Grandmaster Flash (Contemporary Musicians)
Rap musician, disc jockey
Known as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash was one of rap's earliest technical pioneers; the innovative turntable techniques he experimented with in the 1970s have become synonymous with rap and hip-hop today. Flash and his group, the Furious Five, became one of the best-known rap acts of the early 1980s, with popular singles such as "The Message," "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," and "White Lines (Don't Do It)." Flash split from the Furious Five and went on to record on his own, but faded from mainstream popularity in the 1980s. Flash came back into view in the 1990s as an elder statesman of the genre, revived and celebrated by contemporary hip-hop groups and media.
Turntable Antics Became Hip-Hop Legend
Grandmaster Flash was born Joseph Saddler on January 1, 1958, in Barbados, West Indies, but was raised in the Bronx, New York. Recognizing her boy's fascination with electronics, Saddler's mother sent him to Samuel Gompers Vocational High School. His musical tastes were shaped by what he snuck from his father's and sister's record collectionse plucked Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Stan Kenton from his father; his sister's collection exposed him to Michael Jackson, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, James Brown, Joe Corba, and Sly and the Family Stone, among others. He attended early DJ parties thrown by DJ Flowers, MaBoya, and Peter "DJ" Jones as a teen. Jones took an interest in the young Saddler, and the upstart DJ began to engineer his own turntable style.
Flash was not the first person to experiment with two turntables, but his discoveries are among the most known in contemporary hip-hop. Among the innovative turntable techniques Flash is credited with developing are "cutting" and "scratching" (pushing the record back and forth on the turntable), "phasing" (manipulating turntable speeds), and repeating the drum beat or climatic part of a record, called the "break." He developed a way to segue between records without missing a beat, using a mixer. He was also known for his technical tricks, mixing records behind his back or under tables and manipulating mixing faders with his feet. In the late 1980s, he was the first DJ to design and market his own DJ device, the Flashformer.
After nearly a year spent practicing in his 167th Street apartment, Saddler started spinning records at free block parties and parks in the Bronx, often illegally pilfering power for his sound system from intercepted power mains until being shut down by the police. He soon earned the nickname "Flash" for his rapid hand movements and general dexterity on the decks. Not completely satisfied that his wily turntable tricks were enough in themselves to completely entertain an audience, Flash invited friend and vocalist Keith Wiggins, later known as Cowboy, to share the stage with him. Wiggins would become one of rap's first "MCs," rapping lyrics over Flash's beats.
Was Paid to DJ
Until he was approached by promoter Raymond Chandler, Flash performed in the style of the timesor free. Chandler was among the first to see the commercial viability, and Flash agreed to let Chandler promote him and charge entrance fees, though Flash could not believe anyone would pay to see him spin records.
In the mid-1970s, friends Grandmaster Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover) joined with Flash and Wiggins to form Grandmaster Flash and the Three MCs. Two more rappers, Kurtis Blow (Kurt Walker) and Duke Bootee (Ed Fletcher), joined and were later replaced by Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams) and Scorpio (Eddie Norris, a.k.a. Mr. Ness). The sextet became known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which became one of rap's first groups. The crew was known for its choreography, studded leather stage wear, and solid rapping skills. According to GrandmasterFlash.com, Furious Five MC Cowboy pioneered phrases like "Throw your hands in the air, and wave 'em like ya just don't care!," "Clap your hands to the beat!," and "Everybody say, ho!" which are echoed tirelessly in contemporary hip-hop. The early days of live rap fostered head-to-head rapping competitions between rival MCs (later known as battling), often competing for their competitor's equipment in lieu of prize money.
Flash and the group recorded a number of singles for the Enjoy label, the first of which, "Super Rappin'," was released in 1976. Though an underground hit, the song went mostly unnoticed, as did the subsequent singles "We Rap Mellow," and "Flash to the Beat." Joe Robinson Jr. bought out Flash's Enjoy contract for his Sugarhill record label, and one of the most legendary artist-label teams was born. Robinson's wife, Sylvia, began writing songs for the group, and they released "Freedom," which was pushed to gold-selling status by the first major tour in rap history. The single "Birthday Party" followed, but the revolutionary "Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" was released soon after and became a smash hit. The first song to incorporate samples, "Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" dramatically showcased Flash's singular talent and changed the way music was recorded.
