Grandmaster Flash - Biography
Without the DJ, hip-hop’s depth of creativity may not be what it is today. Taking existing music and subversively rearranging it to create an entirely new piece of art is a technique that has been slowly developed over the decades; the legacy of the DJ is a meticulous and subversive tale. Growing up in a musically-rich environment, Grandmaster Flash was often scolded as a child for touching his father’s records. Ironically, Flash has made a career out of thoroughly manipulating the fine ridges of vinyl. Grandmaster Flash’s innovative contributions to the art of DJing, as well as his influential mixes, have opened the door to the seemingly endless world of turntablism.
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Joseph Saddler’s early life was spent in the Bronx. Saddler’s father had a vast record collection with musical range stretching from African American Jazz greats to the Caribbean music of his homeland. While in the Bronx, Saddler studied electrical engineering and became heavily involved in the fledgling DJ scene of New York. Many local parties were blessed by legendary DJs such as Kool Herc and Pete DJ Jones. Taking a cue from these greats, Saddler began to DJ. As a DJ, Saddler (who was now going by the alias Grandmaster Flash) would regularly DJ New York parties and also provided the musical backdrop for the jovial boasts of pioneering rappers like Kurtis Blow and Lovebug Starski. Meanwhile, another pioneer of turntablism named Grand Wizard Theodore had created a DJ technique called “cutting,” which is essentially the matching of similar tempos between two records so that the audio segue from one song to another sounds consistent. Flash began innovating the art of cutting and his transitions are widely credited as some of the smoothest in hip-hop’s history. Perhaps utilizing some of his training as an engineer, Grandmaster Flash also invented techniques such as the back-door, back-spin, phasing, and double-back, all of which are moves meant to help the DJ calculate the rotations of the record and physically alter them to change the sound.
Grandmaster Flash was steadily deejaying block parties throughout the Bronx for several years. During his ventures, Flash recruited MC friends Cowboy, Kidd Creole, and Melle Mel. With Grandmaster Flash providing the thumping beats, the group called themselves The Three MCs. Flash then brought two other friends on board, Scorpio (also known as Mr. Ness) and Rahiem. Now a larger squad, the group dabbled with names such as Younger Generation or Flash and the Five, before settling Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
While most rappers primarily dealt in self-aggrandizement, the Furious Five drew recognition for their unadulterated tales of urban life. Flash’s unique DJ arrangements also garnered the group popularity for his unique use of preexisting songs. The group was also characterized by their eccentric dress, which included tight leather pants, torn denim jackets, sailor outfits, and spiked bracelets. The group’s first release was 1979’s “Superappin” (Enjoy Records), a single that helped the group ink a deal with legendary hip-hop label, Sugarhill Records. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five soon yielded another single with their 12” release Freedom (Sugarhill Records) in 1980. The single eventually infiltrated the mainstream and was followed that year by another single, “Birthday Party” (1980 Sugarhill Records), and the immensely popular single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill Records) in 1981. “The Adventures…” can be called the true point where Flash came into his own as a DJ. Incorporating samples like Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Blondie’s “The Rapture,” and Chic’s “Good Times,” the revolutionary track was an impressive showcase of the legendary DJ’s prowess on his turntables. While scratching had become one of the conventions of a New York block party, “The Adventures…” marked the first time scratching was actually used on an official recording. However, the group’s most recognizable track is easily 1982’s “The Message,” which graphically explicated the hardships of inner-city life. While the track was released on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s debut full-length The Message (1982 Sugarhill Records), Melle Mel is the only member of the group who is actually featured on the track. Nonetheless, the song’s ubiquitous riff would earn the group an abundant amount of attention and would later be sampled (which is perhaps appropriate considering amount of success the group owed to the technique of sampling) by later hip-hop icons like Ice Cube and Sean Combs.
As hip-hop’s popularity continued to bloom, so did Flash’s prominence in the genre. The iconic DJ appeared in the hip-hop-themed 1983 film Wild Style. However, tension soon emerged between Flash and Sugar Hill Records due to unpaid royalties for records sold and for his appearance in Wild Style. The group soon split into two factions; Kidd Creole and Raheim remained with Grandmaster Flash, while Cowboy and Scorpio continued to work with Melle Mel as Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five. Now under the umbrella of Grandmaster Flash, Raheim, Kidd Creole, and Grandmaster Flash released They Said It Couldn't Be Done (Elektra) in 1985. The album found marginal success with the single “Sign of the Times” but overall was met with a lackluster reception. The trio followed with The Source (Elektra) in 1986 and Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang (Elektra) in 1987. Despite his enduring influence on hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash’s albums after his work with Melle Mel and company went largely unnoticed. Meanwhile, Melle Mel and his group had attained a far greater degree of success, especially after the release of their popular single “Beat Street Breakdown” and Melle Mel’s appearance on Chaka Kahn’s Grammy-winning “I Feel For You.”
Attempting to reignite the success they enjoyed in the early ‘80s, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reformed in 1987 at a charity concert in New York City. The next year they collectively released On the Strength (1988 Elektra). Despite the hype surrounding the reunion of the legendary Bronx crew, the album fared poorly. With the exception of another brief reunion in 1994, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five disbanded for good. Sadly, Cowboy died of a drug overdose in 1989.
While Grandmaster Flash suffered a rather lengthy streak of critically disparaged projects, it’s important to note that his contributions to the genre never ceased. The 21st century would see Flash release several mixes and while these mixes didn’t chart, they were exemplary of the Bronx-bred DJ’s devotion to the art of deejaying. The first mix he released on his own was Salsoul Jam 2000 (Salsoul Records) in 1997 and then The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash (Strut) in 2002, which heard Flash splicing and reworking songs like Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Computer Games.” Flash continued his output of mixes with Essential Mix: Classic Edition (Strut) in 2002 and the UK release Mixing Bullets and Firing Joints (Strut UK) in 2005. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash’s influence began to gain recognition as he and the rest of the Furious Five became the first hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later, he followed up with his seventh studio album, The Bridge — Concept of a Culture (2009 Strut), featuring special guests Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, and others.
Hip-hop is a genre in which success cannot fully be measured by albums sold. As a culture that was built upon the grassroots of DIY organization, hip-hop would not have infiltrated society to the depth it has today without the brilliant innovations of men like Grandmaster Flash. He is largely credited with converting the turntable — a device meant to play pre-recorded material — into an instrument itself.