s storytelling and anti-drug sentiment. It is an absolute dance classic, that had similar success to The Message internationally. The informative accompanying booklet notes that the song was built largely on the Liquid Liquid track Cavern.

White Lines (Don’t Do It), is a good way into illustrating the collection’s gathering together of full length, remixed, instrumental and edit versions, of some of the group’s key singles. On disc six, for example, there are no less than six versions of White Lines (Don’t Do It). Included are: Long Version; Bonus Version, Instrumental Mix; Short Version; US Street Mix; and an Alternative 7” Version, with a further six mixes/remixes on disc nine. You notice across the various versions and mixes a diverse range of musical and vocal arrangements. The Bonus Version, for example, has a sparser electronic driven ambience, with short electronically treated vocal extracts echoing through the mix. The Instrumental Version, in contrast, really allows musical elements like the sparkling percussion, growling guitar phrases, and the deep timbre of the bass lines, to fully shine through, and you hear the staccato brass parts with real clarity. 

The album, Work Party, followed in 1984, and was released under the name Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five. It is released in this box set for the first time on CD in the UK. On the album, alongside three additional mixes of White Lines, there are some great stand out tracks.  At The Party has a wonderful Isley Brothers type summer feel, with crackling bass and handclaps, and some sublime falsetto and harmony vocals. World War III has pronounced electro rhythms and interjecting keyboards, which provide a strong platform for Melle Mel’s critique of war and nuclear war, and the track also includes a sample of the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.

Can’t Keep Runnin’ Away, on the other hand, has a soul funk sound, with some cool horn arrangements, together with some winning guitar and piano embellishments. This is another fine album of varied musical styles.

With a box set of this size and completeness, it is impossible to do full justice in a single review to the depth and range of the music on offer. There is much to explore, and Alan Connor, who also provides an interesting history of the group in the accompanying booklet, has done an excellent job of comprehensively compiling across this box set, the group’s entire Sugar Hill Records catalogue. It showcases the group’s pioneering role in the development of hip-hop, alongside an evident appetite for musically wide-ranging tracks, that could effortlessly take in other musical genres. Well done also to Robinsongs/Cherry Red Records for releasing this great collection.

Here is the video of the group’s appearance on The Tube, described earlier:

Grandmaster Flash: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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