Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are one of the most influential groups in hip-hop. Credited as the first group to bring a social conscience to the genre, their raps were as eye-opening as the skills of their innovative DJ, and they set the stage for future hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. to make it big on the charts by sounding the alarm about what was going on in the inner-cities of America.
The origins of the group began with the rise of Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler), who is arguably the pioneer of modern day DJing. He invented a lot of the techniques that DJ’s use today, such as cutting, mixing, back-scratching and phasing. Flash mastered his craft to become one of the most sought after DJ’s in the Bronx, playing and collaborating with such MCs (Masters of Ceremonies) as Lovebug Starski and the great Kurtis Blow.
In the mid-‘70s, around the same time hip-hop was beginning to take root in New York City, Flash teamed up with Gene “Mean Gene” Livingston, Claudio Livingston and Grand Wizzard Theodore to form “The L Brothers.” After a stint in that group, Flash sought to form his own group, and he recruited Robert “Keef Cowboy” Wiggins, Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and Nathaniel “The Kidd Creole” Glover Jr. to form “The Three MC’s,” which is widely considered the first MC group in hip-hop’s storied history, and in fact, it was Wiggins himself who coined the term “hip-hop.”
In 1979, a year after the Three MC’s formed, the crew brought aboard Eddie “Mr. Ness/Scorpio” Morris and Guy Todd “Rahiem” Williams, and changed their name to “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.” The group quickly took New York by storm, but it wouldn’t be until The Sugarhill Gang had great success with “Rappers Delight” that the group - and other rappers at the time - realized that there was a market in the mainstream for hip-hop, and this is what encouraged the Furious Five to start recording singles.
The group originally signed with Enjoy Records in 1979, and they released “Superrappin” on that label. But a DJ that they wanted to perform with was with Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, and after finding this out, they switched labels in 1980.
The first single for Sugar Hill was “Freedom,” which was their first song to hit the R&B charts, reaching number 19 and selling over 50,000 copies. The hits kept on coming with “The Birthday Party” (#36 R&B), 1981’s historic “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (#55 R&B), “Showdown” (#49 R&B) and “It’s Nasty” (#22 R&B).
There biggest, and most influential hit, came in 1982 when the Furious Five released “The Message,” and it was unlike anything heard in the genre at the time. Instead of partying and boasting, “The Message” told the story of life in the ghettos of America, specifically in the Bronx, and it was the first rap record to highlight social problems and listeners ate it up. “The Message” would be a number four smash on the R&B charts, and the track would become their first, and only, single to chart in the Hot 100, making it to number 62.
“The Message” is one of the crowning achievements of hip-hop, but it also brought problems to the group. In 1983, Flash sued Sugar Hill for $5 million in unpaid royalties, and after “White Lines” became a hit (which was credited as “Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five” but Flash didn’t have anything to do with the single) royalty disputes caused the group to split right down the middle, with Kidd Creole and Rahiem staying with Flash and jumping to Elektra Records, and Mr. Ness/Scorpio and Cowboy jumping with Grandmaster Melle Mel to join “Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five” in 1984 (they stayed with Sugar Hill).
After having some success apart, (Melle Mel’s group fared better) the two factions reunited in 1987 to perform at Madison Square Garden for a charity concert. This led to them reuniting for another go at an album, and they recorded and released On the Strength in 1988.
But they soon found that the hip-hop world was a far different place than the one that they began in, as political and gangsta rap was beginning to take hold of the genre, and On the Strength was ignored. Realizing that the sound had passed them by, the group split up for good in 1989.
But make no mistake, hip-hop would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for five guys from South Bronx who had a message that people needed to here, and it’s a message that will forever live in the history of hip-hop.