If we were to identify hip hop according to an age group, we would place it with the alienated Gen-Xers. The culture existed on New York City streets long before today’s generation of hip-hoppers was conceived. Born in the Bronx, hip hop is composed of four main elements: graffiti art, break dancing, MCing and DJing. Although stories surrounding the history of hip hop vary, DJing is the element that jump-started the culture. Before MCs began spitting verses on record, the DJ was cutting them up at block parties, giving the audience something new to dance to. Among pioneering DJs was Grandmaster Flash (real name Joseph Saddler), who created the mixing concept now known as “scratching.” Taking a break from overseeing construction of his new in-home recording studio, Grandmaster Flash spoke to Buzz about the history of hip hop, his contributions and the importance of being nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When many people think about hip hop, they think in terms of popular artists like the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, whose music videos and deaths helped catapult them to icon status. However, there is a long line of individuals who came before them who are unknown to new-schoolers.
“So many great artists missed the video age. When it became a tool instead of a luxury, a lot of artists missed it,” said Grandmaster Flash regarding his peers. “Only two from the era got through-Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.” He named others like DJ Breakout, Melle Mel and DJ Hollywood, whose contributions were made before the video era. Flash made sure to acknowledge the man responsible for the establishment. “Kool Herc should be a part of your curriculum,” he said of the DJ who started hip hop.
Grandmaster Flash is careful not to blame the youth for their ignorance of hip-hop’s forefathers, citing again the absence of video-arguably the lifeblood of today’s rap stars’ careers. “We don’t get forgotten,” he said of his generation. “You’ve just never heard of us.”
Another fact that may go over the heads of hip-hop’s youngest followers is that it began with the DJ-not the MC. According to Grandmaster Flash, MCing followed DJing and break dancing to become the third element of hip hop. Today, individuals think of the DJ as someone who simply plays Billboard’s top hits at parties, but Flash notes the DJ’s pivotal role in music. Though he acknowledges that DJing became a lost art at one time, he said that it is re-emerging as an influential force in today’s music scene.
“For record companies, it’s a form of promoting artists. DJs have a large role because artists rely on them for the club,” he said in reference to a DJ’s potential to break a hit song. But at the same time, he laments that out of the many DJs around today, “It’s unfortunate that there’s only a handful that have reached prominence.” Flash supports and appreciates all his colleagues, taking pride in the fact that “they all took my concept, mix inventions, my dreams and my hopes,” and showcase them to the world. His favorite DJ is one who is just as enigmatic to the public as his peers. “The unknown is the greatest,” he said, giving respect to the kids mixing it up in their bedrooms and basements.
It has been a long time since Flash was himself a teen, playing with his father’s records, trying to carve his niche in music, and at lease a quarter of a century has passed since Grandmaster Flash, Cowboy, Kid Creole, Melle Mel, Scorpio and Raheim (better known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) released their first record. Their innovative styles and veteran status made them eligible to be nominated for induction into the renowned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. If inducted, they would be the first hip-hop artists to be included on the list of all-time greatest musicians, and Grandmaster Flash would be the first DJ inductee. It would be a wonderful accomplishment, giving Flash claim to another of hip-hop’s milestones. After receiving word of the nomination from his agent, Flash began scouring the Internet for proof of the unbelievable news. Once reality set in, he knew what a triumph this was for hip hop.
“Hip hop has always been the bastard for a long time, but we have come a long way. For hip hop to move into that circle is like, ‘Wow.'” He went on to note what the recognition says for him and his group members, who had reasonable success and no lavish videos to their credit.
“We were trailblazers. A lot of trailblazers don’t get recognized,” he finished. He also hopes that the nomination is incentive for hip-hop organizations to look back to the days of Kool Herc and others in order to educate younger fans about those who paved the way for contemporary artists.
So how does the man credited with revolutionizing one of the most successful forms of music spend his time these days?
“As we speak, I am in my house waiting for the final wiring for a recording studio,” Flash said of the four-year project awaiting completion. He also has plans to launch his record label, Adrenaline City Entertainment, and from 6 p.m. – 12 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday nights, listeners can tune into Sirius Satellite Radio to hear his radio show. As if this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, business with Microsoft founder Bill Gates is also in the works. Flash was unable to disclose details, but assured Buzz that the project is “huge.”
But when it comes to music, Grandmaster Flash is always looking for something fresh. “I played rock, jazz, blues … as long as it was funky,” he said reflecting on his block party days. Getting into remixing is on his To Do list because “it’s like DJing.” When he needs to know what’s hot, he visits clubs incognito to see what people are vibing to. This passion for new music is what keeps his heart pumping. “It brings out the kid in me.”
Grandmaster Flash will play at the Highdive on Wednesday with DJ Resonate, DJ Bozak, DJ Delaney and DJ Vamp. The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $5.