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Thursday, December 21, 2006

GrandMaster Flash - the father of the spinning revolution

GMF0001Immortalized by Blondie, feted by the hip hop cognoscenti, Grandmaster Flash is the man who turned the humble record deck into an instrument as potent as the piano or guitar. He was the first DJ to put out a rap record and in “Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel,” he created an aural template that let the world at large into the secrets of the New York ghettos. If Afrika Bambaataa provided the ingredients and Kool Herc a rough method, more than any other, it was Grandmaster Flash who refined the recipe and turned hip hop from a boroughs novelty into a worldwide phenomenon. He’s the decknician with magic in his fingers. The DJ who put the hip in hop. Flash is fast. Flash is cool. And then some.
Born in Barbados but raised in New York, Grandmaster Flash (aka Joseph Saddler) was an electronics student with a desire born of seeing his heroes Pete DJ Jones and Kool Herc to turn the music they were playing into an art form. "I didn’t find the way he played exciting," says Flash of Herc. "What I found exciting was what he was playing." GMF0002Kool Herc had had the idea of eschewing the disco hits of the day the Donna Summers, the Trammps in favour of old funk records. More than that, though, he was mainly playing the breaks, those instrumentally-sparse and rhythm-heavy parts of the records where the dancers could really cut loose. Flash’s idea was simple. He would take the types of tunes played by Herc and assimilate them using the methods of beat-mixing he’d seen employed by DJs like Pete DJ Jones. "What I liked about Pete’s style is that he kept the music continuous. He didn’t take out a certain section of the record or continuously go back and forth, he just kept everything going." Ensconced in his bedroom, and aided by his understanding of electronics, Flash worked on this new style of playing. For three whole years. He invented something called the Quick Mix Theory and the Clock Theory (Flash has more theories than Stephen Hawking), the former his way of explaining the dexterous way of working one break seamlessly into another, the latter the method by which a DJ could find the beginning of a break (the habit of hip hop mixers to mark the breaks on their vinyl with sticky tape derives from this very ritual). "When I first created the style I played in a few parks in the area, but nobody really quite understood what it was that I was doing" recalls Flash. "A lot of people ridiculed it." GMF0003But not for long. Soon the parks turned into small venues and the small venues into large. He hired out the Audobon, more famously known as the place where Malcolm X met his untimely death, and filled it. "I went down them long long stairs outside to see if there was anybody on line," he remembers. "To my amazement I seen license plates from Philly, Connecticut, Washington." When he played downtown, DJ and scenester Johnny Dynell caught him in action and was amazed at what he saw. "I went with a friend to this church basement and I saw this battle with Grandmaster Flash, Hollywood, all those early guys," says Johnny of his first glimpse into the hitherto hidden world of hip hop. "And Flash was DJing with his toes. He was scratching (which I’d never heard before). He just rocked my world. To me, coming from the art world, I thought it was brilliant. I thought, I'm going to have to tell Andy [Warhol] about this. This is incredible. It’s like Marcel Duchamps."GMF0004
Despite the clamor for this novelty sound the first tunes to hit vinyl, as good as they were, were little more than canny approximations of hip hop. Flash, suitably stung ("Damn I coulda been there first. I didn’t know the gun was loaded like that."), unleashed "Adventures On The Wheels," an astounding record even today, a beat symphony entirely comprised of battered old records and Flash’s manual dexterity. Entirely mixed live, he nailed it in three hours. Sadly, the DJs’ role in hip hop history was soon sidelined in favor of those natural showstealers, the MCs, but even here, it was Grandmaster Flash who prefigured them. "I think Grandmaster Flash was the first person to write a rhyme," claims former Flash protegé Grandwizard Theodore. "He actually sat down in a corner, wrote a rhyme and tried to get his MCs to say it." Theodore can even remember what he wrote: "Dip dive, socialize, try to make you realize that we are qualified to rectify and hypnotize that burning desire to boogie y’all." He whoops, half surprised he remembers so well. GMF0005
It is a sad fact of musical history that its pioneers rarely get either the credit or, significantly, the paychecks that their prescience unquestionably deserves. In hip hop’s case, it’s the karaoke kings of Puffdaddyland who’ve vacuumed the royalties and these days ghetto fabulous means the weekend retreat in the Hamptons. Grandmaster Flash, meanwhile, continues to do what he does best: filling floors, making people dance, and there’s no-one still who can do quite what Flash does with a mixer and two decks. He invented the damn thing, see?

GrandMaster Flash - Live at Zentra Chicago 06-10-06 GrandMaster Flash - the father of the spinning revolution

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