Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Flash is fast

L-R: Debbie Harry (Blondie), Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, unidentifed, Chris Stein (Blondie)

This piece was first published in Selector magazine, back in 2000. I wrote a series of articles for the mag  backgrounding some famous acts. I'm posting it as Grandmaster Flash is DJing in Auckland this Thursday night. Enjoy.


'Flash is fast, Flash is cool...' Rapture, by Blondie (1980).

One of the things I've long admired about hip hop music is the ability of hip hop artists to constantly push the boundaries of the genre in new directions, while paying homage to the originators that have gone before them. One of the key originators is Joseph Saddler, better known to the world as DJ Grandmaster Flash.

His major contribution to hip hop is developing 'the break', a technique which uses two turntables and two copies of the same record to repeat the part of a song where it breaks down to just the sound of the drums, pioneering a form of sampling way before samplers became popular or widely available. He called this technique the 'Quick Mix Theory' , and it is still very much at the centre of many a modern DJ's hip hop vocabulary of styles.

Flash was born in Barbados, West Indies, but raised in the Bronx, New York. He could trace his involvement with music to the early 1960's, when he constantly raided his father's prized record collection. "My father was big on jazz, he had a lot of jazz 78's and the big LP's," said Flash in an interview. 

"When he came home from work, he would say, 'Son, do not go in that closet over there, because that's where my records are. If you do, I'm gonna give you a beating.'But it wasn't just his father's jazz records that captured Saddler's attention. "He had this stereo in the living room, and what was most intriguing was when you turned it on, it had this little red light in the bottom centre of it, a power light. That light used to fascinate me - that's how I got involved in electronics. When I got older, I used to go in my sister's room and take apart her hair dryer and whatever I could get my hands on. I would try to put it back together, and when they came home, they said, 'Joseph was in my room, and this don't work and that don't work now.'"

But rather than give Saddler another beating, his parents enrolled him at Samuel Gompers Technical School, where he put his energies towards an electronics degree. Using his electronics skills, Saddler converted a microphone mixer to modulate sound from his turntables. He even created a cue system - allowing him to listen to one record in his headphones rather than over the loudspeakers while another one was playing, which is a standard function in all DJ mixers today, but was unheard of back then. Flash developed his Quick Mix Theory while spending many, many hours in his room, playing records. Flash practised his techniques at home for a year.

Armed with the nickname Grandmaster Flash (in homage to "Grand Master" Bruce Lee), he began mixing his records at neighborhood block parties. Unfortunately, Flash's incredible technique as a DJ generally made the crowd stop dancing and watch him, which was not the desired effect! "I thought to myself, now that I've created this Quick Mix technique, when I go in the parks, I thought the crowd would go crazy. It was the opposite. It was like a seminar, everybody just stood there and watched me. I needed somebody to take what I was doing and compliment it."

He started bringing a microphone along to block parties, encouraging local kids to pick it up and rap. The first to take the microphone was Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, whose deep, commanding voice reputedly drove the ladies crazy. "He was a ringleader, he had this voice that worked real well. I'd tell him what park I would be in the following week, and he would be there, and we'd just light the park up until it was time to go." Within six months, four other rappers joined Flash's party crew - Melvin "Melle Mel" Glover, Guy Todd "Rahiem" Williams, Nathaniel "Kid Creole" Glover, and Eddie "Mr. Ness" Morris. They officially debuted in late 1976, growing in popularity over the next few years.

The group began attracting the attention of record companies, after the success of the Sugarhill Gangs single Rappers Delight. They released several party rap singles during 1979 and 1980, but their major impact arrived in the form of 1981's The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. One of the defining moments of hip hop, showcased Flash's cutting, scratching and mixing. It still stands up today as a truly awesome tune, deftly mixing Blondie's Rapture, Chic's Good Times, and Queen's Another one bites the dust.

Then came their breakthrough hit, The Message. Way back in 1982, it sounded like music from another planet. It was just so new, it was incredible. It catapulted Grandmaster Flash and his group of mc's to fame, but behind the scenes, all was not well.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had almost no involvement in the song itself. And it wasn't for lack of trying, either. Most of the raps were actually done by Duke Bootee (Sugarhill percussionist Ed Fletcher), with Melle Mel adding his "A Child is Born" stanza from their earlier Superappin' single.

"I hated the fact that it was advertised as 'Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five,'" said Flash, "because the only people on the record were Mel and Duke Bootee. I did not want to allow any one particular member to be on the record alone, because I just felt that with the history of a lot of black groups who did that, the group falls apart. I was looking out for the whole entire group. Irregardless of who had the best writing or who had the finest voice, we all made each other shine. That's what it came down to. So we had to finish The Message in the form it was left in, as Melle Mel and Duke Bootee."

Flash saw that this was a bad sign, and he was right: Sugarhill continued to tell the group in what direction they should be heading, and Flash eventually left, taking Kid Creole and Rahiem with him, signing to Elektra Records. Others, headed by Melle Mel, would continue as Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, landing another hit with White Lines (Don't Do It), about the evils of cocaine. It was somewhat ironic that Melle Mel had now become addicted to cocaine.

Flash did several albums for Elektra, none of which set the charts alight. Meanwhile, Melle Mel eventually realised he was being exploited by Sugarhill, and left the label. Flash and Melle Mel hooked up in 1987, ironed out their differences, and reformed the group for the album On The Strength.

However, at the photo shoot for the cover, Cowboy was missing. "We had a place in Lower Manhattan where they had vintage cars, and we were renting this place by the hour, and Cowboy didn't show up. We had to do something, there had to be six people on the cover. At the last minute, we told one of our valets to put this hat on, turn your head, cover your face and pretend to be Cowboy. 

A few months later, Flash received a phone call. Someone passed him the message that Cowboy was extremely sick. A few days later, on September 8, 1989, Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins died of complications from the AIDS virus. He was only two weeks shy of his 39th birthday 

Flash was devastated at the loss of his bandmate and friend. "That was probably the last time we were all together - was at his funeral. That was rough, it was way rough on me, he was my first baby, my first MC. I still miss him today. When Cowboy died, some of my fire just wasn't there any more. Although he wasn't a primary writer in the group, he had the best voice, he had such commanding stage presence. We couldn't even think of replacing him."

Today, Grandmaster Flash hosts a twice-weekly radio show on New York's urban radio station WBLS, doing what he does best - spinning and scratching and cutting. "After a few years away from the recording business, I said to myself, I watched the parade go by long enough, I wanted to get back out on the streets again. So I took a job in radio - first with Hot 97 (WQHT, New York), and then with WBLS." Flash is still involved in the turntablist/DJ scene, most recently remixing Coldcut's More Beats and Pieces with DJ Food on the Ninja Tune label. Thank you Mister Saddler, wherever you are.

Interview quotes from web article by Chuck Miller from 1995
Here's a cool piece from 2009 on how Chuck got that interview. Flash made him pay him $300 for the pleasure, but then talked for hours, and even signed his copy of Super Rappin. Chuck says "when it comes to my writing career… that was the most beneficial $300 I ever spent."

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