Hip hop can be a fickle creature. Over the years there have been scores of MCs, too many to mention, who’ve come and gone in a heartbeat believing their own hype but failing to deliver.
For Grandmaster Melle Mel, who turned 51 in May, hip hop has had its ups and downs, however, as the lead rapper in Grandmaster Flash & Furious Five — who released the groundbreaking track ‘The Message’ in the early ‘80s — Melle Mel has endured as one of the most positive and recognisable hip hop voices.
The first rapper to label himself an ‘MC’, Melle Mel has watched the genre he helped foster become a global phenomenon. But as he explains down the phone from New York, at the time they were just trying to be creative. “When we started doing music or hip hop there was no real title for guys that talked on the mic, it was just DJs and they would actually do their own talking on the mic. So me and and my brother and all the other cats who couldn’t DJ were looking for a title. We were looking at ‘Master of Ceremonies’ thinking that would be our role, so we broke it down to ‘MC’.”
Hip hop is now a multi-billion dollar industry who’s presence is felt everywhere from the slums of Rio to fashion runways in Milan. As a pioneer of the artform, Melle Mel talks about what it was like watching hip hop become the corporate machine it now is.
“It feels good because it was a great accomplishment. From us just coming from the Bronx and then seeing something that you did go global the way it has. However, sometimes the message and the image that the industry put out was not the right look.”
Having been around for so long, Melle Mel isn’t shy in voicing his concerns when it comes to the present direction of hip hop culture.
“Two things would have to happen,” he says bluntly, “first the industry would have to let go of the whole gangster image, and the second thing is they would have to promote all aspects of what is really going on, instead of just promoting an image. Right now it’s Rick Ross’ image, before that it was 50 Cent or Jay-Z, which is good. But the bad part is the outcome won’t be the same for people who take the path of Rick Ross, 50 Cent or Jay-Z. All you will get are clones of those artists.”
Unlike a lot of his old school contemporaries, Melle Mel has not only stayed active in the rap game, he’s kept in great shape physically, with a body that would put most people in their 20s to shame.
“I first started to get into [bodybuilding] because a few of the guys in the group like Cowboy and another brother, Scorpio, were doing stuff like push-ups, so I would do push-ups. As time went on I started to take it more serious, reading up on it and going to the gym and now I’m a personal trainer as well. It’s just something that I added to my image years ago that stuck till today, just going in to the gym, being healthy and looking muscular which gives me a dominant presence on stage.”
With his Australian tour just around the corner, Melle Mel is promising his fans a straight-up, old school show.
“It’s dynamic original hip hop!” he booms. “On stage is basically our forte, because before records and everything you just had to have a good space and the main thing was for people to have a good time. That was the original concept of DJing and MCing anyway. It’s not about who has the biggest chain or let’s see who made the most money. It was about who had the best party! You were there to have a great time and make sure everyone else had a great time also!”
Grandmaster Melle Mel plays Coniston Lane Saturday October 6.