When Grandmaster Flash appeared The masked singer this week, the Bronx-born hip-hop pioneer made sure to keep his legacy intact — opting to take part in the “New York Night” series, modifying his Polar Bear tracksuit with chunky chains to have more “swag.” And most importantly, he paid tribute to another New York act that “changed the game,” Blondie, by singing a song that changed the course of his life.
“Rapture”, released in January 1981, was the first single to feature rap vocals to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and featured frontwoman Debbie Harry’s line “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” – praising Grandmaster Flash’s skills at the turntables — made the then 23-year-old DJ a household name. And it all started when another hip-hop pioneer who checked into that issue took Harry to one of Flash’s shows in the Bronx.
“This is before I got famous,” Flash, whose real name is Joseph Saddler, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This is all my come-up. It was a good friend of mine who used to come to all my parties, a big fan. He was one of the guys who could come in for free at any time. His name was Fab Five Freddy. So Fab Five Freddy says to me, ‘Yo, Flash, I’ve got some good friends in town. I want to get them out of Soho, bring them to the party. This is Blondie.’ Yo, I look at this man like, whatever. … Mind you, the audience I mainly had at the time was Black and Latino. But there was a blond-haired person who came to Webster PAL.
After the Webster show, Flash and Harry “just talked to each other for a few seconds, then she was whisked away,” and Flash thought nothing of it. “But then Freddy tells me she says she watched me on the turntables, the way I orchestrated them, and she was going to write a song about me,” Flash recalled. “She’d put out all those big songs — we’re talking about a super monster, power pop star, for example — and she’s going to write about a DJ coming on? OK. .. But Freddy told me everything; he says, ‘[Blondie’s] She and Chris Stein are going to do this number.’ And I have to tell you, six months later, our album on the label we were on [Sugar Hill Records] wasn’t done yet. So people came to me like, ‘There’s this song on the radio; it is everywhere! And it’s about how fast you are on the turntables!’ I’m like, ‘Can this possible what Freddy was talking about?’ I’m gonna buy the record, I’m gonna play it and I’m going, ‘Wow. She kept her word.’”
Flash says the mainstream exposure ” skyrocketed me to white people and people from different countries. And the work got better. People booked me more. That song took me where I thought. And when I say what I think, I grew up listening to pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Latin, Caribbean, white bands, black bands, foreign bands, American bands. This is what was playing on my stereo in my house. So this song gave give me a chance – because I really wanted to show this off [hip-hop] to all races of all people, all creeds, all colors, all genres, but how do I do it? [Harry] gave me that door to enter. It has helped me quite a bit. She and I became the best of friends for a long time. There are pictures with me and her when we were younger and everything. It’s pretty cool.’
Unfortunately, Flash was supposed to appear in Blondie’s “Rapture” music video – the first rap video ever to play on MTV – but Sugar Hill Records (which Saddler has legally battled over the years) refused to allow it; NYC artist Jean-Michel Basquiat instead filled in for Flash at the last minute. “That was a very dark moment for me. Then Basquiat took my place. That should have been my moment,” says Flash. “It was very threatening to the label I was on at the time, they said [Blondie’s label] Chrysalis Records, ‘No, he can’t do this.’ Ooh, I was so angry! I was so, so, so, so, so angry. But yeah, that’s the story behind it.”
However, Flash made history of its own when 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” a seven-minute demonstration of his deft turntable skills with elements of “Rapture,” became the first documented appearance of record-breaking on a recording. And Stein and Saddler had some kind of cross-cultural collaboration on screen two years later, when Flash appeared Wild style– the first major hip-hop film, turning 40 this year – for which Stein worked on the soundtrack and score. And like ‘Record’, Wild style was another unexpected development that ended up being a defining moment in Flash’s career.
“For me, Wild style from a movie perspective, everything is,” says Flash. “And the strange thing is I remember we were filming at the bandshell in midtown Manhattan. They had to get the recording equipment back the next day, because they didn’t have the money to rent it for another day, so they took me home, because we couldn’t film my part in the bandshell. And I remember they took me home and then some people in the van had to go to the toilet. So they came up to my apartment and one of the producers said, ‘Hey, can we shoot that DJ scene up there?’ I said, ‘Right Where?’ He says, “Here, on your kitchen counter.” I’m like, ‘Well, I think so.’ So they ran down, got the equipment and set everything up. Fab Five Freddy was sitting on the couch on the other side of the counter and he was rocking with me a bit. And I did my DJ thing, and that ended up being one of the biggest scenes in the whole movie. … [Director Charlie Ahearn] got what he had, he brought the equipment back to the rental place, and he had his film and he glued it together and then he showed it. And that scene became the iconic scene.”
