Televisionâ€™s stereotype of a 45-year-old man is a fat, balding man with insecurities that propel him into mid-life debt through whimsical affairs with chesty pre-women that like fast cars, fine dining and fashion. Then there is Grandmaster Melle Mel. At 45, Mel is crushing stereotypes of how men his age live. Melâ€™s biceps are larger than grapefruits, his abdomens are harder than Harlemâ€™s Lenox Avenue and his trapezius muscles carry more weight than television trap-stars. Melâ€™s latest release, Muscles, is no greatest hits gimmick that sun soaked musicians release to payoff their mortgage on their second Caribbean condo, in fact, Mel still lives in the Bronx and would sooner speak his mind than be a silenced senior in the rap music industry.
“Even though Iâ€™m 45, Iâ€™m still the best thing out there, Iâ€™m still the biggest thing out there, Iâ€™m still the most creative and that is what it shows.”
Format: Please explain what your new album, Muscles, is about and how long you spent making it.
Melle Mel: Some of the songs on the album I had already written, maybe two of the songs, I had written years prior, but we had changed the music, because we didnâ€™t want to use any samples or anything like that. For the most part, on the body of work thatâ€™s the Muscles album, it took about three, six months, because we did a lot of remixing and to switch hooks around and we changed a couple of tracks here and there. The whole mindset as far as doing the album, was to make an album that wasnâ€™t exactly new or old, but to put the best music that I could put together and make a complete solo album with no features, and because we didnâ€™t have the money to clear the samples, no samples. The main thing is no features, because I wanted me to carry the album, I wanted me to be the overriding factor on why the album is a success or why itâ€™s a good album.
The way the mindset that people have about buying albums or even making albums, theyâ€™ll make a greatest hits album â€“ to me thatâ€™s not really an album and thatâ€™s not really establishing anything other than the fact that youâ€™re trying to make an album, so Iâ€™m trying to actually establish something. I felt that me doing it totally solo would be the only way to establish what it is Iâ€™m trying to do.
Format: How does Muscles contrast with albums that are currently being released by younger rappers?
Melle Mel: The main thing that it contrasts is the fact that itâ€™s a truly solo album and then on some parts of the album I believe that I have more to say than just the average hip-hop artist, simply because of the fact of not necessarily the age, but my mindset as far as how I put songs together and how I go about writing, like my writing style or the format that Iâ€™d use to write so I have more to say.
If you were to listen to the album from top to bottom there are certain songs on there that are regular songs that you could play at a club, or just something to listen to, but there are other songs on there that have a definite meaning and a purpose, you know songs that people should actually write, but theyâ€™re not writing songs like that no more.
A song called â€œFucking Wit Tha Bushesâ€ or â€œCrossfireâ€ or â€œCottonâ€ that song is a dirty south song, but it is a smart dirty south song. Most dirty south songs are just about a dance or about selling some dope, I heard a remix of â€œWalk It Outâ€ and it seemed like it was talking about Martin Luther King and I thought should have been the original song, but like I said â€œCottonâ€ is a smart song that is a dirty south song, but people donâ€™t write songs like that and I feel they should. I feel that I should being that they donâ€™t. Thatâ€™s the kind of direction that I like taking music into.
Format: On Muscles you mention current rappers have limited vocabularies and topics, why do you feel this way?
Melle Mel: I think when they started taking rap into a direction where it was more based on an image and the imagery of the street, instead of basing it on whether the music was good or not, and that meant two things: first of all, it meant that anybody could do it and then the guys that were doing it theyâ€™re not recording artists or theyâ€™re not entertainers. So you would have a guy where his whole mindset is off the street and his image is going to be a street image, and when he makes his record that is all his record is going to reflect, the fact that heâ€™s from the street and the fact that he has a street image.
