The first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in 1986, but it took almost two decades for the Hall to recognize hip-hop. Even now, only six hip-hop acts have made it into the Rock Hall, among them Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, N.W.A, and the latest member, Tupac Shakur, who will be posthumously inducted on April 7. But it was pioneering Bronx DJ Grandmaster Flash, joined by the seminal Furious Five, who first broke through the Hall’s hip-hop barrier exactly 10 years ago, when he was ushered in alongside such diverse, and decidedly rock-oriented, 2007 honorees as R.E.M., Van Halen, and Patti Smith.
“Has it been 10 years? Wow, time flies pretty quickly,” marvels Flash (real name: Joseph Saddler). “I thought it wasn’t just good for us — it was good for the culture to be recognized. I think by this point in time we should have been recognized; [hip-hop] is not just a ship passing in the night. It was like, ‘Now we are solid, we have followings, we matter.’ Although we were the youngest of all the other genres, we did have the following that says, ‘This is credible.’ So to be honored was a groovy thing.”
Flash also recalls it being a total shock when Jay Z — who will become the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame this June — showed up to introduce him and the Furious Five at the 2007 Rock Hall ceremony. “That made it a super-duper honor for him to do that, because it was a last-minute surprise,” he says. “They kept saying to us while we there, ‘We got somebody coming,’ and we like, ‘What do you mean? Who’s coming? Who’s going to do the speech? We don’t want just anybody to do it.’ And then boom — Jay comes up the stairs. Says, ‘What’s up, Flash?’ How f***ing lucky. He says, ‘I’m getting ready to do this, man, ‘scuse me,’ and he went up there and he spoke on it. And it was just so wonderful, so eloquent.”
A decade later, Flash is sitting on a tour bus with Yahoo Music at this year’s South by Southwest festival, reflecting on an incredible 47 years in the music business. The man’s legendary turntable skills are more in demand than ever, as he prepares to spin at a SXSW event hosted by Twitch/Reddit (after playing a late-night, ‘70s-themed set at a Showtime soiree the night before). His resurgence obviously coincides with the growing popularity of EDM and DJ culture in general, along with the recent vinyl revival, but Flash has to give some credit to Baz Lurhmann’s Netflix series The Get Down — which chronicles the origins of hip-hop in 1970s New York, stars Mamoudou Athie as a fictionalized Flash, employs Flash as a musical consultant, and returns for a second season on April 10 — for broadening his audience.
“I praise The Get Down, because I got to tell you, it was so difficult trying to explain [my history] to journalists,” he laughs. “Before The Get Down came out, it was so hard to explain to them about the ‘70s and how I came up with this turntable technology. But [Baz] came to me and says, ‘Flash, we don’t care nothing about your success when you were making records. We want to hear about the golden years, when you were nobody. This is what we want to film.’ With that I’m like, ‘Oh boy!’ That opened the door, and now all the journalists want to know about the Bronx. They want to know about Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizzard Theodore. It’s a wonderful thing, because the world seems to think that hip-hop started in the ‘80s someplace else — when it started in the ‘70s, in the Bronx! And the young people need to know where this music comes from. So I get called more than ever now to speak or to play.”
It’s understandable why Flash, age 59, has remained an icon, and why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chose to honor him as its first hip-hop inductee. As one of the genre’s first and most innovative turntablists, way back in 1974 he was pioneering and perfecting techniques like backspinning, punch phrasing, and scratching at Bronx house parties, helping create the vocabulary that DJs employ to this day. And Flash doesn’t think making music with turntables is much different from the way other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees use more “traditional” instruments.
“When you go back into the ‘70s, into the ingredient years of hip-hop, I played rock,” he stresses. “I actually produced tracks that sounded like rock, from rock samples; we were into the rock sound. My instrument is the turntable, and so, I was able to walk into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with my turntables. All I know is I’m in company with some of the greatest musicians of all time — some of the greatest guitar players, greatest drummers, greatest ax players, greatest keyboardists, greatest singers. It’s incredible.”
