His real name is Joseph Saddler. Born in Barbados, he grew up in the Bronx and was known by the nickname Flash from the time he was a teenager hanging out with his friend Gordon (as in Flash Gordon, the comic book character). Saddler was already one of the most innovative disc jockeys around, spinning records at Bronx block parties, when he got to be Grandmaster Flash for revolutionizing the way a turntable could make music, laying the groundwork for what was to come. As rock and roll began its metamorphosis into yet more rebellious forms and sub-genres in the 1970s and early 1980s, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five group he put together were at the forefront, pioneering the new music of hip-hop and rap way before anyone realized that it was going to be the wave of the future and transform the music scene.
His turntable technique, the “Quick Mix Theory,” radically changed the way music was created and paved the way for hip-hop music and culture. His was what might be called a postmodern method, involving the transformation and recycling of existing material. It consisted of three moves he perfected as a disc jockey, using two turntables and two copies of a record. The first move was “cutting” or sampling, which meant segueing between the tracks on a vinyl record, exactly on the beat, a technique that allowed the DJ to embellish or repeat parts of a song. Second was “backspinning” or scratching, which involved turning records by hand to make the needle repeat. Third was “phasing,” or changing the turntable speed to create a montage of sound. With these techniques and ever-evolving versions of them, like break beat, which was a syncopated beat, Grandmaster Flash could edit and change the entire structure of a song. Such was his dexterity that he could use his elbows and wrists to interrupt, slow, or cut into a break. Indeed, a disc jockey’s prestige depended on his or her ability to handle these moves skillfully, and what would be known as hip-hop music was initially a creation of these turntable styles.
At the same time, in the Bronx ferment of music, Grandmaster Flash was playing parties with rappers and learning that sound. He got to know one rapper, Kurtis Blow, who recorded an early best-selling rap single, “Christmas Rappin” following the Sugar Hill Gang’s best-selling “Rapper’s Delight,” which brought rap out of the clubs and gave it global attention. Meanwhile, it was the height of the disco craze and the music on the Billboard charts was still all about disco, with Saturday Night Fever discotheques dotting the Manhattan and outer-borough landscape, and music by the BeeGees dominating the airwaves. Rap was a whole other genre, consisting of rhyming lyrics chanted to a beat. The word “rap” itself had long been in use to denote having a talk with someone, but it was about to become a key word in hip-hop culture. The idea of rap music had its origins in African ritual and tradition of the storytelling African griot musicians, in American slave culture, in Caribbean music traditions of toasting, and in the call-and-response ritual of Southern gospel churches. The concept of the rap “MC” grew out of Jamaican dance hall tradition where a master of ceremonies would introduce the evening’s performers by talking over the music in impromptu poetry. The designation “MC” in rap is almost interchangeable with “rapper” and can refer both to a master of ceremonies and to someone with “microphone control” who raps to introduce the disc jockey.
Essentially, rap involves speaking in rhyme and in time to a beat, and requires a special kind of delivery that rappers call “flow,” the way the rhyming proceeds in lines with four stressed syllables to the beat, giving the lyrics their own rhythm:
“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go”
—from “Lose Yourself” by Eminem
Rap became increasingly complex in flow and in rhyme. The range of rhyming inventiveness by hip-hop artists “did more than any other art form in recent history to expand rhyme’s formal range and expressive possibilities,” according to music scholar Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: the Poetics of Hip Hop. Rappers use many literary devices, including alliteration, simile, and metaphor to create their lyrics. Rap also has its own vocabulary, much of it drawn from African American vernacular English.
The content of rap varies widely. It includes political and social issues, discourses on crime and violence as well as very personal accounts and love stories, name-dropping of celebrities and brands, and bragging about wealth, possessions, and women (most rappers are male, but there are female rappers like Queen Latifa, Missy Elliot, and Lil’ Kim). Rap subject matter caused considerable controversy, as songs were laced with profanity, graphic sexuality, and antiwhite and antilife male rants along with threats against the police and others. “Gangsta” rap about inner-city life, crime, and violence was especially controversial. Nonetheless, it was the most lucrative style of rap. Rappers like Ice T and Schoolly D were prominent gangsta rappers, and the NWA group’s album Straight Outta Compton took it mainstream. Groups like Public Enemy were censored on MTV with rap songs like, “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need.” Or, sometimes, MTV ran them with bleeps anyway, removing the bad language. The group 2 Live Crew filed a lawsuit over their album, “As Nasty As They Want to Be,” when it was labeled obscene and illegal to sell by a district court judge in Broward County, Florida. The ruling was overturned on appeal two years later.
