[This is the diary-entry version of the more objective eavesdropper-to-history essay I did on “Freedom” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1980) as part of HiLoBrow.com’s “HERC Your Enthusiasm” series, all of which is worth reliving on multiple spins.]
“I hope you like boogie ’cuz that’s what we’re gonna be playing” — my host might as well have been intro-ing on the Furious Five records himself, and that was part of the point, since in those days the music was just something that spilled out to the street and onto some vinyl.
The rappers came from parties like the one I was walking into, in this case the wedding reception of one of my best highschool friends, midway through 1982. She and another crony each got married the minute we were out of school, and my reception-crawl between their separate ceremonies was a study in the many worlds that barricaded decade gave us chances to cross.
The playlist at the other wedding was mostly racism, guests of all ages bitching about The Blacks in the banquet-hall’s neighborhood like holdouts in some surrounded stockade. On the opposite side, in the suburban basement where I first heard “Freedom” (two years after it was a huge hit; I was stuck in that stockade too), all I heard were anthems to come-one-come-all community, welcomed warmly as one of maybe three whiteguys there (another of whom would soon be marrying the groom’s sister).
In a just-ending childhood in which the age-groups were as garrisoned as the races when it came to musical taste (and taste in other races), it was a revelation to witness seventysomethings grooving to the strange new pop-chant on the turntable; they were there to embrace the young and new in the next step they were taking, and accepting the Five on an open invitation.
Before we know what to call something we don’t know how to separate it, and hip-hop was a culture, not a style; you couldn’t not listen to the crews, but you also couldn’t not move to them, thus connecting with the breakdancing wing of the emerging culture, and at mid-rhyme when the Five start to flash their astrological signs, you couldn’t help but see a symbol, like the graffiti that filled out the trinity.
The song calls everyone to join in, “8 or 10 or…senior citizen,” “red, yellow, black, white or brown,” and if you enjoy yourself then you can “rock as good as anyone else.” Flash and the Furious Five didn’t know why anything they had heard or seen couldn’t be a part of them, and they a part of whoever was out there. That’s why across their canon you hear bits of other tunes, city-noise backup, street-barker rapping, R&B singing, and most importantly audience collaboration, very audible in the tide raising all spirits on this track.
The group would soon be bards of urban disaffection (but also poets of domestic concern) in “The Message” (in fact, were, by the time I ever heard their festive debut), in a decade that left millions dead of AIDS and drugs and dropped through the bottom of vanished safety-nets and left on the edge of superpower armageddon. And rap would get increasingly materialistic, and austere, and ingenious and indispensible. “Freedom” was the sound of the necessary elders who show up at the party just a century too soon.