Check out Grandmaster Flash’s extended Yahoo conversation, in which he discusses his early years and secret “geek” past, his surprising love of Debussy and Stravinsky, the current EDM craze, the vinyl revival, and how he still knows how to keep a party going after all these years.
YAHOO MUSIC: Your impact on turntablism cannot be overstated. Can you tell me where your inventive spirit came from?
GRANDMASTER FLASH: I think coming up in the Bronx, I come from a family with four sisters, mom, and dad. They were all [listening to] different types of music. Some were into the Motown sound, some were into the Latin sound, some were into the funk sound, so I heard all these different colors of sound. And what I noticed the most is when the drum part came, the body moves a little more, for some reason. For some reason when the rest of the band shuts up, the body wants to move more. I didn’t understand that, but then I started to really embrace that, and as I got older I said to myself, “This is the best part of the records. Why is the rest of the song even playing?” It just didn’t make sense in my warped mind.
So then I started coming up with this technique, putting my fingertips on the vinyl, which made the vinyl not just only the sound source, but now the vinyl serves as a controller. So now we was able to control time. I was just doing it for the moment. Never, never — and I humbly say this — in my wildest dreams did I think that this thing would catch on like worldwide fire. So when I walk into a room and I see the DJ doing this, and doing these things to the turntables, you got to thank God… Now an individual can speak on top of a clean bed of music that can be recognized as rap, because it was the early beginnings of it. So not realizing that I did this, it’s very humbling. Very, very, very humbling.
You say you didn’t realize at the time, but was there an epiphany moment later in your career where you realized what a huge impact you’d had?
No, I didn’t. Not really. I just knew that in the Bronx, other DJs knew they had to retool. They had to go back home and learn how to put their fingertips on a record and control the vinyl and the whole situation. I guess maybe the epiphany came when producers started sampling it… with the computer driving, the sampler can make that sound repeat over and over and over and over again, and you can record that to a piece of tape and make a song out of it. That is when I finally realized, like, “OK, something’s going to happen here.” And here we are.
You studied electronics, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I went to Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School. I grew up as a geek, but I kept it quiet for a long time, because being a geek back then was not cool, so you don’t tell anybody that. But yeah, pretty much in my teenage years I didn’t do the girlfriend thing, or the smoking thing, or the wild things that teenagers do. When I was 18, I was going to the backyard looking for old turntables and old receivers and old electronic stereo parts, and bringing them in the back room and just trying to jury-rig things together. That’s what I was doing in my teenage years.
Well, it paid off, obviously!
Yeah. It did something.
Do you miss that hands-on, analog approach in current hip-hop, or in popular music in general, now that everything is done electronically, on computers, MacBooks, ProTools, etc.?
I think what I probably miss the most is I would love to see today’s rappers perform with a DJ, where the DJ is the conductor. Like, let’s just say that he has a 10-track album — the DJ has special instrumental versions of the track, and they practice together and practice the timing and perform that way in front of thousands of people. That would be cool.
Don’t you feel that’s coming back a little bit, though?
I think what’s happening is turntables are coming back in a big way.
And vinyl, too.
Yeah, I would love to see DJs that spin on computer-generated DJ sets all practice on vinyl. It will heighten your senses. When I’m DJing, it’s almost like a prize fight — and I’m the champ, but this guy’s almost going to kick my ass. Especially with the music that I play, because the tempo changes from the way the song starts; it’s faster by the time it’s finished, so you’ve got constantly babysit and slow it down, speed it up, push it. The people want to see that. They want to see you in constant battle, going from a pop to a rock to a jazz into a blues into a funk, into a disco, into an R&B, into a Caribbean, into an alternative. The crowd would want to see that.
That, I think, would bring so much more prominence to the DJ, as opposed to him using an electronic device that does the BPM-lock for them. That means they’re left with nothing to do! I would probably lose my mind if I was up on the stage and not able to take the song and push it into this song and push this square into this round hole. It’s so wonderful to do it. Sometimes I screw it up, but that’s just why the wonderfulness of doing it live makes it really cool.
