Since most hip-hop careers don’t last much longer than the pair of sneakers you wear when you sign the contract, perhaps the best tribute to Grandmaster Flash is that 30 years after he helped start the hip-hop game, he’s still out there playing it.
Flash is working the clubs, touring Europe, spinning on Sirius satellite radio, doing the things deejays like Grandmaster Flowers and Pete Jones started doing in the parks and basements of the Bronx in the early ’70s, when this new dance-and-party sound barely reached beyond the five boroughs.
Flash, born Joseph Saddler on New Year’s Day 1958 in Barbados, was a teen-age electronics wizard who soaked it all up and pushed it forward, exploring new possibilities for the turntables and the music.
It would be nice to say he lived happily ever after, too, but sometimes it’s not all good. Flash battled with record companies and drugs. There were career dips.
“I’ve had some rough times,” he says. “But I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. About 10 years ago, when things weren’t working out, I went back to the basics, back to my turntables. I reinvented myself by using the same formula I did when I was first deejaying. I refused to be a myth, to be folklore. If I played someplace, I didn’t want to tear up a room on sympathy. I wanted to tear it up with music.
“Remember, when I started, ‘Apache’ was a new record. There was no door open then. I had to kick it down.”
Flash and the Furious Five graduated from block parties to records in the late ’70s with tracks like “Freedom” and “Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” They exploded in 1982 with “The Message,” a stark warning in the style of Marvin Gaye, the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, with a hip-hop beat.
“Don’t push me,” it went, “‘Cause I’m close to the edge.”
By then, national magazines were picking up on Flash and his rappers, including Melle Mel. “Flash is fast,” sang Deborah Harry. “Flash is cool.”
But hit songs weren’t a ticket to the American Dream.
In interviews then, he’d talk about how he stayed in the Bronx for the connection to his roots. A couple years later, he admitted that was only half of it.
“I couldn’t afford to move,” he said in 1985. “I wasn’t seeing any money. I had nothing against the Bronx, but I would like to have had the choice.”
Time passed, hip-hop fans moved on to new flavors and Flash worked in radio, clubs, TV. He was Chris Rock’s musical director on HBO for five years.
“I stayed visible,” he says. “Most people know me today, even overseas. I work with deejays who weren’t born when ‘The Message’ came out, and music is our common language. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
It would also be wonderful if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would acknowledge this by inducting pioneers like Flash, who are just now becoming eligible.
This will be tricky, though, because many folks still don’t like hip-hop. Noise, they say. Actually, it’s the most influential and pervasive popular music of the past 25 years. The Hall’s decisions will be interesting.
In Flash’s case, it’s even more interesting because he’s also become an unofficial hip-hop historian. Like fellow pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, he can tell you what it is and where it came from.
“That’s important,” he says. “How are kids going to know if nobody teaches them? Even some rappers don’t realize this didn’t start with emcees. It started with deejays. Without the deejays, it wouldn’t have gotten out of the Bronx.”
He’s right. The deejays, the guys working the turntables, laid the base, sampling, hitting breaks, two records at once, rearranging a rainbow of music into a whole new sound.
It was only when hip-hop moved into recording studios that things changed. Record producers didn’t care if they had a deejay. They could lay down an electronic background track. They wanted rappers.
That’s a whole chapter of hip-hop history itself, and since no one knows it better than Flash, who lived through all its frustrations firsthand, expect it to figure prominently in another new project: his autobiography.
“A lot of the books start the story with the records,” he says. “It’s the 10 years before, when this was a deejay culture, that hasn’t been talked about. That’s something people should know.”
But he emphasizes again that he’s not writing in anger.
“Where I am now, I can’t complain,” he says. “When we started, they said none of this would last six months.”