This article first appeared in The Guardian, in February 2009.
With hindsight, making a mixtape of old school funk and hip-hop for Grandmaster Flash was a bad idea. “This is the wack part,” he tells me, a few seconds into Shack Up by Banbarra. “They’d be throwing water at the speakers if we played that part.” When we reach the drum break, half way through this abbreviated compilation version, he jabs his finger at the stereo. “There it is. But have you got anything new?”
Flash calls himself a scientist. He mentions “pushing the envelope” a lot. He has little enthusiasm for talking about the past, particularly the decade that many consider hip-hop’s golden age. When Rakim starts rapping I Know You Got Soul, he politely asks me to turn it off. “You people forget the seventies exist. You forget Kool Herc, you forget Afrika Bambaataa, you forget me.”
No-one has a stronger claim to have invented the 21st Century’s dominant pop cultural form than Joseph Saddler, a kid from the Bronx who built his own system, developed completely original technique and perfected it in basements and at block parties until people finally understood what he was trying to do. Only then did adopt the title of Grandmaster.
The first person to mix two records without losing the beat? Flash, one time. The first DJ to use drum machine loops live? Flash, two times. The first scratch? Flash, three times.* The first record made entirely of samples? Flash, four times. His Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel drew a map millions would follow.
But as hip-hop crossed over, Flash lost control. A third-rate crew called the Sugarhill Gang defined the scene for a wider audience with Rapper’s Delight. His own MCs, the Furious Five, made records without him. By the time The Message was released, in 1982, he was close to the edge. His name was on the sleeve but he had little to do with the song and didn’t receive a royalty. The money he made performing live was spent on cocaine.
When he heard White Lines (Don’t Do It) on his way to score some base, he thought Melle Mel was speaking to him personally. “There’s a part of history that is bothersome,” he says.
So before we start, he asks how much of the conversation will be about his new album, The Bridge. He’s tired of journalists raised on Blondie and the Clash asking him to recall an era he has no love for. To him, the eighties are when hip-hop died. That it has proved endlessly capable of rebirth doesn’t make the first fall any less painful. “I just want to know how annoying it’s going to be,” he tells me.
Flash can be direct like that. He is resourceful but cautious, practical and prudent, ambitious and disciplined, humorous and reserved. His Zodiac sign is Capricorn, as the Furious Five shouted out on their first Sugar Hill Records single, Freedom. However the planets were aligned over Barbados, when he was born there on New Year’s Day 1958, the above description, lifted from an astrology book, suits him well.
The Bridge is his first original material for twenty years. On The Strength, released in 1988, merely showed how out of touch he had become in the age of Public Enemy, Run D.M.C. and N.W.A. Flash is not making the same mistake again. He has produced an unmistakeably modern rap record, corporate as Microsoft, with an array of star guests including Snoop Dogg, Q Tip, Busta Rhymes and Big Daddy Kane.
It was recorded at his home studio in Long Island and produced on a laptop, during long haul flights between DJ dates. “I did my own programming, picked my own drum sounds and constructed the tracks,” he says. “I didn’t want to use any samples.”
This is odd, because on one tune there’s a loop that sounds exactly like Apache by the Incredible Bongo Band, perhaps the most famous beat in all of hip-hop. “It’s my drummer, it was done live. But it sounds like Apache? Thank you. There are no samples on this record. I wanted to show people I can do that.” The strongest track, We Speak Hip-Hop, features rappers from Sweden, Japan, Senegal and Spain, making the point that what began in the Bronx has become a global movement.
Flash grew up in a poor neighbourhood, abandoned by the city, where tower blocks burned because insurance claims were the surest way to turn a profit. He remembers being “hungry, cold and barefoot” at times. His mother was in-and-out of mental hospital. When his father came home and caught him playing records, which was often, he took a beating. “At the expense of my life, that’s how I came up with the DJ science,” he says.
He was irrepressible, taking hairdryers and radios apart until his sisters whipped him too. Although his artistic achievements have inspired generations of musicians, he is most proud of the technical advances he made, soldering old pieces of gear together, devising the cue system he called peek-a-boo and committing the cardinal sin of putting his hands on the vinyl.
“I was a scientist way before I seen Kool Herc,” Flash says. He took Herc’s insight – repeating short sections of a track instead of playing the whole song – and resolved to do it better. “When he switched a record, heads would go into disarray, to find the beat. Frustration is what drove me.”
