Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

  • "The Birthday Party" [Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981] B+
  • The Message [Sugarhill, 1982] A-
  • Greatest Messages [Sugarhill, 1983] B+
  • On the Strength [Elektra, 1988] C+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

"The Birthday Party" [Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981]
The most spectacular of the Sugarhill crews on stage is also the hookiest on record, thanks to Flash's spinning--he can make his turntables give forth like a horn section of kazoos or electric soprano saxophones. But if "Freedom," their Sugarhill debut, made aural graffiti-writing seem like a political act, here they remind us of its nuisance potential--it's fun to hear the Five's birthdays, and nice that each of us has one, but the idea is thin and so is Flash's hook. Next: "The Rent Party," in which we all get to shout our addresses. B+

The Message [Sugarhill, 1982]
Their belated first album tries to be commercial, to touch a lot of bases with a broad demographic, but it's anything but formulaic. On the contrary, it's an act of self-expression--they do consider Rick James a hero--and thus experimental like albums used to be. The only instant killer is the opener, a borrowed funk showpiece featuring calisthenic bassist Doug Wimbish and three-handed drummer Keith LeBlanc. But in the end every experiment justifies itself, from the one Rahiem wrote for and performs like Stevie Wonder (he can actually sing, thus distinguishing himself from Kurtis Blow, Joseph Bowie, and the entire population of the United Kingdom) to the vocoder number to the idealistic Spinners-cum-Edwin-Starr impression to the one Rahiem wrote for God and performs like a believer. A-

Greatest Messages [Sugarhill, 1983]
Establishing vocal individuality without entering the cartoon territory that is funk's comic blessing and romantic/realistic curse, they locate rap somewhere to the left of the hardest hard funk tradition, James Brown circa "Sex Machine" and "Mother Popcorn," rocking the body by pushing the beat (like Trouble Funk or the Treacherous Three) rather than teasing it (like Spoonie Gee or Soul Sonic Force). This almost athletic physical excitement, this willed and urgent hope, has been the core of their real message no matter what party slogan or all-night boast they've set it to. It's a disgrace that Sylvia Robinson's latest attempt to cash in their rep fades away to the forty-five edits that never did a thing for them--even "The Message," which doesn't lose a word except its coda, surrenders an unbearable tension along with its instrumental breaks. Culturally depriveds who don't own such twelve-inches as "Birthday Party," "It's Nasty," and "The Message" itself are advised to settle if they have no choice. B+

On the Strength [Elektra, 1988]
Like a big band that costs too much to put on the road, their fluid five-man rat-a-tat-tat is a throwback to a more innocent era; their attempts to keep up--their "boyee"s, their samples, their Steppenwolf cameo--are depressingly flat. And despite an amazing "I have a dream" cover, Mele-Mel's return doesn't do all that much for their moral fervor. A "Gold" worthy of the subject wouldn't slip past miners and murders on its way to the IDs, and to hear onetime love man Rahiem make pimp jokes is to wonder just how he'll get by after their next label drops them. C+