WHEELS OF STEEL
A Toast to Grandmaster Flash: Hip-hop Pioneer, Turntable Wizard and Superhero DJ
At 60 years old, the DJ pioneer is still a beacon of youthful enthusiasm for what hip-hop has been and continues to be.
The term “old school” can often feel like a loaded distinction in hip-hop. Too often, “old school” is casually seen as a preamble to the era when rap music attained its highest mainstream visibility; too often, it’s a blanket term that makes no distinction between the “Yes, yes, y’all” party rhymes of 1979 or the fiery rhetoric of early 1990s Public Enemy. But hip-hop’s true old school is its original class, those pioneers who built the culture from the ground up in the 1970s. Before radio and before Yo! MTV Raps and before The Source or XXL, these were the architects that laid the foundation on the backs of live experience, community and youthful creativity.
And of those who were there at the beginning, Grandmaster Flash remains one of the most important figures in hip-hop history.
Of course, it was DJ Kool Herc whose mythic party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue set so much in motion. Herc was the South Bronx DJ with the famously massive sound system, who’d introduced his “merry-go-round” technique of extending the musical instrumental portion (or “break”) of a funk or dance record. Herc was hip-hop’s Big Bang, and fellow South Bronx DJ Afrika Bambaataa had corralled the DJs, B-boys and graffiti artists into a scene by co-opting organizational skills he’d learned as a member of the Black Spades gang.
But it was Grandmaster Flash who set hip-hop DJing on an entirely new path. The South Bronx DJs were already playing for crowds and playing the kind of music that separated their scene entirely from what established DJs were doing throughout New York City.
Young Joseph Saddler, Jr. was born in Barbados and raised in the Bronx. A music lover since early childhood, Joseph, Jr. was often beaten for playing his dad’s precious records, and in one instance, was knocked unconscious after shattering Joseph Sr.’s copy of “Jelly Jelly” by Billy Eckstine. Upon coming to, Joseph Jr. saw that his father had flown into a rage, attacking his mother with a skillet before storming out of the house. His parents’ subsequent divorce led to his mother eventually having an emotional breakdown, and Joseph and his sisters were soon put in foster care. Split up in various homes around New York City, the Saddler kids would regularly run away from their foster homes and sneak back to the Bronx, until they were moved eighty miles away to suburban Millbrook, New York. The new environment separated Joseph from the music he loved, but he began to DJ high school dances.
After their mother was released from Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, Flash moved back to the Bronx. Now living near 163rd and Fox (his family had previously lived at Throgg’s Neck), Flash was once again readjusting to a new culture; and gangs were everywhere. He failed as a graffiti artist and wasn’t cut out to be in a gang. But, while attending a vocational school, Flash became intrigued by electronics.
“When I became a teenager, I started taking apart all the electronic equipment I could find,” Flash recalled in a 2008 interview with Newsweek. “I became public enemy No. 1 in my house, because everything that made noise—from a stereo to a hairdryer to the washing machine—I'd take apart, trying to figure out how it worked. When I didn't have equipment, I'd go into people's back yards and take their junk—old stereo equipment, car parts—and bring them back into my room to take it apart. I was in search of something.”
A friend named E-Z Mike also encouraged Flash’s love of music, and it was Mike, a dancer, who encouraged Flash to become a B-boy. But after overhearing a conversation about a party at Sedgwick Avenue, Flash realized his future lay on a different path. In May 1974, Flash went to a DJ Kool Herc party and decided DJing was his destiny.
There were established DJs coming out of Brooklyn and Queens before the South Bronx boom, who thrived as Flash and his contemporaries rose to prominence. Spinners like Grandmaster Flowers (Brooklyn native Jonathan Flowers) and Nu Sounds out of Elmhurst, Queens were deejaying parties in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Donny Lawrence aka Dance Master helped set a new standard for sound systems with ones specially-built by technician Richard Long. DJ Plummer was captivated by the possibilities of improving sound at parties, and was inspired to become a DJ solely for what he could achieve sonically. The Disco Twins also pushed sonics forward.
