Grandmaster Flash (originally, Saddler, Joseph)

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Grandmaster Flash (originally, Saddler, Joseph)

Grandmaster Flash (originally, Saddler, Joseph), one of the creators and popularizers of hip hop culture who, with the Furious Five, established the basic tonal and political vocabulary of rap; b. Barbados, West Indies, Jan. 1, 1958.

Joseph Saddler, a.k.a. Grandmaster Flash, was probably the first renowned virtuoso of the turntables. His main innovation capitalized on the work of two other legendary Bronx deejays: D.J. Jones, noted for impeccable timing of his segues; and Kool Here, known for his collection of obscure break beats. Even if Flash didn’t invent the fast cut technique, keeping two copies of a record on the turntables and cutting back and forth between them to lengthen breaks and solos, he did master it.

Born in the West Indies, he came to the Bronx at a fairly early age. By his teens, he played records at parties, dances and impromptu gatherings—throw downs—in parks around the Bronx, often pirating the electricity from power cables until the police came to shut the party down. While studying electronics during the day, he continued deejay ing by night, working local discos and working in his various techniques: quick cutting, scratching records, speed changes and back spinning.

Eventually Flash decided that this technique wouldn’t stand on its own as entertainment, so he took another page from Kool Here’s book. He enlisted alliances with MC’s, people who talked over the records, creating rhymes and exhorting people to dance. Early on he worked with Lovebug Starsky and Keith Wiggins. Wiggins, who became known as Cowboy, became the first member of Flash’s crew, the Furious Five. Kurtis Blow joined for a while, but the crew solidified as Grandmaster Melle Mel (born Melvin Glover), his brother Nathaniel (a.k.a. Kid Creole), Rahiem (born Todd Williams) and Scorpio (born Eddie Morris, a.k.a. Mr. Ness). They started playing shows and even cut a couple of records for upstart labels that heard this sound as a way to capitalize on the urban audience after the success of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The 12““Super Rapping Theme” on Enjoy didn’t sell well, nor did a couple the group cut for other companies under assumed names.

Joe Robinson, husband of Sylvia, who had a major hit with “Pillow Talk” on Robinson’s Vibration Records, had released the Sugarhill Gang’s record on his Sugar-hill label. Robinson bought the Furious Five out of their Enjoy contract and put his wife (a quarter of a century veteran performer by that time) to work with them. “Freedom” (1980) went to #19 on the R&B charts. The group went on tour, previously unheard of for rappers. They followed this up in 1981 with “Birthday Party,” a fun disc featuring the furious five playing kazoos. It went to #36 on the R&B chart.

The group put out a bunch of 12” singles during 1981: “Showdown” with the Sugarhill Gang and “It’s Nasty,” based on the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” stood out in the hip-hop crowd. Flash finally went public with the turntables as a solo instrument that year with “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel.” Mixing bits and pieces of Chic’s “Good Times” (the basis of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”), Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and the section of Blondie’s “Rapture” where Debbie Harry declaims “Flash is fast, Flash is cool, “the record remains a tour de force of old school hip-hop. It only served as a set up to their next single, however. In 1982, they unleashed “The Message.” Where rap had previously dealt mostly with MC concerns like partying, dancing and bragging, the message of “The Message” could make the blood run cold. A litany of social ills to which any of the members of the group and their Bronx peers could fall victim, it opened with the lines “Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the street, they just don’t care.” The record went to #4 on the R&B charts.

During the recording of their next single, the anti-cocaine rap “White Lines,” Flash had two major fallings out. He and Melle Mel had creative differences that led to two units called the Furious Five performing the next year. After the success of “The Message,” Flash asked Joe Robinson to show him the money. When Robinson didn’t, flash left Sugarhill. He signed to Elektra, but the luster and excitement weren’t there, and younger rappers started to steal Flash’s thunder. Add to that the coming of the sampler, a digital device that allowed digital devices to do simply what Flash had spent so many years perfecting, and Flash’s descent began. He started to have drug problems. His first three records were lackluster affairs.

In 1987, Paul Simon convinced both Flash and the Five to reunite for a concert to raise funds for inner city health services. The concert went so well, the group went into the studio to record On The Strength, which included a version of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” In 1991, Flash appeared in the film New Jack City, and started his own production company Master Groove Records. Other artists started to pay homage to rap’s early innovators. In 1992, Danish artist Nikolaj Steen recorded “The New Message” with Melle Mel and Scorpio. In 1995, Flash and Melle Mel guested on a cover of White Lines/7 In 1994, they went out on tour with a bunch of other old school rappers, though without Cowboy, who died Sept. 8, 1989. Flash also did a show on N.Y. radio and even appeared in a fashion spread for designer Louis Vuitton. Late in the 1990s, he served as music director and deejay for HBO’s Chris Rock Show.

Discography

The Message (1982); They Said It Couldn’t Be Done (1985); The Source (1986); Da Bop Boom Bang (1987); On the Strength (1988).

—Hank Bordowitz

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Grandmaster Flash (originally, Saddler, Joseph)

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