Born January 1, 1958 in Bridgetown, Barbados, better known as Grandmaster Flash, is an American hip hop recording artist and DJ—one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJing, cutting, and mixing.
He has been credited with the invention of the first crossfader by sourcing parts from a junkyard in the Bronx.
It was initially an On/Off toggle switch from an old microphone that he transformed into a left/right switch which allowed him to switch from one turntable to another, thereby avoiding a break in the music.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, becoming the first hip hop/rap artists to be so honored.
Joseph Saddler’s family migrated to the United States from Barbados, in the Caribbean, and he grew up in The Bronx, New York.
He attended Samuel Gompers High School, a public vocational school, where he learned how to repair electronic equipment.
Saddler’s parents played an important role in his interest in music. His parents came from Barbados and his father was a big fan of Caribbean and black American records. As a child, Saddler was fascinated by his father’s record collection. In an interview, he reflected: “My father was a very heavy record collector. He still thinks that he has the stronger collection. I used to open his closets and just watch all the records he had. I used to get into trouble for touching his records, but I’d go right back and bother them.“
Saddler’s early interest in DJing came from this fascination with his father’s record collection as well as his mother’s desire for him to educate himself in electronics.
After high school, he became involved in the earliest New York DJ scene, attending parties set up by early luminaries.
He is also a nephew to the late Former Feather Weight Champion of the World Sandy Saddler.
Grandmaster Flash carefully studied the DJing styles and techniques of earlier DJs, particularly Pete Jones, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flowers.
As a teenager, he began experimenting with DJ gear in his bedroom, eventually developing and mastering three innovations that are still considered standard DJing techniques today.
- Backspin Technique (“Quick-Mix Theory“) a.k.a. Early New York party DJs came to understand that short drum breaks were popular with party audiences. Aiming to isolate these breaks and extend them for longer durations, Grandmaster Flash learned that by using duplicate copies of the same record, he could play the break on one record while searching for the same fragment of music on the other (using his headphones). When the break finished on one turntable, he used his mixer to switch quickly to the other turntable, where the same beat was queued up and ready to play. Using the backspin technique, the same short phrase of music could be looped indefinitely.
- Punch Phrasing (“Clock Theory“): This technique involved isolating very short segments of music, typically horn hits, and rhythmically punching them over the sustained beat using the mixer.
- Scratching: Although the invention of record scratching is generally credited to Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash perfected the technique and brought it to new audiences. Scratching, along with punch phrasing, exhibited a unique performative aspect of party DJing: instead of passively spinning records, he manipulated them to create new music.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
In the mid 1970s, he formed his own group.
The original lineup consisted of Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Kid Creole (AKA Kidd Creole/Nathaniel Glover), and the ensemble went by the name “Grandmaster Flash & the 3 MCs”.
Two other rappers briefly joined, but they were replaced more permanently by Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams, previously in the Funky Four) and Scorpio (Eddie Morris, a.k.a. Mr. Ness) to make Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Quickly gaining recognition for their skillful raps, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five pioneered MCing and freestyle battles.
Some of the staple phrases in MCing have their origins in the early shows and recordings of the group.
In 1977, the new group began performing regularly at Disco Fever in the Bronx, one of the first times a hip-hop group was given a weekly gig at a well-known venue.
In fact, it is claimed that Cowboy created the term “Hip hop” while teasing a friend who had just joined the U.S. Army by scat singing the words “hip/hop/hip/hop” in a way that mimicked the rhythmic cadence of marching soldiers.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were signed to Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy Records and in 1979 released their first single, “Superrappin’.”
The following year they signed to Sugar Hill Records and began touring and releasing numerous singles.
The seminal “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel“, released in 1981, is a 7-minute solo showcase of Grandmaster Flash’s virtuosic turntable skills, combining elements of Blondie’s “Rapture,” Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Chic’s “Good Times,” and the group’s own “Freedom.”
It is also the first documented appearance of record scratching on a record.
That year, the group opened for The Clash and were poorly received by an audience unaccustomed to the new style.
The group’s most significant hit was “The Message” (1982), which was produced by in-house Sugar Hill producer Clifton “Jiggs” Chase and featured session musician Duke Bootee.
Unlike earlier rap tunes, “The Message” featured a grim narrative about inner city violence, drugs, and poverty.
In 2002, its first year of archival, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry, the first hip hop recording ever to receive this honor.
Critics praised the song’s social awareness, calling the chorus “a slow chant seething with desperation and fury.”
Other than Melle Mel, however, no members of the group actually appear in the song. Rahiem lip-synced Duke Bootee’s vocal in the music video.
The same year, Grandmaster Flash appeared in the movie “Wild Style” and sued Sugar Hill over the non-payment of royalties.
Tensions mounted as “The Message” gained in popularity, eventually leading to a rupture between Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash.
Soon the group disintegrated entirely.
Grandmaster Flash, Kid Creole, and Rahiem left Sugar Hill, signed with Elektra Records, and continued on as simply “Grandmaster Flash”, while Melle Mel and the others continued on as “Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five”.
Although frequently credited on the records, Grandmaster Flash doesn’t actually appear on “The Message,” “Freedom,” or many of the other Furious Five songs.
Although Grandmaster Flash provided the central element of the group’s sound when performing live (in addition to giving the group its name), there was little room for his turntablism in early singles driven by the grooves of live session musicians.
Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five reformed in 1987 for a charity concert, and in 1988 they released a new album.
The group reunited again in 1994, although Cowboy died in 1989.
Today, Grandmaster Flash is the owner of a clothing line, “G.Phyre.”
In 2008 he released a memoir, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats. He hosts a weekly show on Sirius Satellite Radio (Friday Night Fire with Grandmaster Flash) and was presented with the BET “I Am Hip Hop Icon” award in 2006.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first hip-hop/rap group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007 by Jay-Z.
In 2008, he remixed the single “Into the Galaxy” by the Australian group, Midnight Juggernauts.
It has been said that “his pioneering mixing skills transformed the turntable into a true ‘instrument’, and his ability to get a crowd moving has made his DJ sets legendary.”
Grandmaster Flash appears in the video game DJ Hero as a playable character along with original mixes created for the game.
On his last album, The Bridge, appears the Spanish hip hop group Violadores del Verso.
Grandmaster Flash is currently working on his 12th album, set for release this spring.