Got "The Message"
Cowritten by Sylvia Robinson, 1982's "The Message" was decidedly darker and more focused on urban issues than the group's previous party anthems and, though Flash and the Five recorded it reluctantly, the record became a platinum-selling hit within a month of its release. During recording of the anti-cocaine single "White Lines (Don't Do It)," Flash and Mel had a falling out. Also, despite the group's success, Flash had not seen much in the way of profits, so he left Sugarhill Records and took Kid Creole and Rahiem with him to sign a deal with Elektra Records. The rest of the group stayed as Melle Mel and the Furious Five, and achieved nearly instant success with the single "White Lines." The popular anthem was ironic, as Flash himself had become a freebasing cocaine addict. Flash and Mel later appeared together on a 1995 cover of the song by Duran Duran.
Flash drifted out of mainstream culture for much of the 1980s. His solo record, 1985's They Said it Couldn't be Done, met with low critical response. Songs like "Alternate Groove" and "Larry's Dance Theme," critic Ralph Novak wrote in People, "were fun, enjoyable, and incorporated the lyrical phrasing and turntable and synthesizer manipulations that Flash was famous for." But those two strong songs were lost in the sea of "homogenized pop" that dominated the record, Novak continued. Novak declared Flash could not "be forgiven for forsaking the rhythmic rapping that made him a hip-hop star." 1986's The Source noted that the album was a bitter and boastful declaration that alleged all other rappers had only copied Flash and his style. The record's strong point, noted People critic David Hilt-brand, was Flash's "feverish turntable scratching technique" on what he considered the "best tracks," "Fastest Man Alive," and "Style," but those skills were hidden throughout most of the record.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reunited on-stage for a charity concert hosted by Paul Simon in 1987, but a proper reunion did not occur until 1994, for a rap-oldies show that also featured Kurtis Blow, Whodini, and Run-DMC. Flash returned to mainstream consciousness in the 1990s, celebrated by hip-hop culture and media as an elder statesman of hip-hop. He coproduced Public Enemy DJ Terminator X's solo record, Super Bad, and hosted a call-in radio show that showcased hopeful MCs. A slough of greatest hits records were released in the late 1990s, and Flash worked as musical director and DJ of HBO's Chris Rock Show.
Received Founder's Award
At the end of 2001 Flash was busy at work on a new solo project built around the sounds he experimented with at the South Bronx block parties of the late 1970s. The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash was released in January of 2002, and included cuts from original block party tapes, and exclusive interview footage with Flash himself. Flash also prepared a 28-page booklet to be included with the release, featuring rare photographs from the period and a detailed history of the era. Flash received the Founder's Award for hiphop, at the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards.
In May of 2002, Flash followed up his The Official Adventures... collection with Essential Mix Classic Edition. Released by Rhino Records, the album featured what All Music Guide called a "contemporary look at the classic sound of the wildly diverse old-school rap scene." The release zeroed in on synth-centric 1980s works by Nu Shooz, Fatback, Maze, Blondie, and Liquid Liquid (whose bass line on "Cavern" supplied the main melody to Flash's "White Lines").
Following the release of Essential Mix Classic Edition, Grandmaster Flash focused on new projects, like endorsing the Empath mixer for the Rane Corporation in 2002. He also continued with his commitment to hiphop radio, DJing at such radio stations as WBLS, Hot 97 Radio, and Sirius Satellite Radio's Hot Jamz channel. In 2004, Flash announced that he'd be starting a new record label, called Adrenaline City Entertainment. He was also nominated as a part of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to be a part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in December of 2004.
Greatest Messages, Sugarhill, 1983.
They Said It Couldn't Be Done, Elektra, 1985.
The Source, Elektra, 1986.
Ba Dop Boom Bang, Elektra, 1987.
On the Strength, Elektra, 1988.
Grandmaster Flash Vs. the Sugarhill Gang, Recall, 1997.
Greatest Mixes, Deep Beats, 1998.
Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, Sugarhill, 1999.
Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash, Strut, 2002.
Essential Mix Classic Edition, Rhino, 2002.
With The Furious Five
The Message, Sugarhill, 1982.