His method required technology that didn’t exist. “I needed a way to have the platter continuously spinning while I’m moving the record back and forth,” he says. “I went to a fabric store. When I touched this hairy stuff – felt – I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sides and ironed it until it became a stiff wafer. After that, I was able to stop time.” DJs have taken slipmats for granted ever since.
When he tried out his technique in public, the crowd stared at him like he was mad. Flash, still only a teenager, ran off stage, threw up, went home and cried for days. But he couldn’t stay away from his turntables for long. Soon he began searching for a bigger, louder system.
“I went to junkyards, abandoned car lots. I asked supermarkets for the big jugs they put pig guts in, to make cabinets for my bass speakers.” He worked out that traffic light sensors made good tweeters. Sometimes he would break open street lamps to borrow the juice, making the most of his technical school education.
The Bronx was ruled by Black Spades, Savage Skulls, Ghetto Brothers and Casanovas. These gangs would call a truce at Kool Herc’s parties. Afrika Bambaataa formed the Universal Zulu Nation as a peaceful alternative. Breakdancing battles developed as a way to diss rivals without anyone getting hurt.
“Bambaataa played a major part,” Flash says. “He took all the different cliques and transformed fighting against each other into a more positive energy. Kool Herc had his way of doing it and I had my way. If people had beef and started something, I would shut the music down. The block party thing caused peace in the neighbourhood.”
This was the age of discovery, as the four hip-hop elements of graffiti, b-boying, DJ-ing and rapping exploded simultaneously. Playing live became a weekly challenge and a steady income, which was important, because Flash already had two children and at least two girlfriends to support. By September 1976, he had the reputation to draw three thousand paying customers at the Audubon Ballroom, north of Harlem.
This was four years before Rapper’s Delight, five years before Debbie Harry rhymed “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” on Rapture, six years before Wild Style captured hip-hop on film. At the turn of the decade, Flash travelled out of the Bronx, across the George Washington bridge into affluent New Jersey, to sign a deal with Sugar Hill Records that guaranteed him nothing, stole the rights to his name, wrecked his best friendships and made label owner Sylvia Robinson a pile of money.
“I didn’t sign my life away,” he says. “But I did sign a bad deal, because we were craftsmen of our trade and knew nothing about business.” Last year, for his recorded contribution to hip-hop’s genesis, he got a royalty cheque for $6,000 from “some society that looks for artists who’ve been taken advantage of.”
Years of struggle have coloured his view of the rap game. His favourite rapper is Jay-Z, not for his flow but because he is a “well-rounded businessman who can take his cape on and off when he wants to.” He admires Snoop Dogg too, because he gets paid, not played. “He has a tight organisation, he’s into television, he’s into music, movies, clothes.” Flash wears his own initials in gothic script, but the GMF baseball caps and pendant aren’t commercially available.
He flies business class these days, though, something he tells me twice. He has a comfortable life in the suburbs, six children and a steady girl who stuck by him through all the lean times, the drugs and the infidelities. She calls him Flash, unless she’s angry. Then he’s Joseph.
When he performs live in Europe, Australia and Japan he works the latest hits into his setlist, finding ways to splice Kanye West with The Mexican, Mary J Blige with Seven Minutes Of Funk. “I play my breaks, to teach people where the music comes from,” he says. “When I leave that town, I have implanted the vintage years.”
I ask him how many copies of Apache he’s worn out, in half a lifetime of playing it, since the earliest parties at the Black Door club in the South Bronx. “About thirty,” he reckons. Really? That’s fewer than one a year. “Oh yeah, but I play it until it’s disgusting, because the deeper the cavern is, the more you can do with it. I play it until it sounds like eggs frying on a Sunday morning.”
It can be trying, being Flash. But for every hack who asks him about The Message and White Lines because his name’s on the label, or wants him to relive the Clash support slot when he was forced off stage by a volley of spit, there are a hundred fans who just want to show their appreciation.
“I can walk through any block, any city, any country and within ten minutes there’s someone stopping me to say ‘thank you,’” he says. “Some people are speechless, some people kiss my hand, some people stutter and some people stare. I have to say ‘touch me, feel my pulse.’ I don’t want to be superhuman. I just want to be Grandmaster Flash and Joseph Saddler.”
* The subject of who invented scratching has inspired a fair bit of debate. In his autobiography, Flash claims to be the first ever DJ to use the sound of a needle being dragged across the vinyl as an integral part of the music. He gives all the credit for its subsequent development as a rhythmical device to Grand Wizard Theodore, a teenage disciple who first DJ-ed standing on empty milk crates because he was too short to see over the decks. Scratching to the beat was his idea.