Flash says he is “already talking to them about us getting together and doing something [to commemorate] the Wild style thing”, but Wild style isn’t the only phenomenon marking an anniversary in 2023. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the entire hip-hop genre, and Flash is working on several celebrations, which he jokes are “like planning this giant, super-duper wedding” . There will be several concerts and talks in the Bronx, including a big block party in August that “will be a full production” featuring Flash’s hand-picked “musical gunfighters, best DJs.” Also recently, Flash took part in an all-star, decade-spanning hip-hop tribute that was by far the biggest highlight of this year’s Grammy Awards. LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, the LOX, Run-DMC, Jazzy Jeff and Ice-T thanked him for his innovation. “It’s amazing. It’s absolutely breathtaking. I can’t say it any other way”, he wonders.
As one of the genre’s first and most innovative turntablists who pioneered and perfected groundbreaking techniques like backspinning, punch-phrasing, and scratching at Bronx house parties, creating the vocabulary DJs use to this day, Flash remembers always his modest first experience with DJing at a block party. at age 16. “You must remember, all these things we did like children. You have to realize that we did this as a recreation in the 1970s,” he chuckles. “I had handmade plywood speakers, and there was a window on top of the speaker and I put lights on it, like little Christmas tree lights, so I could think I was in a disco. I was just really, really poor; it was my first situation.
“I went to the supermarkets and got three or four shopping carts, and me and my boys put the crates of records in the shopping cart and put the makeshift sound system and went to the nearest park,” continues Flash. “And so when we got to the nearest park, we wondered how we could hook up this system. And with my knowledge of electricity, I looked at the lamppost and broke open the door and wired the extension cord into the lamppost and run the cord into the park, everything hooked up.
Saddler attended Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School and “grew up a nerd, but I kept it quiet for a long time because then it wasn’t cool to be a nerd, so you don’t tell anyone that,” says he with a smile. “But yeah, in my teens I didn’t really do the girlfriend thing, or the smoking thing, or the wild things teenagers do. When I was 18, I went out to the backyard looking for old turntables and old receivers and old electronic stereo parts, and brought them into the back room and just tried to put things together. That’s what I did in my teens. … I just did it for the moment. Never, never – and I say this humbly – in my wildest dreams would I have thought this thing would catch on like a global fire.
Of course, as Blondie once said, Flash used to be cool. But despite the foundations laid by “Rapture,” it took a long time for rap to be considered a legitimate art form in the mainstream pop world. For example, the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony took place in 1986, but it took two decades for the Hall to recognize hip-hop, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the genre’s first Hall inductees (in a class of 2007 that also included REM, Van Halen and Patti Smith). “It was beautiful, quite big. I’ve always looked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a place that would never accept us – I have to be honest – because it That kind of place. It was pop. … I didn’t think that building would even accept us or our community. I was wrong. That was pretty cool,” says Flash.
“Journalists said [hip-hop] would be like a passing ship in the night. How wrong were shesays Flash. “Hip-hop is at the heart of everything. I don’t care if it’s a drink or fashion or electronic products – every company uses our slang terms, uses our way of life. They pitch for us to buy their stuff , you know? And to be one of the inventors of this, I’m speechless. I feel humbled, because if you’re an inventor of something, you could publish it out there after your life’s work and the world could say, ‘I do not like this.’ That could have happened. This thing could have been missed. But here we are, 50 years later. It’s humbling. It’s absolutely humbling.”
When Grandmaster Flash was unveiled on The masked singer this week, host Nick Cannon called him an “icon” and “the pioneer of an entire culture,” and Judge Nicole Scherzinger gasped, “We’re looking at the man who invented crabs!” Flash doesn’t take any of these awards for granted.
“People call me ‘legend’ and it scares me, because a lot of times when you’re the builder of something, you die or go into obscurity, and people don’t see you anymore,” Saddler muses. “So, every day I wake up, and I [know] I’m truly blessed that what I’ve learned… touches the planet. This whole thing could have been missed.”
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