There are lots of stories about the birth of jazz and the beginning of rock n’ roll, but hip-hop has founding fathers: one of them is DJ Grandmaster Flash. In the early 70’s Joseph Saddler was living in the South Bronx and studying electrical engineering. However, Saddler, a native of the Bronx, had a much deeper passion for music; he had been experimenting with his father’s vinyl since he was an adolescent. His knowledge of audio equipment led him to an idea that would revolutionize music: the turntable would become his instrument.
The career of DJ Grandmaster Flash began in the Bronx with neighborhood block parties that essentially were the start of hip-hop—the dawn of a musical genre. He was the first DJ to physically lay his hands on the vinyl and manipulate it in a backward, forward or counterclockwise motion, when most DJs simply handled the record by the edges, put down the tone arm, and let it play. Those DJs let the tone arm guide their music, but Flash marked up the body of the vinyl with crayon, fluorescent pen, and grease pencil—and those markings became his compass.
He invented the Quick Mix Theory, which included techniques such as the double-back, back-door, back-spin, and phasing. This allowed a DJ to make music by touching the record and gauging its revolutions to make his own beat and his own music. Flash’s template grew to include cuttin’, which, in turn, spawned scratching, transforming, the Clock Theory and the like. He laid the groundwork for everything a hip hop DJ can do with a record today, other than just letting it play. What we call a DJ today is a role that Flash invented.
By the end of the 70s, Flash had started another trend that became a hallmark of hip-hop: emcees asked to rap over his beats. Before long, he started his own group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their reputation grew up around the way the group traded off and blended their lyrics with Flash’s unrivaled skills as a DJ and his acrobatic performances—spinning and cutting vinyl with his fingers, toes, elbows, and any object at hand.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five went Platinum with their single, “The Message.” Meanwhile, the single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” introduced hip hop DJing to a larger listening audience than it had ever known before; it became the first DJ composition to be recorded by a DJ. The group’s fame only grew with “Superappin,” “Freedom,” “Larry’s Dance Theme,” and “You Know What Time It Is.” Punk and new wave fans were introduced to Flash through Blondie, who immortalized him in their hit, “Rapture.”
The rock n’ roll establishment also recognized Flash with an honor no one else in hip hop has received: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip hop group ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Flash is also the only hip hop DJ to ever receive that honor.
By the time the 90s rolled around, Flash was hand picked by Chris Rock to spend five years as the music director for his groundbreaking HBO series, The Chris Rock Show. More recently, Flash has played for audiences as large as the Super Bowl and as elite as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
Today, Flash has a weekly show on Sirius Radio, The Flash Mash on Hot Jams 50. The show is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of Flash’s tastes, spanning just about any genre from just about any corner of the world; it airs on Saturdays from 5-8pm.
On top of his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Flash has been the recipient of many awards, including VH1 Hip Hop Honors; The Icon Award from BET in honor of his contribution to hip hop as a DJ; The Lifetime Achievement Award from the RIAA; and Bill Gates’ Vanguard Award.
Although Flash has been in the business for many years, he shows no sign of slowing down: this coming year promise, a new album, and he will began his descent from the analog vinyl world of DJing to enter the digital world of DJing. His DJ application of choice will be “Traktor Scratch” by Native Instruments.
Grandmaster Flash’s memoirs, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash – My Life My Beats is slated to hit bookstores on June 10. The book is penned by David Ritz, author of both Marvin Gaye’s and Ray Charles’ biographies. In this extraordinary book, Grandmaster Flash sets down Hip Hop history,sharing for the first time his personal and difficult life story—along with no small amount of wisdom and experience.
The Smithsonian Museum of American History in honor of Black History Month has opened its exhibit RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture that Grandmaster Flash along with other hip hop artist such as LL Cool J, Erykah Badu and Common will be featured. The exhibition opened on February 8 and will be throughout October 8, 2008.