A pioneering artist and an indisputable icon, Grandmaster Flash is one of the most important and enduring figures in hip-hop history. He invented the DJ technique known as “cutting” — manipulating the vinyl back and forth and spinning it backward. That would later evolve into “scratching.” Although Grand Wizard Theodore (who studied under Flash) is widely credited with inventing scratching and adding a percussive element to it, it was Flash who originally developed the whole turntable science, paving the way for countless DJs around the world.
Born in Barbados and raised in the Bronx, a young Joseph Saddler fell under the intoxicating spell of vinyl as a youth, thanks largely to his father's massive record collection. In the early '70s, he began hitting up the neighborhood's many block parties and park jams, soaking in the sights and sounds of another local hero, Kool Herc.
Always experimenting with new techniques, Flash devised his own system of personally finessing songs and extending musical breaks. Cutting and backspinning the wax by hand, he developed “The Quick Mix Theory” — the process of blending one music break with another.
In the late '70s, he began working with rappers, including Kurtis Blow and Lovebug Starski. As MCs became more popular and abundant, Flash soon assembled his first real group, teaming up first with Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins and then brothers Nathaniel (Kid Creole) and Melvin (Grandmaster Melle Mel) Glover. The supporting cast of characters further heated up crowds with lyrical interplay, colorful boasts and call-and-response chants. Eventually two more members, Guy Williams (Raheim) and Eddie Morris (Scorpio, Mr. Ness), were added. Hip-hop music was coming into its own, with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five leading the charge.
They recorded for a few small companies, dropping hard-to-find singles like “We Rap More Mellow” (under the name The Younger Generation; Brass Records, 1979) and “Superrappin'” (Enjoy!, 1979). In 1980, after leaving Enjoy!, the crew signed to Sugar Hill Records. The following year, after earning a certified Gold plaque from the RIAA thanks to the song “Freedom,” Flash recorded a song that would forever alter the landscape of popular music. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was just that — a groundbreaking, epic routine that showcased his untouchable skills on the decks, seamlessly melding breaks from Queen's “Another One Bites the Dust” and Chic's “Good Times.”
While they were already rap royalty to everyone who had seen them live, Flash and company were about to hit the big time. In 1982, they released “The Message,” an instant classic and arguably the first hip-hop song that really delved into socio-economic issues: the plight of neglected masses and the perilous existence of poor people in America. “The Message” also spawned one of the first (and best) rap videos, and it proved that you could rhyme about more than just zodiac signs and still sound fresh.
Unfortunately, like so many acts before them, the group disbanded at the height of its success. The whole unit briefly reunited in the late '80s, but by then the hip-hop landscape was changing by leaps and bounds.
After keeping a relatively low profile for much of the '90s, Flash reemerged toward the end of the decade. He hosted several popular radio shows in New York, performed at the Super Bowl in 1998 and did a four-year stint as the music director of The Chris Rock Show on HBO. More recently, he has produced music for video games, designed a custom mixer for Rane and scored a book deal to pen his autobiography for Doubleday. He is also in the process of forming his own label, Adrenaline Entertainment.
In late February, the Smithsonian Institute announced its implementation of a permanent exhibit titled Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beats, the Rhymes, the Life. Flash, alongside fellow OGs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, are contributing to the historic collection. “Even asked to be in that space was quite an honor,” Flash says with pride. “They asked me if I could give them some things to put on display. I gave them a turntable, my signature hat, which is a Kangol, and a couple breakbeats.”
While popular music has a lengthy tradition of neglecting its forefathers, Flash remains a consistent draw, with two high-profile club residencies in Vegas and no shortage of solo tour dates around the world. Despite his legendary status, he stays humble and still seems honored by the massive hip-hop phenomenon he helped create.
“Thirty-something years ago it was just a thought,” he reflects. “And here it is 2006. To be acknowledged for the turntablism thing that I've created… people thought that I was some kind of idiot when I was first doing it. [Laughs.] To know that there's a whole world of DJs just like me, it's a blessing.”
For all aspiring DJs, Flash offers some advice: “I think that, in America, music is sectioned off. And I'm a strong believer that in your boxes of records, or in your laptop, or in your CD case, you must have some black music, white music, rock music, pop music, R&B music, hip-hop music. I say, for the DJ that really wants to be bigger than [just] in his neighborhood, you must listen to everything, 'cause music no longer has a color. Great music is great music, and that's the way it should be.”