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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Rapper Melle Mel

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

MOSLEY: "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is considered one of the most influential rap records and is one of the first that offered social commentary on inner-city poverty. The song was written by producer Duke Bootee, but Melle Mel rapping made it a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under. Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs - you know they just don't care. I can't take the smell, can't take the noise, got no money to move out. I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat - I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far 'cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car. Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head. (Vocalizing). It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under. Standing on the front stoop…

MOSLEY: When Melle Mel recorded that rap, it was a departure from typical rap records. And he wasn't that enthusiastic about recording it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MELLE MEL: Our group, like, Flash and the Furious Five - we didn't actually want to do "The Message" because we was used to doing party raps, you know, and, like, boasting about how good we are and all that. And when the record company brought the record to us to do, we didn't actually want to do it. And I was the only one that, like - I just caved in. I said, listen. If this is the record we're going to do, then I'll just do it. And it's no big thing. But I didn't think that it would be - I didn't think that it would be pivotal either way, you know, like on a good or bad end. I just thought it was going to be just another record that we had did.

TERRY GROSS: So did you ever try "The Message" at parties before you went into the recording studio, or would that have been all wrong?

MEL: No, we never tried it. And as a matter of fact, I was shocked, because we used to hang out in a club called Disco Fever up in the Bronx, right? And then they took the record, you know, they was testing it. Like, they tested it down on a record shop on 125th Street, you know, just putting it - you know, just letting it play and people outside, you know, listening to it. And then they tested it in the club where we hung out at, and the people really liked it.

And that was coming right behind "Planet Rock," which was a big, big record back then. And when they played "The Message" in the club and the people liked it, I was kind of shocked because I didn't think that, you know, coming from "Planet Rock" to, you know, a serious record like "The Message," I didn't think that - I thought it would be like a lapse in, you know, the level of the crowd, the intensity of the crowd, but it wasn't. So yeah, right then I knew that the record was going to be more than what I thought it was going to be.

GROSS: Can I ask you how you started rapping?

MEL: Well, we started going to parties. There used to be, like, little, like, maybe a dollar party, $2 parties. And they had a DJ called Kool Herc. Well, it was all DJs, but they rapped. They didn't actually rap in rhythm, but they used to say little phrases. You know, Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim and Clark Kent, that was the guys' names. And they was the big DJs. They was, like, the big DJs back then, and we used to go to their parties. And I just started rapping just trying to emulate them, you know, to be like them, because they was, like, more or less, our heroes back then.

GROSS: What were some of the kinds of rhymes they were using?

MEL: They wouldn't use rhymes. It was like - if you could imagine, it would be, like, a dark room or a gym. And it's, like, smoky because everybody was smoking everything from cigarettes to whatever, you know. And they'd be playing the music. And then it'd all be echo chamber, so they'd be like, rock, rock, rock, rock, freak, freak, freak, you know? It just...

GROSS: Right.

MEL: It was like - more or less like kind of psychedelic kind of thing because everything they said, it was echoes, you know? And this is why they call me the show machine shock, y'all, y'all, y'all, y'all, you know? It was, like, all this echoing. And you walk in there, you'd be, like, dumbfounded because it's like you just stepped into another world, you know what I mean? And there's all these dark figures around and smoke and, you know, it was, like, awesome. You know, for us, it was like a rush, you know, just stepping into these parties.

GROSS: So what were the early rhymes you were doing?

MEL: We was doing like, you know, (rapping) I'm Melle Mel, and I rock so well from the top of the world to the depths of hell. This is my first rhyme. I rock with the best with the most finesse. I'm taking the top and leaving what's left.

Like, real simple stuff, you know, just boasting rhymes, you know, nothing real heavy or nothing like that or nothing real technical because there was no technique. We was just going by our own thing.

GROSS: How did you come up with your name, Melle Mel?

MEL: Flash gave me that name because that was - my name was just Melvin, so I don't think that would be, like, a cool name...

GROSS: Right (laughter).

MEL: ...Like, you know, MC Melvin.

(LAUGHTER)

MEL: So Flash - you know, he started calling me Melle Mel, and it stuck.

GROSS: Where were the parties held?

MEL: In gyms, and not too many halls. We did, basically, the first halls. But it was, like, in gyms and, like, little social club-type things. I think Herc - the Hevalo, that was, I guess, was a club. I never was there. But he used to play in the PAL, and that was, like, a gym. You know, little halls, you know, nothing big or extravagant. But it was, like, you know, nice, little, small, dark joints, you know, real comfortable, sweaty, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter) Was there often trouble at the parties?

MEL: Yeah, but, like, the trouble at the parties was like - it was set up like, it was nothing going on in the party itself, right? But all the guys that, like, did stick-ups and stuff like that, they'd be in the bathroom. So when you went to the bathroom, if you didn't know these guys, then they'd rob you. So that - it wasn't like how it is now, like, guys would actually be in the party itself and shoot up the party. Or maybe they'd come outside and shoot up the party. If you got shot, you might get shot in the bathroom, you know? That was, like, the only spot that you'd have to be wary of, basically. And then you did have your isolated instances, you know, something happening outside. But it would never happen in the party, so to speak. It'd always be, like, away from the party.