You have group after group that the labels signed and the radio that basically planned records like that. Even the guys that donâ€™t really want to be like that, they feel like they have to be like that to sell records and it just dumb the whole thing down. You have song after song, either they sell dope or theyâ€™re thugs and itâ€™s just way too street; it’s just representing one aspect of what life in the inner-city is about, which is not a true reflection of music or inner-city life and thatâ€™s why you have that problem. Thatâ€™s the difference between what was going on now and going on then. We were trying to be stars and write about different things to broaden our horizon as a musician and as a person â€“ all theyâ€™re trying to just look good on the street. See the aims or the goals that we had and the goals that they have now, they want to make money and look good on the street; we wanted to be entertainers and make a mark on the industry.
“The production got better, but thatâ€™s only because the equipment got better, as far as the actual creativity it kind of lacked, because everyone is real one-track minded about whatâ€™s going on.”
Format: In the `80s, New York rap music was a tool that unified races and sub-cultures that normally did not mix. Currently, does rap music serve as the unifying tool it once was?
Melle Mel: I donâ€™t think, as far as the music today, more or less polarized things on a strictly either youâ€™re about the street thing or not kind of vibe. I donâ€™t think it actually did anything to cross anything over. Even though more people are into rap that know what rap is about, that understand rap and hip-hop, I think polarized it from true hip-hop to just basic rap music, you know guys just making rap records. For all of those people, you know the artsy crowd and so fourth, they would still listen to real hip-hop and then you just have people that want to be street and they listen to rap music, and thatâ€™s what I think is the difference.
You have a lot of people from different races they embraced, but they didnâ€™t understand the true meaning of what hip-hop is â€“ the culture of hip-hop. You have a lot of people that still embrace the true meaning of hip-hop and the culture of hip-hop, but for the most part the trend was to be street. You have white kids and Puerto Rican kids, Jamaican kids and theyâ€™re just into the whole street vibe, you know, Timberland boots, the white T-shirts, the jeans, the Uptown sneakers and basically looking like a guy from the street. It polarized everything and it stagnated everything, because there is no progress, as far as the art form of hip-hop, it didnâ€™t progress nothing. The production got better, but thatâ€™s only because the equipment got better, as far as the actual creativity it kind of lacked, because everyone is real one-track minded about whatâ€™s going on.
Format: As a rapper, do you feel that you have a responsibility?
Melle Mel: Not a responsibility, but as a rapper you always have that competitive edge. Me putting out a record is not me putting out a record simply, because I want to sell a record, me putting out a record is to show the industry that Iâ€™m better than 99 per cent of your industry, because itâ€™s almost like they alienated us [rap pioneers] out of the industry that we helped create and the thing is they need to understand that they ruined the industry. It ainâ€™t like they made it good for the industry. I donâ€™t have a responsibility to nobody. First of all, Iâ€™m an artist and second of all, all my MC instincts makes me gravitate to showing somebody that Iâ€™m better than them and thatâ€™s what the Muscles album says, Iâ€™m bigger, Iâ€™m smarter and Iâ€™m better than whatâ€™s going on right now. Even though Iâ€™m 45, Iâ€™m still the best thing out there, Iâ€™m still the biggest thing out there, Iâ€™m still the most creative and that is what it shows.
Format: As a physically fit man and rapper, please explain your opinion on why an abundance of rappers are unhealthy, over-weight and boarder line obese.
Melle Mel: It goes from a person just being a follower. What they did with rap music, as far as an industry perspective, they made it so it stays as young as possible and in the streets it’s possible. Guys on the street would wear big clothes or baggy clothes to hide drugs or hide guns, and if you’re on the street you’re out there living the street life and you’re doing things that young people do. You go out, you get high, you smoke weed and if you have a mindset that you never need to mature, because that is the key word. If your mindset is that you never need to mature to be a part of what hip-hop is about then you’re never going to.