Work Party, Sugarhill, 1984.
Stepping Off, 1985.
On The Strength, 1988.
Greatest Hits, Sugarhill, 1989.
Message from Beat Street: The Best of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five, Rhino, 1994.
More Hits from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Vol. 2, Deep Beats, 1996.
Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five: More of the Best, Rhino, 1996.
Right Now, Str8 Game, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, third edition, Fireside/Rolling Stone Press, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, June 24, 1994, p. 14.
People, March 25, 1985, p. 22; June 23, 1986, p. 18.
"Grandmaster Flash," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2004).
"Grandmaster Flash Interview in London," View London, http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/home_feat_int_grandmaster.asp (March 7, 2004).
Grandmaster Flash Official Website, http://www.grandmasterflash.com (January 7, 2004).
"Grandmaster Flash: Rap Moves On," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/_/id/5924405/grandma... (January 7, 2004).
New Musical Express online, http://www.nme.com (January 7, 2004).
renna Sanchez and Ryan Allen
Flash, Grandmaster (Contemporary Musicians)
Grandmaster Flash was one of the founding fathers and a true innovator of hip-hop music. Dubbed "the [conductor Arturo] Toscanini of the turntables," he pioneered the art of deejaying in the 1970s by inventing many of the scratch-mixing techniques that later became the backbone of hip-hop and rap songs. His group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was one of the first rap acts to break out of the local New York rap scene and become an international success. Their groundbreaking musical and lyrical styles laid down the building blocks of modern rap and influenced virtually every rap and hip-hop artist that came after them. Grandmaster Flash was truly one of rap's first superstars, but his climb to the top was tumultuous, and his stay there was brief.
Born Joseph Saddler on January 1, 1958, in New York City, Grandmaster Flash began his career in the early 1970s as a mobile DJ spinning records at outdoor parties in the streets and parks of New York's South Bronx. Fascinated by music and audio circuitry, he aspired to do more than just play other people's music. "Most deejays at parties would simply play a record all the way to the end, but I was too fidgety to wait," Flash explained in Rap: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers, "so I wanted to do something to enhance the music."
Experimenting with two turntables and a homemade cueing system, Flash began mixing together two copies of the same record technique that would become the basis for all scratch mixing. He practiced his new craft for nearly a year before taking it to the streets in late 1973. It was an instant hit but with one unexpected drawback. "Half an hour into my thing, in my experimental stage, people would just start watching me," Flash told Eric Berman in a Rolling Stone interview. "This got me very angry. I wanted to excite the crowd, to make people dance."
Searching for a way to take some of the attention off himself while still complementing his mixing, Flash invited his friend Keith Wiggins to join him on stage. While Flash mixed, Wiggins would shout improvised rhymes to the crowd in time with the music. The arrangement clicked and Wiggins, who would later adopt the name Cowboy, became one of the first rap MCs (mike controllers).
Over the next few months, four more MCs joined Grand-master Flashhe Glover brothers, Melvin and Nathaniel, who took the names MC Melle Mel and Kid Creole; Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams); and Scorpio (Eddie Morris). Now six in all, they dubbed themselves Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and quickly became one of the hottest groups in the New York metropolitan area. They were even offered a record deal with a small local label, but Flash turned the offer down, not believing that anyone would pay money for a rap record.
First Single Caught Sugarhill's Attention
The group played to packed houses at shows around the South Bronx for the next few years but failed to gain more than local success. Then, in 1979, the world of rap music changed forever. A small New Jersey record company called Sugarhill Records released the single "Rapper's Delight" by a group called Sugarhill Gang. One of the first rap singles ever recorded and distributed, "Rapper's Delight" shot to the top of the charts. Record companies scrambled to sign hip-hop and rap acts. Flash and the Five were approached by Enjoy Records owner Bobby Robinson and asked if they wanted to make a record. This time, Flash jumped at the chance. The group quickly recorded their first single, "Super Rappin'," which was released in late 1979.