Sometimes when I see DJs just standing behind the turntables or whatever, like at a big club in Las Vegas, it’s hard to tell what they’re really doing — if they’re even doing anything live.
Ha! I didn’t say that — you did, OK? [laughs] But you know, it’s wonderful for me to be one of the inventors of this culture and to be able to see today’s culture. I just came out of a meeting just now with a large touring company overseas that wants me to play with the EDM DJs. It’s going to be a wonderful thing.
Do you think there is a certain art to feeling out a crowd when you DJ live?
I think what it is, is that music has no color. That’s the way it started with me. Music never had no color. I don’t care if the band was white, it was black, it was foreign, it was American — if the track was hot, I had to find a way to take that square peg and squeeze it into a round hole. So that when you was dancing on this rock beat, then boom, I’m switching it to the R&B beat, and then boom, I’m switching it to the Caribbean beat. These are the things that I think is coming back. I think this is the way that music should be played. And for me to be able to play on these large stages, which I didn’t do for quite some time, it’s just really cool for me to go from a Caribbean song into a punk song and watch 40,000 people react. It’s almost like great sex. It’s the reaction. We DJs call it “the O factor.” You want that “O” — O, for orgasm. You want the O every time. OHHHH, next song, OHHHH! That makes a great night.
What are some of your favorite tracks to play?
I don’t have favorite songs to play. There was a time when I was quite cocky, and I used to have these certain amount of songs that I thought would work everywhere. But when I started touring, if I went to Australia, or Japan, or England, or Belgium, or Holland, or Amsterdam, some of these places I was bombing, because in my mind I thought these songs were killer everywhere, but what I’ve learned is that every culture has their own things that they love and that they hate. So songs that might be killer in Japan, that s*** might not work in England, and a song that’s working in London might not work in Paris. So my perspective of music has broadened so much in the past 15 years. I’m paying very close attention to what I think they like, because the first few minutes I’m guessing, I’m throwing a few, and when I get the “O” now, I’m going to give you a whole lot of O. That’s the way that it works with me. So I don’t play the same way every night; it’s totally impossible. So I don’t have any favorite songs — not as Grandmaster Flash the servant.
Now, as “Mr. Saddler” who’s just at home listening to music, what I listen to and what I play and how I play is two different animals. I like Debussy, Stravinsky, Bach — those are the type of things that give me rhythmical inspiration. Once again, hip-hop is the only culture where you can experiment musically and lyrically. It’s an open format. I love the idea of playing from mid-‘60s to 2017, depending on who’s standing in front of me.
Is the art of gauging the room, like the pulse of the room, something that can be learned — or is it just an instinct that you have?
It’s an instinct. I’ve been trying to figure it out for decades and decades and decades, but I got to tell you, 15 minutes before I go on, I tell my team, “Leave me alone.” Butterflies are running in my stomach. It’s still as if I’m new at this, and I’m just first- and second-guessing myself for the first few songs. It’s better for me, of course, to hit that nail on the head [right away], hit the right song, because then the rest of the night is just coasting. But then there’s those nights when I hit the wrong song and it’s a little bit of an uphill trudge. So gauging the room is really important… But I never know, and I don’t know if I care to know, because once you know [what’s going to happen], life becomes very boring. I like not knowing. I live for the unknown’s possibilities… So hey, if you make a mistake 20 times, you just learned 20 ways to not do it.
Do you remember the first party you ever DJ’d?
Oh boy. It was a block party, on my block. I was like 16 years old. I had handmade speakers made of plywood, and at the top of the speaker was a window 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. But my thinking was conquering your block, then conquering your hood, then conquering your city, then conquer your country, and then go to the next country. Then conquer that city. So I’m still doing it. It’s not done yet.
Additional reporting by Billy Johnson Jr.