arts

Getting Down with Grandmaster Flash

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Victor  Frankowski/ Flickr

Jared Lawrence
  Staff Writer

Grandmaster Flash’s inclusion in the National Folk Festival is a blessing for all who consider themselves hip-hop aficionados. Born in Barbados as Joseph Saddler, he is considered one of the pioneers of hip-hop, DJing, cutting, and mixing. He began DJing while growing up in the Bronx as a teenager, performing live at local school dances and block parties.  He and his group, known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and were the first hip-hop act to achieve such an honor. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are up there with some of  hip-hop’s greatest innovators, transcending the genre’s party-centric origins to explore the full scope of its lyrical and sonic potential.

Before Saddler was twenty, he was spinning on the local disco circuit while taking technical school classes in electronics. It is safe to say that even then he was a prodigy. Flash had developed a series of revolutionary methods, including “cutting” (moving between tracks precisely on the beat), “back-spinning” (manually turning records to repeat brief snippets of sound), and “phasing” (manipulating the speed of the turntable). In short, he created the basic sound library that modern DJs continue to follow today. He did not begin seriously working with other artists until 1977, after he collaborated with the legendary Kurtis Blow and joining forces with rappers Melle Mel, Cowboy, Kid Creole, Mr. Ness, and Rahiem, otherwise known as the aforementioned Furious Five.

The group quickly became renowned throughout New York City, pulling notoriety not only for Flash’s unparalleled ability as a DJ but also for the Five’s masterful rapping; the Five was most notable for their signature trading and mixing of lyrics. Despite their local popularity, they did not manage to record a song until after the Sugarhill Gang’s smash “Rapper’s Delight” provided the legitimacy in the market for hip-hop releases. After releasing “We Rap More Mellow” under the name The Younger Generation, Flash & the Furious Five recorded “Superappin’” for the label Enjoy; owned by R&B legend Bobby Robinson. They then switched over to the Sugar Hill label, owned by Sylvia Robinson (no relation), after she had guaranteed them an opportunity to rap over a current DJ favorite, “Get Up and Dance” by Freedom.

The records “Freedom”, released in 1980, was the Five’s Sugar Hill label debut, reached the Top 20 on the R&B popularity charts on its way to selling over 50,000 units. The following track “Birthday Party” was also a fan favorite. The album “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”, released in 1981, was the recording that earned the group legitimate publicity, while introducing Flash’s “cutting” techniques to create a marvelous assortment of sound from samples of songs from artists like Chic, Blondie, and Queen. Flash & the Five’s next big record, “The Message” debuted in 1982 and was even more articulate. For the first time, hip-hop became a vehicle not merely for bragging and boasting, but for acerbic social commentary, with Melle Mel delivering a blistering verse depicting the grim realities of how demoralizing life in the ghetto can be. “The Message” was not only a major hit on the charts; it also took an enormous step forward in solidifying rap as an important and enduring form of musical expression.

Following 1983 release of anti-cocaine anthem, “White Lines,” the group’s relationship became strained, leading to their break-up. Saddler made solo hits throughout the late 80s. Except for a few compilations released during the late ‘90s, Flash was rather quiet until 2002, when a pair of mix albums surfaced: The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the label, Strut, and Essential Mix: Classic Edition on FFRR Records. Throughout the 2000s, as a performer, he retained his status as a restless champion of hip-hop.

Grandmaster Flash is ultimately a hip-hop legend; his innovations have been mainstays in the genre ever since they were first brought about. Flash even appears in the new Netflix original series, The Get Down, which is set in the in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Flash, along with hip-hop titans, Kurtis Blow and Nas, hosted a Hip-Hop boot camp to educate the young actors. You cannot talk about the history of hip-hop and media without speaking about the legacy of Grandmaster Flash. His upcoming appearance in Greensboro for the National Folk Festival gives fantastic representation of the genre.

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