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It’s just like Cowboy riding on a saddle

A cowboy on horseback herding cattle with his dog

Image: Mahir Uysal via Unsplash

  • Track: Pump Me Up
  • Artist: Melle Mel and the Furious Five
  • Year: 1985

Before we get started, a confession of sorts. I had another post ready to publish looking at a recent track from a new (to me) artist. The similes are strong and it’s a great track. Posting something released in the last couple of years would also be new territory (so far the most recent track to go in the database is from 2011).

Then at the last minute, I noticed that last year several women accused the artist of sexual assault. He denies it, and hasn’t been charged, but the victim accounts make for disturbing reading.

So I toyed with the idea of making this post a discussion about the separation of art from artists. A soul-searching look at whether it’s ok to enjoy art made by people who have done bad things (even allegedly). Is it ethically ok to watch Roman Polanski or Keven Spacey films? How about listening to Thriller? Should we erase R Kelly’s back catalogue from human history, put all physical copies into a rocket and fire it into the sun? In the case of R Kelly, yes of course (on the grounds of quality). But I’m not sure about the other ones.

And then I realised that I am not equipped to perform the moral calculus required to understand and answer these questions. So I chickened out and shelved the post.

So instead of looking at similes in a two-year old track, I’ve decided instead to go completely the other way, back to hip-hop’s early days. So join me as we take a step back in time to the heady days of 1985.

Pump Me Up came out the year after hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five disbanded. One of the original Furious Five, Melle Mel, then formed Melle Mel and the Furious Five, who released this track. They included Cowboy and Scorpio from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, along with three new rappers. Oh, and a DJ. So there were actually seven of them. History doesn’t record how furious Grandmaster Flash was about all of this. Flash took two of the original Furious Five with him to carry on performing as plain old Grandmaster Flash (sadly not ‘and the Tempestuous Two’). Flash soon recruited three more rappers, and they attempted to call themselves the Furious Five. Melle Mel’s record company blocked that, probably to save everyone’s sanity. Still with me? Good.

The story has a happy ending though. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reformed, Melle Mel and all, in 1987. They then went on to become the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Poor old Cowboy didn’t live to see that, having failed to heed the warning in White Lines and succumbing to a terrible cocaine habit. So not a totally happy ending then. Sorry.

Anyway, back to Pump Me Up. It has its origins in Trouble Funk’s 1982 track of the same name (also chock-full of simile goodness), released on the Sugar Hill label. Sugar Hill was obviously also home to fellow pioneers the Sugarhill Gang. To further confuse things, Melle Mel and Scorpio perform to this day as…Sugarhill Gang featuring Melle Mel and Scorpio.

There are a shedload of versions of Pump Me Up. We’re looking at the single release here, which is a perfectly-formed three minute jam (as seen on the video). There’s a common extended mix out there which repeats Melle Mel’s second verse at the end. I’m not sure why, they’re not exactly the best lines you’ll ever hear. Repeated similes only get counted once, so using this version would not do the track’s simile per minute rating justice.

The Pump Me Up video is like watching an entire decade condensed into three minutes. It’s also kind of creepy, with Melle Mel spending most of it trying to avoid touching a greased up female bodybuilder. Weird.

Whoever’s in Charge and the Furious Five were a bit like hip-hop’s Village People: unashamedly camp, outrageously dressed, obviously influenced by disco and clearly not giving a fig about any of it.

Looking back on these rhymes through the spectacles of 2019, they seem quite sweet and naive in places. Sure, the key message is a common one (I’m good with the ladies and I rap really well) but there’s no real sense of peril. This leads us back to the origins of hip-hop and the famous four elements as described by the United Zulu Nation. It’s worth remembering that hip-hop was originally all about peace and love, long before gangster rap took over in the 90s.

There’s also little room for interpretation. The lyrics contain few cryptic references or other opportunities for me to get confused. This is straight-up party rapping. Pump Me Up also shows that simile has been part of rap from the early days. Maybe it should actually be be the five elements: graffiti, rapping, break-dancing, MCing and similes.

Will Smith bastardised Pump Me Up for his 1999 album Willennium (get it?). He managed to strip most of the charm (and nearly all the similes) from it, but it’s still worth a listen for the Jazzy Jeff scratching masterclass.

All this talk of cocaine addiction, sexual assault and Will Smith has left me a little deflated. Time to, erm, pump me up.

The lyrics

View the annotated lyrics on Genius.com.

[Intro (sang)]

Come on, I said come on, I said come on

[Melle Mel]

Rappers might be willin’ but they ain’t able
Cause I was their king straight from my cradle
I screamed and hollered and shook my rattle
And dreamt of defeating them all in battle
There was no food in my silver spoon
So I grew up hard and I grew up soon
I’m a righteous king but I’m hungry too
And I eat up chumps that rap like you

Yeah, ok, so we’re starting off with a dubious simile, but it’s going in. I think it’s just about allowable: Melle Mel is comparing your rapping to that of a chump. Are you going to sit there and take that?

Then I met this shark and his name was Jaws
He was biting my rhymes like y’all bite yours
I starting writing my rhymes the shark grew and grew
But I was writing more rhymes than the shark could chew

Things take an early turn for the weird here, but let’s roll with it. Ten years after its release, Jaws was clearly still very much in the public consciousness. It still is.

This is the track’s sole comparative simile, thankfully. After that dodgy opening one, I don’t want to risk irking the purists too much. But things are about to get a whole lot weirder.

The shark got sick and then he exploded
Cause he didn’t realize that my rhymes was loaded
They flew in the air and into the sea
And the whole universe knew the king was me

Yeah…if you say so mate. Of course Jaws does explode in the film (smile, you son of a bitch). I think it was the preferred method of killer shark dispatch in all the sequels too.