Joseph Saddler would name himself “Grandmaster” after Grandmaster Flowers, and “Flash” after comic-book superhero Flash Gordon. One weakness that Flash observed in the prevailing approach to deejaying at hip-hop parties was the clumsy way DJs transitioned from one record to the other. There would usually be a few seconds of tempo shifting that caused the dancers to pause as the records changed. Flash realized that if he could transition from one record to the next without disrupting the dancers, he could push things a step farther than Herc or Bambaataa had up to that point.
Flash debuted his “Quick Mix Theory” at a party at 23 Park at 166th Street and Tinton Avenue. The technique enabled DJs to mix two records without skipping a beat; and dancers were so befuddled the first time he showcased his skill at a party that they stopped dancing to see what this new guy was doing. The technique made Flash one of the most talked-about DJs in the Bronx, but he felt like a failure because the dancers stopped dancing. Convinced he should quit, Flash was encouraged to stay the course by an older woman in his neighborhood.
Flash’s diligence would soon pay dividends, and it would lead to further innovation in hip-hop. In trying to teach his breakdance partner “Mean” Gene Livingston to become a DJ, Flash inadvertently sparked an interest in the art form in Gene’s younger brother, Theodore. Flash saw potential in bringing Theodore into the crew, but Gene would not allow it. The story goes that young Theodore’s mother yelled at him to turn his music down, and he inadvertently put his hand down on the record while it was spinning—creating a “scratching” sound. He moved the record back and forth, and grew enamored with the sound. Flash would bring Theodore onstage during a set at 63 Park, which infuriated Gene. Not wanting to alienate his brother, Theodore parted ways with Flash. Gene would follow. Once again, on his own, Grandmaster Flash soon realized he needed to put together a new kind of crew.
As Flash’s star rose, he had to contend with the fact that audiences were often mostly captivated by what he was doing, ignoring the B-boys and sometimes not dancing. More and more DJs were incorporating emcees into their sets; that is, having someone on the microphone shouting out the DJ and keeping the party moving. KC Prince of Soul, Grandmaster Flowers’ emcee, was the first to talk over a record—imitating popular radio DJ Hank Spann of WWRL. Soon after, Harlem’s DJ Hollywood began talking over his mixes and became more famous for his wordplay than for his deejaying. Hollywood’s street fame led to him selling copies of his deejay sets around the way at barbershops and bodegas. On the strength of their party-friendly approach, Eddie Cheeba and DJ Hollywood became the house DJs at Harlem’s Club 371.
In the South Bronx, DJ Kool Herc had Coke La Rock talking at his shows, but the B-boys were still the primary attraction for Herc and for Afrika Bambaataa. After all, the South Bronx DJs saw themselves as a part of a different scene than flashy club DJs like DJ Hollywood; a different mindset and culture. There was an “us” vs “them” ethos born of the Bronx’s outsider identity; the DJs in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens were too beholden to disco, too eager to be hip and cool. The South Bronx DJs were playing for grimy kids who were doing their own thing. And they preferred it that way. The slick-talking of club DJs wouldn’t really be appropriate for these youngsters in sneakers and jeans.
But Flash knew that he had to make a change. Flash had his own dancers, The D Squad, but he would subsequently meet a brash would-be emcee named Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins after Wiggins punched another prospective rhymer at a Flash show and grabbed the microphone. With crowd-engaging chants like “Throw your hands in the air and wave ‘em like ya just don’t care!,” Cowboy proved to be exactly what Flash needed in terms of an emcee who could move the crowd.
By incorporating Cowboy’s call-and-response rhymes into his show, Flash was able to get the audience’s attention away from him and onto the music. Herc and Bam had dancers who primarily served as showstoppers at their parties, but Flash was the first to really center the emcee in his parties at 63 Park with Cowboy. It sparked a significant shift away from B-boys and toward emcees as the chief showmen in hip-hop.
