NOW 3: Grandmaster Flash ft Melle Mel – White Lines (Don’t Do It)

After the whiteout of NOW 2 comes the ‘black power’ of NOW 3. Thank goodness for that.

The biggest genre in the world in 2018 is rap/hiphop. Anyone with a mouth can do it, and you can start as a child. The best rappers have personality, flow and consciousness, as befits a genre which elevates its practitioners to hero status. In the 1990s, when money got behind the movement, genuine icons were created: Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Eric B and Rakim, even Will Smith (more on him in a later essay).

Created by DJ Kool Herc in 1973, rap was about dancing and partying. Kool Herc would set up twin turntables and spin two records at once, looking for a classic ‘break’ to keep the ‘block party’ going. These include the Amen break, which became the key tenet of drum’n’bass music, and the Funky Drummer break, which was an improvised beat by Clyde Stubblefield on the song of the same name. Fight The Power by Public Enemy mentions ‘the sound of the funky drummer’, while LL Cool J wanted to ‘knock you out’ to that beat. Madonna and Lenny Kravitz used it on Justify My Love, Prince used it on Gett Off and even Kenny G employed it for one of his boring tunes to soundtrack nineties-era dinner parties. As ‘unseen heroes’ of pop music goes – the Hall of Fame includes the Wrecking Crew of Phil Spector and the Funk Brothers of the Motown house band – Clyde the Funky Drummer should have the biggest statue of them all.

There are five pillars of hiphop: the DJ has the records; the MC has the mic; the graffiti artist uses cans to paint on walls and subway trains; beboy dancers invent ‘the robot’ and ‘the moonwalk’; and the political awareness of the whole enterprise means that hiphop has a social element. This often got lost in the ‘bitches and hoes’ era of gangsta rap, a sort of cartoon version that Chuck D brilliantly called ‘reality rap’.

Along with The Message (‘it’s like a jungle sometimes…’) White Lines is one of the earliest hiphop songs that, four decades on, still resonates. It made it the perfect choice from the third NOW set to add to the 100-track Playlist, which already features Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Culture Club. Finally, some black folk!

The song anticipates the rise of rap in the UK, which really kicked off when Public Enemy and Run DMC started to come to London in around 1987; the former used the stage announcement for their massive Nation of Millions album, while the latter teamed up with Aerosmith and adidas to really become the go-to act when someone mentioned ‘rap music’ (as shall be explored). As for the Beastie Boys, they just did the same thing while being white and a little tongue-in-cheek about it all.

Grandmaster Flash was one of the forefathers of hiphop, inventing ‘the scratch’ before recruiting his Furious Five to help him out. These rappers included Melle Mel, who gets the credit for White Lines because he takes the lead line of the vocal. The ‘white lines’, meanwhile, are cocaine trails, snorted off a mirror in the early 1980s to help clubbers buzz all night long. ‘Freebase!’ shout the Furious Five, referencing a lethal mixture which almost killed Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode (who was medically dead but recovered).

‘Either up your nose or through your veins/ With nothing to gain except killing your brain’ is one memorable line from Melle Mel. The drum sounds mimic a sniff, and the acerbic lyric contrasts with the sweet Temptations-like backing vocals. It really is a masterful piece of pop music: ‘A million magic crystals…/ A multi-million dollars almost overnight…/If you get hooked baby it’s nobody else’s fault so DON’T DO IT!’ Rather than being accusatory, Melle Mel is simply advising people not to do it, and a listener would be wise to listen.

My friend Ali Whyte was astounded to find NOW 3 in his dad’s record collection, and marvelled at the eclecticism with me as we watched his team Celtic win the Scottish Premier League. Back in 1984, when NOW 3 was released, Scottish footballers were found in every big English team. Now Celtic have just won seven titles in a row, losing about two domestic games in the last eighty and there are hardly any Scots in the top teams in the Premier League. Yet, to bring us back to hiphop, there are lots of black players.

Nile Rodgers is probably one of the top five architects of pop music. As a rough guide, I pick Giorgio Moroder, Ralf & Florian from Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Jam & Lewis and Stevie Wonder as contenders, and you can throw in Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. The great Nile has two productions without his name on them in the first three songs on the compilation. The Reflex (‘fle-fle-flex!’) is side one track one of tape one, and rightly so. It is one of Duran Duran’s best and was a month-long number one.

The Reflex sounds like summer 1984, as does Two Tribes, which topped the chart for nine whole weeks, the meat in a George Michael sandwich. It deposed track one on NOW 3’s ‘fourth side’, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and was replaced in August by Careless Whisper, which is missing from this compilation since NOW 3 was released in July 1984.

Elsewhere on the compilation are evergreen tracks from Alison Moyet (Love Resurrection), Ultravox (Dancing With Tears in my Eyes) and Bronski Beat, who my discography calls ‘the first openly gay pop group (Smalltown Boy). The vocals of Jimmy Somerville end the first tape/CD/vinyl, following those of Paul Weller, on You’re The Best Thing by The Style Council, and Bob Marley. Incredibly, his anthem One Love was never released as a single until three years after his death, so in summer 1984 the song hit number five in a combination with a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready.

Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper, a US number one and UK number three, I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me by Nik Kershaw – a hit after being reissued to follow the success of Wouldn’t It Be Good – and Phil Collins’ break-up song Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now), stopped behind Two Tribes. Phil did have his first US number one with one of the ur-Power Ballads.

At the second attempt, karaoke staple It’s Raining Men got into the UK charts, reaching a high of number 2 for those Weather Girls, who presumably are still living off the royalty payments (Mother Nature also bought them a house!). Thinking of You by Sister Sledge was another hit for the CHIC Organization, who were having better luck writing hits for others, including the New York-based singing dancer Madonna, who had her first hits in 1984: Holiday, Lucky Star, Borderline and then the one about being ‘touched for the very first time’. Every song she released for a decade went Top 10, making her the true Queen of Pop.

Queen, the pop group, had their second Top 3 hit of the year with I Want to Break Free. The video is still bizarre: it shows Freddie Mercury at his most camp, donning a dress and convincing the other band members to do the same, including astrophysicist Brian May. I Want to Break Free was part of We Will Rock You, one of this century’s key cultural products for reasons I cannot explore in this essay: basically, ‘Ben Elton does nostalgia’.

There will never, ever be a Gary Glitter musical (at least in good taste), but let us not ignore his hit Dance Me Up, which follows It’s Raining Men on side four. The man sentenced to prison as Paul Gadd would have his last significant hit over Christmas 1984 with Another Rock and Roll Christmas, a fine song tainted forever by its singer. It must not be forgotten, however, that between 1972 and 1976, he had 17 Top 10 hits either solo or with his Glitter Band. Three solo hits topped the charts. It was a different era, before Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel…


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