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Spinning Back to the Beginning of Hip-Hop with Grandmaster Flash

Grandmaster Flash returns to The Bronx’s Crotona Park for a special concert in honor of 50 years of hip-hop.

Grandmaster Flash with 50 years of hip-hop logo
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
Written by
Kimani Krienke

Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, was just “some guy” when he was thrust into the music industry in the 1970s. Dissatisfied with the length of drum solos on records, he invented the “Quick Mix Theory,” and played block parties with his turntables in Crotona Park and other borough parks. He found that his little slice of New York was intrigued and open-minded enough to hear his new spin on pre-existing music.

It was the beginning of a musical revolution for everyone—”babies, grandmas, the police,” he remembers. It was the beginning of the intergenerational, barrier-breaking, beat-manipulating, globally-profound genre of hip-hop. And little did he know, he would become an icon.

But 50 years later, he still says he is just “some guy.”

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“I like the idea of turning off Grandmaster Flash whenever I can. And just being Joseph,” he tells Time Out New York. “And there’s times when I have to turn on Grandmaster when I’m getting ready to hit on the stage.”

The DJ and producer will embody both sides of himself when he returns to Crotona Park at 5pm on Friday, August 4, for a special revival event—”Birth of a Culture: The Four Elements Block Party—to highlight the humble beginnings of hip-hop in the Bronx and some of the people who elevated it. Joining the celebration will be several of Flash’s friends and other playmakers of the culture.

The public has the chance to take it back to where Flash and so many others were given the space to experiment. People of all ages are invited to the free event, he says, emphasizing his want to relive the simple times and take a step back to reflect with the village, the culture, that supported him so long ago.

“The Bronx was like a blank canvas for us to test music on our fans, anything from pop-rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Caribbean,” he recalls.

Grandmaster Flash
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion

“It was no computers, no social media, no apps, no recording studios, no engineers. No nothing. Just existing composition and a mad search for records that had this drum solo. And this is where the beginnings of hip-hop is,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m even doing this August 4th block party in the Bronx… I’m so excited and it’s my way of giving back and saying thank you.”

Flash’s parents were his first sources of musical inspiration, but not for the reasons one might think. Flash was “enemy number one” in his household. He recalls being a little kid fascinated with appliances that plugged into the wall. No hairdryer, stereo or television in the house was safe from his curiosity because he would fiddle with electrical objects to understand how they worked.

The Bronx was like a blank canvas for us to test music on our fans, anything from pop-rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Caribbean.

The objects that perplexed Flash the most, and thus got him into the most trouble, were his father’s black, circular discs (vinyl records) and brown box (record player). His father was like a magician to him because he could make sound come out of these objects that stood still on their own. Flash had to find out for himself how the sound was produced because no one was going to show him otherwise. While he never took these objects apart, he couldn’t stop thinking about “reaching out to the colorful squares that encapsulated the black discs and walking over to the brown box” to perform the same procedure he’d seen his father do countless times after coming home from work.

Finally, it was his turn.

Flash decided to pull up a kitchen chair to his father’s closet, finding it full of squares with people and flowers and artwork and trains on them (albums). He chose the nearest one, as this stealthy plan was about performing an experiment instead of discovering his taste in music. Flash perfectly executed his father’s ritual once he got to the record player, except, he didn’t put the record back in its rightful place amongst all the others in the closet, leading his father to figure out his scheme and reprimand him.

Always the curious one, Flash didn’t stop. The cycle continued: his father went to work, he’d go to the kitchen, get the chair, go to the closet, pick an album, put the vinyl in the record player, get reprimanded.

Grandmaster Flash
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion | Grandmaster Flash hugs a Bronx neighbor

His mother, who was a seamstress, took his fascination with electrical appliances a step further. Flash used one of her sewing needles to experiment replicating what happened in the brown box—the needle in the record player. Vibrations danced through the needle and into his hand, leading him to discover that music lived in the grooves of the black discs. His mother elected to send him to a technical high school where he could unleash his curiosities without tearing apart the house. Flash later revisited the vinyl and the record player to further understand how music and patterns were being used together.

Music overtook Flash’s life from there, and he has been doing the unthinkable ever since.

The “Quick Mix Theory”—putting fingertips on the records to manipulate the sound and length—was born from his frustration with the record industry: He noticed a lack of space for rappers and break dancers to do their thing, so he made space. When he experienced the voices of DJs being silenced, he spoke up. When he wanted to hear drum solos longer than 10 seconds, he found a way. 

“In my anger is when I started figuring out if I take two copies of the same record and I just repeat that one particular section … without realizing it, I was weaving a bed of music of just that one particular area of an existing composition,” he explains.

Flash dug through every type of genre at the record shop for an inkling of a drum solo. He strung together pop, rock, jazz, blues and R&B because it worked. There was no alliance to a specific genre because there was no specific sound coming out of his house growing up.

“Although I couldn’t really touch the stereo too much, except for when I snuck to do it, I was able to hear a smorgasbord of all types of music, which gave me a reason to say what I say: Music has no color. Great music is just great music.”

This is a concept that has stayed with him as he travels the world and sees people’s interpretations of his technical innovation. So, don’t even bother plainly asking him what his favorite hip-hop records of all time are. Narrow it down to specific indicators, such as which country, male or female, what language. Even then, there’s still no fair answer to him because hip-hop continues to adapt musically and lyrically.

“Hip-hop is like a leopard changing his spots,” Flash says. “Every couple of years, it just keeps changing the subject matters of what they’re talking about. The beat changes. There is no one greatest because the most incredible person could possibly be somebody that has no money to promote. So, what I’m trying to say here is the greatest could be somebody that has nothing. They just have a God-given talent to do what they do.”

Grandmaster Flash
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion

Flash is just some guy with a God-given talent and an idea that came on the scene at the right time. He says he’s humbled by being known as “the founder of the Quick Mix Theory” which gave DJs a voice and also to be able to experience how far hip-hop has come in 50 years.

It may not have happened if the Bronx didn’t like the new technique he was inserting into block parties. It could have been missed if the Midwest, the West and the South didn’t put their own spins on it. It could have faded out if people across the world didn’t swallow it and spit out their own interpretations.

Without realizing it, I was weaving a bed of music of just that one particular area of an existing composition.

“I think my favorite memory, even today, is to watch DJs break the law like I did 50-plus years ago by putting the fingertips on the record and controlling the sound and controlling time. I travel internationally… they’re all warming up. Doing the technique, whether it’s Japan or England or Germany or Holland or Australia.”

Flash went from playing around in his father’s music to serving up beats in the Bronx. “Birth of a Culture: The Four Elements Block Party” is Flash’s chance to bring his friends and the community together to highlight the contributions made to hip-hop culture. The genre has found its way around the world and sits comfortably in American history.

Whether you refer to him as Grandmaster Flash, the creator of the Quick Mix Theory, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Joseph Saddler or simply “Joe,” he’s still just “some guy” behind the turntables, he says.

“I toured quite extensively, but now I’m going back home to Crotona Park,” he says “It was one of the places where it was my come up, and it was nothing. No money. Just doing it for the love.”

Grandmaster Flash
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
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