Grandmaster Flash: Rap Pioneer

Excerpted from the magazine for

Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop's pioneering DJs, will receive the Billboard's 2003 Hip-Hop Founders Award Aug. 8 at this year's Billboard-AURN R&B/Hip-Hop Awards show at the Roney Palace in Miami Beach, Fla..

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's groundbreaking 1982 hit "The Message" was a milestone in the emergence of rap. The origins of the DJ techniques of cutting, back spinning and phasing can be traced to the "steel wheels" of this innovative artist.

Born Joseph Saddler, Flash was a child of Bajan descent raised in the Bronx, N.Y., as hip-hop culture was taking root. Flash watched fellow pioneers like DJ Kool Herc -- known as the godfather of hip-hop -- spin in parks, playgrounds and at block parties throughout the New York borough.

After proving his prowess as a DJ, Flash fronted Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, starting in 1977. The group went on to record such seminal albums as "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" and "The Message" for Sugar Hill Records.

A constant on the hip-hop scene for more than 25 years, Flash has served as a New York radio personality and the music director on HBO's "The Chris Rock Show."

He is currently an on-air personality for a hip-hop channel on Sirius Satellite Radio and has endorsement relationships with Pro-Ked sneakers, professional audio products Rane Corp. and the American Eagle Outfitters clothing chain. He is writing an autobiography with New York Daily News reporter Chris Coleman and is launching his own label, Adrenaline.

When did you know that this was your calling?

I attempted to be a break-dancer first. But I found myself drawn to watching Kool Herc. After the third time I saw him, I noticed this thing I later termed the "disarray unison factor." He might play something that was downtempo and then right behind that would play something that was uptempo, and it wasn't on time. In between record A and record B, you could see how off time it was in the way the audience would go into disarray. "Find the beat and then go back into unison" was basically my calling from God. I knew I had to fix that.

I felt like God was talking to me then. I decided not to do the things that normal teenagers did, like having my first cigarette, worrying about sex or hanging out in the park playing basketball. It was just me and my mini-Doberman pinscher named Caesar. He was my audience.

How did you learn DJing techniques?

I was in search of something, taking tracks from vinyl and making them one big song. That was the mission. From there, it was a matter of actually pulling it off. That's when I had to come up with terms like "the torque factor" -- how I judge the turntable from the state of inertia to when it was up to speed. That taught me how much torque the turntable could have, once it's in motion, so I could pull the record back and forth so it wouldn't hop the platter.

I went through countless turntables. Then it was a matter of finding the right needles. That's when I discovered that there were two classifications of phono needles: elliptical and conical. Although the elliptical needles sounded better, they didn't fit as well in the groove as a conical needle, which is shaped more like a nail. So, when I started moving the record back and forth, I noticed that it could just go to a particular part in the record. With duplicate copies of a record, I could repeat it.

From there, I had to figure out how to re-repeat from one particular section, and that's how I came up with the "clock theory," where I would spin the record back a few revolutions and then, re-arriving at the top of the break, release and then go to the other record. And back and forth. It was a constant moving motion.

As you began creating these different techniques, did you ever imagine that you were creating something so influential?

I was just learning as I was going. Today, you can buy turntables, needles and mixers that are equipped to do whatever. You can buy all these things now, but at that particular time, I had to build it. I had to take microphone mixers and turn them into turntable mixers. I was taking speakers out of abandoned cars and using people's thrown-away stereos.

After you established yourself as a DJ, why did you decide to form Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five?

There were critical points here. When I used to watch Herc, he used to talk [on the mic] and DJ. When I came up with my style of cutting, I would try to talk and mix, but I was awful at it. It wasn't until recently that I mastered the two.

At that time, I was so busy as a DJ, I couldn't find a way to talk and spin. So, when I would go to the parks to play, I would set up my system and put a microphone on the other side of the table. [A lot of people] thought that they could vocalize the new style of DJing. Damn near all of them who tried failed.

[Then] I met Keith Wiggins [aka Cowboy in the Furious Five]. He had the voice of a ringmaster, and he had the uncanny ability to get people to do things aerobically.

In recent years, the DJ has not had as much respect as the MC in hip-hop. What is the role of the DJ in hip-hop today compared with when you started?

The DJ played an extremely important role for setting the atmosphere before the MCs would come on. A lot of people in the media fail to realize that if they don't teach people where this comes from, they'll never know. It saddens me that kids who are into rock'n'roll know the Rolling Stones and Elvis. They know where rock'n'roll came from. But in hip-hop, the masses don't really know that in 1971, hip-hop was created by a DJ.

If Herc didn't do that, we might not have this. There are only a handful of us who still have our prominence, like Jazzy Jeff, Kid Capri, Funk Master Flex, Qbert and myself. Maybe two handfuls that have real prominence, yet there are thousands of MCs who have prominence, and that saddens me.

That's one of the reasons that I decided to come out and do what I know and what I love-alone, as a DJ.

Excerpted from the Aug. 9, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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