Yesterday, the 350 Jersey Songs looked at the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop megahit single.
But you can’t really talk about the legacy of the Englewood-based Sugar Hill Records label without also mentioning “The Message,” which came out a few years after “Rapper’s Delight,” and had just as much of an impact.
“Rapper’s Delight” proved that there was a huge market for hip-hop, but “The Message” showed that hip-hop didn’t have to be just lightweight entertainment. No one had ever attempted a hip-hop song like this before, one that looked at the worst aspects of modern urban life without flinching (“I can’t walk through the park, ’cause it’s crazy after dark,” “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder/How I keep from going under”). The tone wasn’t preachy, or bitter: Group members were simply telling you about their lives.
The group was from New York, but it took took Sugar Hill co-owner Sylvia Robinson of Englewood, a former hit-maker herself (“Pillow Talk,” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”), to make them see that “The Message” was worth recording.
“We didn’t want to do it,” Furious Five member Melle Mel told me in 1997, for a Star-Ledger feature on the label. “Our thing was party tracks and stuff like that. But Mrs. Robinson wanted us to do it.”
Later hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy and NWA, of course, built their careers on grittily realistic, uncompromising hip-hop. But Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five did it first.
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.