As a young person, anybody would drink or smoke weed or hangout or do certain things that are not the smart thing to do, but as you mature you start changing your lifestyle a little bit. You start getting more rest, you eat better and you take care of yourself, you might get a little exercise. What the industry is dictating to the people and the message they’re sending them is that you can be young forever. The whole dress, the whole style that’s going on, you could basically be 21 or 19 or 18 forever. You don’t have to look no different, you don’t have to work no harder than what you’re going to work, because if you ain’t selling dope you’re going to make records and make a ton of money, and therefore you don’t have to mature, you don’t have to evolve, you don’t have to develop â€“ that’s what it is. Guys that think, like they’re lifestyles are like they’re going to make money and party like every night is New Year’s Eve and at the end of day that don’t look like a healthy person, that looks like a person that parties all the time. It ain’t nothing wrong with smoking weed, because I smoked weed, but there is something wrong with smoking weed all day long, just like there is something wrong with drinking all day long, even if it’s playing video games, there is something wrong with playing video games all day long!
The move to look like they belong in hip-hop culture is a process that is not good for a human being and as a human being as you get older it’s not good. Even for a person that’s younger, because if you gotta get up and go to school you cannot smoke all week and party and hangout and do all the things that the so called modern hip-hop culture dictates, you just land up looking like a burnout. And that’s why they basically look the way they look.
“So you would have a guy where his whole mindset is off the street and his image is going to be a street image, and when he makes his record that is all his record is going to reflect.”
Format: What does the title of being a Grandmaster mean to you?
Melle Mel: Well it could be as simple as a name you would want to call yourself. When I first had the name, we took the name just so that we could actually sell records, because the name Grandmaster Flash was built up so huge by Sugar Hill Records that when Flash left the record label we had to use the name, because that was the only way that we could sell records. The group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was more known for Grandmaster Flash than Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it was known for the name, Grandmaster Flash.
But when you put it into the context of a true grandmaster that is a person that masters their art form, so a grandmaster in the hip-hop culture would be a true master of the culture of hip-hop, understanding and mastery of all of its forms â€“ I could talk hip-hop all day, as far as my writing skills, my rhyme skills are always up to par. As far as what hip-hop really means, the true art form of hip-hop and to promote it and express it and live it past the money side of it â€“ Iâ€™ve never had a job, so Iâ€™ve made all my livings in being involved in music and hip-hop â€“ towards the promotion of what hip-hop is so others know what it is. Thatâ€™s what a true grandmaster is; a warrior poet and even a master, teacher, student because itâ€™s always evolving, you might have to relearn some things.
“But when you put it into the context of a true grandmaster that is a person that masters their art form, so a grandmaster in the hip-hop culture would be a true master of the culture of hip-hop.”
Format: Major hip-hop publications label New York rap as being dead, what is your opinion?
Melle Mel: New York rap is dead and I think that hip-hop is dead for one specific reason; itâ€™s because they didnâ€™t want to respect what real rap and what real hip-hop is. These guys hijacked what the hip-hop industry is. They donâ€™t care less about DJs, they donâ€™t give a damn about break-dancers, the only thing they care about is looking like they sell dope. And where New York went wrong, the evolution of New York rap came from us and it got passed down and at its height it was guys like Rakim and Kool G Rap, then it got into an eclectic thing with A Tribe Called Quest and that whole DJ Premier, like when Premier was producing all the tracks, all of those groups in that era, that is when New York rap was at its apex. When Biggie made his album and it was a successful album, the formula that Biggie did was to use a west coast formula with an east coast rap style where he has these real slick lyrics where heâ€™d talk extra grimy and extra tough. Biggie was a great rapper, but when everybody came behind him they forgot what New York rap was all about â€“ the slickest rappers that you could find rapping about whatever you felt that you needed to rap about, that was New York Rap, the punch lines, the metaphors, but they forgot about that and everybody went to the gangsta route. So when everything changed over to crunk music and the dirty south dominated the scene, theyâ€™re not good rappers. If you do like people do, equate good rap with whoever is making money, then to be a good rapper you donâ€™t have to rap no better than Too Short, because all these southern cats on average, their rap skills is of a Too Short. That automatically killed the east coast rap. New York rap is dead, because they donâ€™t have no identity.