Though not as successful as "Rapper's Delight," "Super Rappin'" brought Flash and the Five to the attention of Sugarhill Records' owner Sylvia Robinson, who bought the group's contractfrom Enjoy. They released their first Sugarhill single, "Freedom," in 1980. The record went gold, selling over 500,000 copies nationwide and spurring Sugarhill to send the group on a 40-city U.S. tour. The following year, Flash and the Five released two more singles on Sugarhill, "Birthday Party" and "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," both of which went gold. The latter track featured the first serious use of sampled music and sounds on a rap record.
The group's biggest success came in 1982 when Sylvia Robinson asked them to record "The Message, "a song she cowrote, featuring graphic lyrics about the horrors of growing up in the streets of a crime-infested ghetto. "The Message" became known as the first "conscience rap" song and opened up rap as a medium for serious social commentary. In the United States, the single went gold in 21 days and platinum in 41 days. It also introduced Flash and the Five to an English audience, reaching Number Eight on the British charts. By then a worldwide success, the group went on tour again, this time playing shows in both the States and Europe.
Royalty Dispute Led to Split
In June of 1983 discord broke out between Flash and Sugarhill over royalty payments for "The Message." Unable to settle the dispute, Flash left Sugarhill in November and sued the label for $5 million and the right to use the group's name at another label. The suit split the members down the middle. Rahiem and Kid Creole sided with Flash; Melle Mel, Cowboy, and Scorpio sided with Sugarhill. Flash later lost the court case. He was awarded no money and retained only the right to use the name Grandmaster Flash.
In 1985 Flash signed a ontract with Elektra Records and released his first solo album, They Said It Couldn't Be Done, which made a one-week appearance on the UK charts at Number 95. Over the next two years Flash released two more albums on Elektra, The Source in 1986 and Ba Dop Boom Bang in 1987. Both were commercial failures.
A lack of solo commercial success forced the original lineup of Flash, Melle Mel, Rahiem, Cowboy, Kid Creole, and Scorpio to reunite as Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and the Furious Five in 1987 for a charity concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. The reunion sparked renewed interest in the group. The six artists began working together on new songs, including a remake of the Steppenwolf classic "Magic Carpet Ride," and released On the Strength on Elektra in 1988.
But the album went nowhere and the reunion failed. The group split up a second time and the members faded into relative obscurity. Depressed and despondent, Flash turned to cocaine for escape. "It really messed me up," he said later in a Rolling Stone interview. "I walked away from my beats. Lost touch with what I loved. I no longer had the freedom, like back in the park." With the help of his sister, Flash eventually kicked his cocaine habit and set his sights on a new profession, that of producer. "I had always wanted to put music together for other people," he said in Rolling Stone. In 1993 he did just that, coproducing Public Enemy DJ Terminator X's album Super Bad.
The resurgence of interest in "old school" rap brought Flash back to his turntables in 1994. In the spring, he toured Germany, Japan, and the United States, deejaying for rappers Whodini and Kurtis Blow. He later hooked up with MC Melle Mel to help Duran Duran record a remake of his and Mel's 1983 hit "White Lines."
When asked in an Entertainment Weekly interview what he thought of younger music acts remaking his songs and building on the techniques he innovated, Flash replied, "It's great that the newer artists know where it came from, because it wasn't easy. In hip-hop, the formula was set so that it could be constantly reinnovated. So I would say to the hip-hop world, don't hold back anything, because that thing that you hold back might be the next big thing."
With the Furious Five
"Super Rappin'," Enjoy, 1979.
"Freedom," Sugarhill, 1980.
"Birthday Party," Sugarhill, 1981.
"The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," Sugarhill, 1981.
"The Message," Sugarhill, 1982.
"White Lines (Don't Do It)," Sugarhill, 1983.
On the Strength, Elektra, 1988.
They Said It Couldn't Be Done, Elektra, 1985.
The Source, Elektra, 1986.
Ba Dop Boom Bang, Elektra, 1987.
Adler, B., and Janette Beckman, Rap: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers, St. Martin's, 1991.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Billboard, March 26, 1988.
Entertainment Weekly, June 6, 1994.
Keyboard, November 1988.
Melody Maker, December 11, 1982; December 18, 1982; May 24, 1986; July 19, 1986; February 28, 1987.
Musician, June 1988.
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1982; May 26, 1983; December 23, 1993.
Source, November 1993.
Spin, April 1991.
Variety, March 28, 1984.