Emerging in New York in the late 1970s, Grandmaster Flash is credited as one of the foremost innovators of Hip Hop DJing as an art form. By backspinning, scratching, mixing and otherwise manipulating vinyl records in search of the “perfect beat,” Flash helped pioneer using the turntable as a musical instrument to create breakbeats, the backbone of any Hip Hop song. Along with the group the Furious Five, Flash came to national prominence in 1982 with the seminal Rap hit “The Message” – a track that with its chilling social commentary changed Hip Hop forever, retooling its image as good-time “party music” and helping usher in the age of the hardcore MC.
Born Joseph Saddler, the future DJ moved to the Bronx, New York, from Barbados with his family as a child. While learning about electronics at a vocational high school, he was drawn to his father’s record collection and took up DJing. Studying the techniques of other DJs on the local party scene – DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa among them — he built on Herc’s “breakbeat” technique, which involved using two turntables to extend the instrumental breaks of popular dance songs. Flash refined and extended the technique, backspinning and “juggling” the break between turntables in rapid fashion. He built a cross-fader system so he could monitor the mix on headphones and switch channels quickly — essentially inventing the turntable/mixer setup used by Hip Hop DJs today.
To attract more attention, Flash needed a group. He recruited rappers Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), and Mel’s brother Kidd Creole (Nathaniel Glover Jr.), who called themselves the Three MC’s; by 1978, they had expanded to the Furious Five with the addition of Scorpio (Eddie Morris) and Rahiem (Guy Williams). The following year, they recorded “Superrappin’” for a local label, prompting Sugar Hill Records exec Sylvia Robinson to seek out and sign the group.
Although the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in late 1979, may have been Hip Hop’s first hit record, Flash and the Furious Five had already helped define the sound before they ever set foot in a recording studio. Their stage act at South Bronx clubs became legendary, as did Flash’s DJing chops; his 7-minute clinic “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981) is still regarded as the Rosetta Stone of “turntablism,” with Flash demonstrating his ability to seamlessly mix and scratch more than ten different songs on three turntables (a technique he revisited on film the following year, in the 1982 movie Wild Style).
Released as a single in July 1982, “The Message” – a grim portrait of ghetto life with the refrain “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder/How I keep from going under” — took Flash and crew to national recognition. (Flash himself actually had very little to do with the recording, which was mostly pieced together in the studio by Melle Mel and Sugar Hill staff writer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher.) The equally gritty “New York New York” sealed the group’s impact, but by 1983, disputes and conflicting creative visions were poised to break them apart.
Flash continued on his own path until the group reunited in 1988 for On the Strength; it would prove to be the Furious Five’s last album together. Flash produced Just-Ice’s 1990 album Masterpiece and toured sporadically throughout the 90s; he then spent five seasons as musical director for HBO’s The Chris Rock Show. Since then, he has continued to perform and record. He’s also received numerous awards for his contribution to Hip Hop, culminating in 2007 when he and the Furious Five became the first Hip Hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.