The performance of rap also had distinct criteria. There is “scripted” rap, a kind of recitation, and “freestyle” or “spitting” rap, which is the more familiar improvisational and spontaneous kind, though it often involves recycling lines from other raps. Rapper Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile established “battle rapping,” which involves insulting one’s enemies and commenting unfavorably—“dissing”—their appearance, what they are wearing, how they talk.
Grandmaster Flash had started his own rap group, the Furious Five, in the early 1970s with his Bronx buddies, including “Cowboy” Keith Wiggins, “Melle Mel” Melvin Glover and “Kid Creole” Nathaniel Glover, “Raheim” Guy Todd Williams, and “Scorpio” Eddie Morris. Keith Wiggins is supposed to have coined the term “hip-hop” to tease a friend in the military by scat-singing the cadence of marching soldiers. By 1977, Flash and his Furious Five had their own weekly gig at the Disco Fever club, and they signed with Enjoy Records to record their first single, “Superrappin’,” in 1979. The next year, they signed up with Sugar Hill Records and went on tour. A seven-minute video, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” came out in 1981, with Flash giving a virtuoso performance of his turntable skills. At one point that year, the group opened for the British band The Clash, but their sound was still too unfamiliar to audiences and they were not well received. Their 1982 recording of “The Message,” a rap about the inner city and drug violence, attracted attention and controversy, and was the first hip-hop recording to be chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry.
It took MTV to introduce the resistant suburban white male world to rap. The group Run-D.M.C. made it a pop culture phenomenon with a music video, “King of Rock,” in 1985, the first-ever rap video on MTV. It drew a big line between the early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and the new regime of rappers. By this time, hip-hop culture was in full swing in the urban minority neighborhoods of New York City, where it included graffiti, break dancing, and fashion as well as hip-hop music. B-boys or breakers were part of the street culture, performing break dancing or “breaking,” a highly choreographed and energetic dance with many moves like “toprock,” standing; “downrock,” on the floor; “power moves,” acrobatics; and “freeze,” stylish poses. Difficult to learn and challenging to perform, breaking was dominated by male breakers.
One of the early developers of hip-hop was DJ Afrika Bambaataa who started Zulu Nation in the Bronx, a collection of street dancing crews, graffiti artists, and rappers, and recorded “Planet Rock,” which had a new electronic sound. But it was not until the media and MTV got wind of it and romanticized the urban scene that hip-hop got more than local recognition. In the 30 years since it first made an appearance, hip-hop has become a global phenomenon. But it is frequently criticized now as too commercial and losing its cache as a voice for the down and out in society. Nonetheless, it has radically changed American music in the direction of creativity and innovation, and introduced many otherwise unknown musicians to the world.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five won several awards including the Black Entertainment Television (BET) “I Am Hip Hop” Award in 2006 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 at the Urban Music Awards. They were the first hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. After “The Message,” Flash and two of the group signed with Elektra Records. The group had disbanded in the mid-1980s but reunited for a charity concert at Madison Square Garden in 1987 and released a new album the following year, On the Strength. They came together one more time in 1994 for a rap oldies’ show.
Today, Grandmaster Flash has a weekly radio show, “Friday Night Fire,” on Sirius Satellite Radio and has a clothing line, “G. Phyre.” In 2008, he wrote a memoir, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats. The Saddler family had moved to the United States from Bridgetown in Barbados after their son was born on January 1, 1958. He attributes his fascination with vinyl records to the big reggae record collections of his father, which he was allowed to browse when he was growing up in the Bronx. There was also musical inspiration everywhere in the neighborhood, with many Caribbean families moving in as the middle class moved out. His mother pushed him to study electronics when he was in Samuel Gompers High School, a public vocational school, in the Bronx. He became adept at repairing electronic equipment, which came in handy in the beginning stages of hip-hop when he and other DJs tapped into the power lines to connect their speakers, microphones, and turntables and get street parties going. Grandmaster Flash was there at the beginning, and he was the catalyst for the launch of an entire new musical genre that would take its place in American popular music as one of its most game-changing cultures of sounds, styles, and behavior.
Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009.
Edwards, Paul. How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2009.
George, Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Grandmaster Flash and David Ritz. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats. New York: Crown Archetype, 2008.