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Starting From Scratch

We were warned to keep this interview short and snappy. Grandmaster Flash was tired and wasn’t going to tolerate waffle. We were also told that a couple of journalists who didn’t know their hip from their hop had been reduced to jelly. A couple of folks might wonder if so much mincing around was necessary. […]

Rolling Stone IN Aug 25, 2009

We were warned to keep this interview short and snappy. Grandmaster Flash was tired and wasn’t going to tolerate waffle. We were also told that a couple of journalists who didn’t know their hip from their hop had been reduced to jelly. A couple of folks might wonder if so much mincing around was necessary. The point is, when you’ve gone beyond a genre’s monarchy and into the realm of “legend,” you listen, and do as you’re told or you peace out.

Cool parents, uncle and aunts, DJ buddies and hip-hop aficionados will tell you Flash lies scattered all over pop-culture. That’s mainly due to that seminal track ”˜The Message’ that was released in 1982 along with his group, The Furious Five. The hip-hop tune has a signature synth riff that’s been sampled in everything from Ice Cube’s ”˜Check Yo Self’ to Puff daddy’s ”˜Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.’ It was even in the film Happy Feet, where a little rapper penguin croons the chorus at school. His biggest contribution, arguably, is that he was the first DJ to manipulate vinyl with his hands hence starting the tradition of cutting and scratching that are now the keystones of electronica.

And here he was, a little surly, not very communicative and intent on a cup of cappuccino ”“ but it was a start. “The deejaying and the cutting and scratching probably came more out of frustration. I was watching all these DJ’s play a song in a particular fashion. People would enjoy it”¦especially when drummers went into solos and stuff, but in my own opinion, I felt that I had to come up with something else.” He thinks about it a little more and adds, “It’s a science. Here’s a composition or a body of work and there’s so much you can do with it. Make manual edits, manipulate it backward, forward or counterclockwise”¦”

Flash aka Joseph Saddler’s parents were migrants who moved to the United States from West Indies to live in the Bronx. The move and the neighbourhood turned out to be fortuitous for many reasons. “I was fortunate enough to have all sorts of music around me. I had three sisters and while one would listen to Motown, one would listen to Latin and my mother and father was [sic] listening to jazz. There was all this different stuff coming out of the stereo and my Dad had a huge record collection too. That made me open up my ears.”

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The Bronx was also opening up to bloc parties, which is essentially where hip-hop began. That also happened to be where he met Cowboy ”“ his future band-aid in the Furious Five. “There were all these outdoor and bloc parties happening. They were almost like a testing ground. I started playing and emceeing and Cowboy joined me later. It’s difficult to talk and play at the same time. I heard Cowboy once and he complimented what I was doing, so I asked him to join me.” He was in some pretty heavy-duty company too, playing and learning from the likes of Kool Herc, Lovebug Starski and Kurtis Blow.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was formed in the late Seventies with Melle Mel, Cowboy, Kid Creole, Raheim and Scorpio aka Mr Ness making up the aforementioned five. They broke new ground in emceeing, freestyle battles and coining staple phrases. Legend has it that Cowboy created the term hip-hop. Songs like ”˜Superrappin’ and ”˜The Message’ went off the charts. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel was the first time that scratching vinyl was on a record. This was hip-hop ”“ it didn’t really exist before this. Flash simply attributes the success to this, “What we was [sic] on our records”¦ it was all fresh and long before any of these current kids was doing it.”

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The band split up due to differences between Mel and Flash ”“ the topic was not up for discussion clearly. In 1988, Mel and Flash reunited and released the album On the Strength. With new-school artists such DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Public Enemy on the charts, the album failed (not up for discussion either). Another reunion followed in 1994, when Flash and the Five joined a rap tour where artists like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC were also included.

A year later, Flash and Melle Mel appeared on Duran Duran’s cover of ”˜White Lines.’ History had already been created. In 2002, ”˜The Message’ was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. It was the first hip- hop recording ever to receive this honour.

They were also the first rap group ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. BET honoured Flash with the first ever Hip Hop Icon Award in 2006. Flash’s latest album The Bridge was released late 2008 and features everyone from Snoop Dogg to Busta Rhymes. He’s all set to appear in the video game DJ Hero and there’s also his clothing line G.Phyre that’s doing extremely well. “I think it’s an honour”¦all of this. I never realised that they’re so many different sorts of people listening.” And who does he listen to? “Stravinsky,” he says as heads back to his room.

Grandmaster Flash

Discography

  • The Message (1982)
  • Greatest Messages (1984)
  • They Said It Couldn’t Be Done (1985)
  • The Source (1986)
  • Ba-Dop-Boom-Bang (1987)
  • On the Strength (1988)
  • Salsoul Jam 2000 (1997)
  • The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash (2002)
  • Essential Mix: Classic Edition (2002)
  • Mixing Bullets and Firing Joints (2005)
  • Safety First/Watch Yourself (2007)
  • The Bridge ”“ Concept Of A Culture (2009)

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