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Awesome Men Throughout History: Grandmaster Flash
I don’t know what it is about hot weather, but it makes me want to listen to hip-hop. Consequently, I’ve been listening to it a lot, because my city has been a convection oven for the past three months (minus the occasional violent thunderstorm) and shows no sign of cooling off any time soon. I’ve got my favorite groups like everyone does, but since I’m a nerd I also like researching how people with limited money and resources developed a genre of music that ended up dominating pop culture throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, and is still one of the most accessible forms of pop music today. Examined from a somewhat historical perspective, that whole progression is pretty extraordinary.
The same can be said for Grandmaster Flash (born Joseph Saddler), who was a pioneer of early hip-hop as part of The Furious Five, and even more of a pioneer as a DJ/turntablist. A tech nerd before it was cool, Flash is definitely worthy of Awesome Man status, and honestly should have been written up here a long time ago.
Flash was born in Barbados, but his family emigrated to the Bronx when he was a little kid, and he studied electronics at Samuel Gompers High School (which closed this year). His interest in music came from his father’s record collection, which boasted hundreds of Caribbean and American soul records, and from house and block parties in the South Bronx thrown by kids who were too young to get into clubs. Flash saw guys like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa spinning old soul and R&B records instead of current disco hits, and cutting/remixing them to focus on the shorter, often drum-heavy parts of songs, called “breaks,” and keep dancers moving.
Inspired, Flash holed up in his bedroom and put his electronics skills to work. It bothered him when other DJs had to pause the music to switch between records on separate turntables, so he built a crossfade switch from parts he found in a junkyard; this allowed a seamless transition from one turntable to another.
With that problem solved, Flash soon figured out that he could play those drum breaks for a lot longer with duplicate copies of a record on both turntables, playing the break on one while he isolated the same fragment of music on the other, then switching back and forth between the two. He called this his “Quick-Mix Theory,” but others call it the backspin technique.
Similarly, Flash figured out how to isolate short, dynamic music fragments, namely horn hits, on a record with his mixer and “punch” them over his sustained beat. This technique is called punch phrasing, although Flash refers to it as his “clock theory.”
I could go on about that stuff all day, but the point is that Flash’s contributions to DJing can’t be understated – thanks to him, hip-hop instrumentation became complex and sophisticated, and was a much more solid foundation for MCs like Melle Mel (lead rapper/songwriter for The Furious Five) to express themselves. Anyone who likes or is involved with hip-hop at any level has to appreciate Flash for his contributions, which were directly responsible for hip-hop’s success and, most importantly, got a lot of people dancing.
I’ll leave you with this video trailer for his memoir, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, in which he talks about, among other things, the importance of being first.