Soon Flash recruited former B-boys, brothers Melvin “Melle Mel” and Nathaniel “Kid Creole” Glover. With Cowboy, they became The 3 MCs; Melle Mel in particular would revolutionize the way emcees approached rhymes. As opposed to just the slick toasting that DJ Hollywood had employed, The 3 MCs wrote out rhymes that were a bit more descriptive, combative and original. Cowboy coined the term “hip-hop” as a reference to what club-centric detractors of the culture would use to describe the unrefined “scat routine” of “hip-hoppers” in the Bronx. Mel and Creole called themselves “Masters of Ceremonies” and Flash would soon bring in Scorpio (Eddie Morris) and Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams.) Even at this early juncture, there was friction between Flash and his new crew; he would work outside the group with other up-and-comers like Kurtis Blow, which led to the crew (now christened “The Furious Five”) to work with DJ Charlie Chase for a time.
Sylvia Robinson had reached out to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five about recording a song for her Sugar Hill Records. Flash declined at the time because the idea of a hip-hop record still seemed ridiculous to him. Of course, Robinson would soon sign a trio of unknowns, name them “The Sugarhill Gang,” and release the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. “I’m wondering why I don’t know about them,” Flash would recall in his memoir. “Because I was real particular about who was doing what, at least the ones that was rocking.”
Shortly after the success of “Rappers Delight,” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five would sign with Enjoy Records and release “Superrappin’” before finally landing on Sugar Hill Records with Robinson. They released moderate hits like “Freedom” and “Birthday Party” in 1980 and 1981, with Flash’s turntable skills prominently showcased on the first turntable-focused record The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. Of course, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five would release their most seminal recording in 1982 with “The Message.”
Their biggest hit would be a bitter pill for the group. Now commercial stars, The Furious Five had to contend with the fact that they hadn’t written the massive hit (it was penned only by Melle Mel and Sugar Hill’s in-house producer Duke Bootee) and Flash hadn’t appeared on their hit singles, which focused on live bands as opposed to DJ scratches. The awkward transition of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five from 70s hip-hop block party mainstays to chart-topping recording artists was indicative of the culture’s strain under newfound industry commodification. The crew would eventually split in a haze of acrimony and lawsuits, with Melle Mel going on to solo stardom and Flash becoming one of the more prominent DJs and elder statesmen in hip-hop. But even outside of “The Message” and the hostilities that followed, Grandmaster Flash’s legacy is substantial.
Flash’s musical contributions don’t negate the impact of his contemporaries, but the man’s legacy is unique. He not only stands as one of the “Holy Trinity” of South Bronx DJs alongside Herc and Bambaataa, he is an important link in the development of hip-hop deejaying, both in his own innovations, and in his mentorship of Grand Wizzard Theodore. He also stands as one of the most important pillars in the evolution of emceeing, as it was Flash who discovered Cowboy and put Melle Mel on the microphone. And the recording legacy of the Furious Five is indelible; they’re among the first hip-hop acts to make records, and Flash released one of the first turntable-focused recordings in modern music. All of that on top of being credited with releasing what may be the most significant hip-hop record of all time.
Grandmaster Flash turned 60 years old on January 1, 2018. For most of his life, he’s been defined by his relationship with and importance to hip-hop. His story has been told via his own words, countless hip-hop historians and even through the glossy fiction of Netflix’s ambitious look at hip-hop’s early days The Get Down. Arguably the most visible of hip-hop’s early innovators, Flash remains an example of hip-hop’s storied past and revelatory potential; a beacon of youthful enthusiasm for what hip-hop has been and continues to be.
“When I started doing this, I always thought about how if this could just get out, to be talked about, to be heard by other genres of people, they'd be hooked,” Flash mused in 2008. “But never did I think rich white suburban kids would be listening to it. Or that if I'd go to places like India or Burma or Africa, that I'd be looked at as some kind of superhero.”
But Joseph Saddler is a superhero. A turntable wizard. And he’s still doing it at 60. We’re all lucky to still follow the adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the wheels of steel.