[Singy bit]

Come on, I said come on, I said come on

[Melle Mel]

I’m not a laser beam or a diamond mine
Or a platinum watch or some vintage wine
Not a pocket full of pearls I’m a oil well
Like black gold baby, I’m Melle Mel

It’s a pity that we’re not cataloguing metaphors. Melle Mel appears to be at pain to stress that he’s not a lot of things that are actually quite cool in my book. But who am I to argue with a man who likes to strut around stage in what looks like He-Man’s hand me down bondage gear?

And to all the fly girls I come off hard
The slightest wink or nod makes me your god
All my problems are small so my pockets are large
When I walk in the door oh baby I’m in charge

I’m not sure what the link between having small problems and big pockets is. Maybe Melle Mel means he’s so problem-free he’s got money to spare. This is a standard hip-hop trope about popularity with the ladies, which continues in the next bit.

Treat ladies like jewels and diamond rings
On my fingers on my arms on everything

No prizes for guessing what ‘everything’ refers to. Is it good to treat someone like a diamond ring? The next few lines are as in your face as this track gets, but even then it’s a bit like being threatened by a damp dishcloth.

On the streets oh my Jesus, I can’t be beat
So don’t ask where’s the beef baby here’s the meat

Eww.

I’m gonna give you some soap a towel and a cup
‘Cause the bum MCs are all washed up
Put your woman on the line with the rest of my crew
So I can make love to her and annihilate you

[Singy bit]

Pump, pump (me up!) me what? (me up!)
Pump, pump, pump, pump me up!

Up next is Keef Cowboy, who must have one of the lamest pseudonyms in all of rap. He might as well have stuck with his real name, Keith Wiggins. But what I can’t take the piss out of is his love of similes (and ping pong). As we’ll see, his verse drags the track’s simile per minute rating right up.

I also can’t take the piss too much because Keef Cowboy is credited with inventing the term ‘hip-hop‘. Judging by the video, he couldn’t be bothered to turn up for the shoot though. Maybe he had a cattle rustling emergency to deal with.

[Cowboy]

I’m like the genie in your lamp
A face on your stamp

The hip hop rocker
The microphone champ

This is a nice – if simple – double simile (Cowboy is comparing himself to two separate things, so we count it as two separate similes). I’d take being a genie over appearing on a stamp any day.

Got a knock out voice
Like a Rolls Royce

Gotta rank as number one
To be the people’s choice

Again, straightforward stuff. I think Keef is starting us off easy, because things are about to get a bit…different. Here we go.

‘Cause you hum a ding then you hum a dong
It’s just like the friendly game of ping pong
When you hitting the ball upside the paddle
It’s just like Cowboy riding on a saddle

This is easily my favourite part of the track. Go Keef! These throwaway lines probably don’t deserve close scrutiny, but that’s why we’re here. If it’s not already, horseback table tennis should definitely be a thing.

Up above your head is the flash of light
Cause I can rock to the beat on any God given night
Like to rock like to roll like to entertain
While my car’s outside you’re waiting for the train
The train to the bus the bus to whatever
And I’m the MC to rock in any type of weather
I’m the bow legged brother there’ll never be another
I bought a mansion for my mother

That’s nice. I’m not sure if I admire this approach to writing lyrics or not. It’s a bit ramshackle, but also quite endearing and admittedly funny.

So now we hand over to Scorpio for the final verse. Let’s see if this track has a sting in its tail (heh). 

There is very little on the internet about this chap (aka Mr. Ness), at least not on the first page of Google results. I actually saw him perform with Melle Mel and the Sugarhill Gang a couple of summers ago. And you know what? They were great, leading a sort of hip-hop megamix tribute act. At least I think they were, I’d had quite a bit of cider by the time they came on.

[Scorpio]

I got a certain cool that breaks the rules
That get me paid and a lot of jewels
And the women I’m calling day and night
That’s proof I’m getting mine like a thief in the night

Drawing parallels between being successful with the ladies and taking something without permission doesn’t strike me as something to boast about. Especially if you’re the one doing all the calling. A more wholesome simile could have been ‘I’m getting mine like George McCulloch’. It’s harder to rhyme, but Scorpio hasn’t exactly put much effort into the original lyric.

Because Scorp is known as the singer
The quiet storm, that lover didn’t linger
I will not change ‘cause it’s in my blood
I’m like dynamite and you a rappin’ dud

Ooh, burn. That’s got to hurt, unless your name’s Dudley.

And if the future is here in the making
Then why I can’t be part of the taking?
Cause you know I like cars and fancy women
That give me good love in the beginning
Bubble bath and candle lights
And girls saying ‘Scorp you alright?’
So stop standing there like you from above
And just relax yourself and get in this tub

The girls are presumably asking Scorpio if he’s alright because they’ve seen how he dresses. (He’s the one in the gold lamé dressing gown and pith helmet.)

What a note for the similes to end on. He’s basically saying ‘stop acting like you’re some kind of angel, and get in my bath’. I’ll pass thanks Scorpio.

[One more time with feeling]

Pump, pump (me up!) me what? (me up!)

Consider me reinflated. A decent 13 similes for the 13th track to go in the database, taking 6th place in the similes per minute rank. Lyrically curious, but over thirty years on, still a party classic.

The 1970s are the only decade from hip-hop history not yet represented in my humble database. If you know of a simile-packed track from then, do let me know.

The stats

Similes:13
Words:584
Words per simile:44.92
Length:3m 05s
Similes per minute:4.22
Total combined members of Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel and the Furious Five:Lost in the mists of time

Leave a comment. Bonus points for similes.