GROSS: So would you go to the bathroom? Did you know enough people that it was safe for you to go (laughter)?

MEL: Oh, no, I knew everybody. I knew everybody, so it was definitely safe. I knew, you know, because before I was rapping, I used to be a dancer. So you know, I just met, like, all of the stick-up guys, all the dope-dealing guys. I knew them all. Or if I didn't know them, I was familiar with them. So you know, if it's a familiar face, they might let you come and go, you know? And I wasn't no sharp dresser. I didn't have no jewelry or nothing like that or no clean sneakers or, you know, something that, you know, they would want to take. So you know, I was always safe.

MOSLEY: That's rapper Melle Mel speaking with Terry in 1992. And we should note that he was arrested in June and charged with felony domestic violence. He denies wrongdoing, and a trial is pending. More on the conversation with Melle Mel after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z AND BEYONCE SONG, "'03 BONNIE AND CLYDE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1992 interview with rapper Melle Mel.

GROSS: Another great record that you made was "White Lines," which is a kind of anti-cocaine record.

MEL: Right.

GROSS: You know, "White Lines (Don't Do It)."

MEL: Right.

GROSS: So here you were actually doing drugs while you were making the rap.

MEL: Right. And now, see - the whole thing with "White Lines" is I didn't want to try to make an anti-cocaine song or a song that glorified cocaine. I just wanted to make a song about cocaine. And that was a hit song because the music that we used - it wasn't original music. We used it - you know, it was, like, a club song, Liquid Liquid. That was the name of the song. And, you know, I used to be in the club. And it's like, if you ever hear a song and sing your own words to it, in other words. And they were saying something in their record, and every time I would hear it, I would just say (singing) white lines, you know? And I was like, you know, it could be a good idea to make a song.

And that was all a part of the scene anyway, you know, the club scene back then. It was like - cocaine then - it wasn't like how it is now. It was more fashionable. You know what I mean? It was fashionable to have it. And I started out not even - you know, I didn't use cocaine. I should just have it because it was fashionable just to have it. You come in a club. You know, everybody know you got blow. Girls know you got coke. And, you know, it's just - you just - it was in the euphoria of that, just having it. And people that know you have it, and they treat you better. And that's - all that accumulated to me writing in that song, you know, because that's the lifestyle that I was in. I wasn't around nobody that didn't use drugs. And, you know, that was the lifestyle I was in. So the song was - for that time, it was like the perfect song to write. For that music and that time, it was the perfect song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE LINES (DON'T DO IT)")

MEL: (Rapping) Ticket to ride, white line highway. Tell all your friends they can go my way. Pay your toll. Sell your soul. Pound for pound cost more than gold. The longer you stay, the more you pay. My white lines go a long way. Either up your nose or through your vein with nothing to gain except killing your brain. Freeze. Rock. Freeze. Rock. Freeze. Rock. Freeze. Rock. Blow. Higher, baby. Get higher, baby. Get higher, baby. And don't ever come down. Freebase.

GROSS: How did you come up with the idea of using the higher, higher?

MEL: That was just something that came naturally with the song, with the twist and shout thing. It just came naturally. That was like, you know, me piecing it together in my mind after the verse. And it's, ah, higher, baby. Ah, higher, you know? And it just all - it all fell together. It was something real natural. As a matter of fact, before I even did the song, I even had a dream that after - that I did the song, and I heard it, and I was in the club, and the song was playing. So it's like I heard the song in my head even before we even did the record. So I knew exactly how I wanted the record to sound, so to speak.

GROSS: I got one last question for you. On your, like, official documents, credit cards, if you have them, or driver's license, do you use the name Melle Mel, or do you use your birth name?

MEL: No, my birth name - Melvin Glover. That's my name.

GROSS: So how do you feel about that name now?

MEL: It's a nice name. You know, I don't really think here nor there about it. You know, some people hear the name Glover, they say, you related to Danny Glover?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MEL: I'm like, my pops was named Danny Glover.

GROSS: Oh, really?

MEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh. That's interesting.

MEL: Yeah.

GROSS: All right. Well, listen. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MEL: Anytime.

MOSLEY: Terry Gross interviewed Melle Mel in 1992. Tomorrow we'll continue our celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with Darryl McDaniels, co-founder of one of rap's oldest groups, Run-DMC. We'll also hear from LL Cool J and from record producer Nile Rodgers, the guitarist and co-founder of the disco group Chic. He'll talk about coming up with a bassline for the song "Good Times," which was used in Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." I hope you'll join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

WONDER MIKE: (Rapping) I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip, hip-hop, and you don't stop the rocking to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. Now, what you hear is not a test. I'm rapping to the beat. And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet. You see; I am one of Wonder Mike, and I'd like to say hello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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