How we made: Jiggs Chase and Ed Fletcher on The Message

The producer and MC of the hip-hop classic recall trying to persuade Grandmaster Flash to grow a social conscience

Jiggs Chase, co-producer

One night, I was over at [rapper] Ed Fletcher's house and I said: "We need to write something." He was lying on the couch smoking a joint with one leg over the edge, and he said: "Don't push me, 'cos I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head." And I said: "Oh my goodness – whoa!" We knew he'd just come up with the hook for a song.

Sylvia Robinson [head of Sugar Hill, Grandmaster Flash's label] had had this concept of The Message: she wanted a serious song to show what was happening in society, but hadn't been able to get it together. So we told her what we had and added: "It sounds like a hit." Then all we had to do was come up with some music and write the verses. Ed did all that except for writing the final one, which was done by Melle Mel: he was the only member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five who actually had anything to do with the song, even though the band got the credit. Melle was the best rapper in the group, too, but Ed still had to show him how to do it. "You should rap on it, too!" Sylvia said. And he did.

I knew we had something. I knew it would make some noise. But I didn't know it would be quite so big. Ed was talking about what was happening out there. Rap was music for boasting and bragging, but he took it in another direction. He took a chance – and it broke the mould. The Message got hip-hop taken seriously. There were always lots of rap groups, but they couldn't get record deals. The Message also helped hip-hop get a white audience. In Europe, we had more of a white audience than a black one.

The song went up the charts and, since then, the cheques have gotten bigger, because people keep using it. It was used in Happy Feet, P Diddy used it, and Ice Cube. I'm still getting paid.

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Ed Fletcher (AKA Duke Bootee), co-writer/MC

The neighbourhood I was living in, the things I saw – it was like a jungle sometimes in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Even though we lived in a nice area, I'd sit in the living room and watch things happening across the street in the park. The lyrics were sort of cinematic: I tried to hold a message up to society.

Rappers then were in their late teens and made feelgood, upbeat songs to party to, so this was completely new. Luckily, Sylvia had the force and foresight to put it out. Grandmaster Flash himself wasn't on the song. He didn't think people wanted to hear that shit. Melle Mel was so mad about that.

Musically and lyrically, I wanted to do something different. A lot of thought went into it. I used to call it trance music – the melody has an asymmetric structure, but the bassline stays the same throughout. Usually, a song has one hook and verses, but "Don't push me, 'cos I'm close to the edge" is one hook and "It's like a jungle sometimes" is another. At the time, I was listening to Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, so I used a lot of electronic effects and percussion sounds.

The first inkling I had that it would be big was when we did the mix. Sylvia was into numerology, and The Message ran to seven minutes and 11 seconds, which she thought was lucky for some reason. "I have a feeling about this," she said. That night, she took it to Frankie Crocker, the main radio DJ in New York, and the next day it was on the air. Eleven days later, it went gold. Rolling Stone named it the No 1 hip-hop record of all time. I've always thought: "Shit, if I'd known what it was going to do, I'd have kept it for myself."

Contributor

Interviews by Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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