The grandmaster is back


Well it was about time that the wanna-be Nobel prize for music, the Polar prize, finally came to recognise one of modern days most notable music genre’s hip hop. With the nomination of the DJ Grandmaster Flash the Polar academy took the prize into the right millennium again. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the experimentation was huge and one of the forerunners in actually recognising the mixer and the turntable as an instrument was Grandmaster Flash.

Flash calls himself a scientist. He mentions “pushing the envelope” a lot. He has little enthusiasm for talking about the decade many consider to be hip-hop’s golden age. When Rakim starts rapping I Know You Got Soul, he politely asks me to turn it off. “You people forget the 70s exist. You forget Kool Herc, you forget Afrika Bambaataa, you forget me.”

No one has a stronger claim to have invented the 21st century’s dominant pop cultural mode than Joseph Saddler, a kid from the Bronx who built his own system, developed a completely original DJing technique and perfected it in his friend’s basement until people finally understood what he was trying to do. Only then did he adopt the title of Grandmaster. Below is the official statement from the Polar price commitee:

The Polar Music Prize 2019 is awarded to the DJ and musician Joseph Saddler, known as Grandmaster Flash. Born in Barbados and raised in the South Bronx, New York, Grandmaster Flash created a whole new way of making music. Grandmaster Flash is a scientist and a virtuoso who has demonstrated that turntables and mixing consoles can be musical instruments. His adventures at the turntables – “the Adventures of the Wheels of Steel” – changed the course of popular music. Some 40 years later, the musical form and the hip hop culture that Grandmaster Flash helped to create, in the ruins of the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, has grown into the largest music genre, hip hop, in the United States and the world.

In recent interview he was asked about his work as a DJ and how it shaped his music; as a DJ, what do you think is more important, mastery of technical skills and dexterity, or the knowledge of music and having a vision of what you want to present to your audience?

“I believe both are very important. I put DJs into two classifications, technicians and performers. A performance DJ will let more of the record play, and a technical DJ will take more of an element and move it in a backward and forward motion to make it his own. This is where the two audiences divide.”

Being a DJ for over three decades how has your approach to the art evolved over that time?

“Since I was the first DJ to use the turntables as an instrument and doing everything with analog equipment, it took me a long time to step into the digital world. I am now using the Traktor Scratch digital application and I will be doing a tour promoting this [digital module].”

As someone known manipulating vinyl, how do you feel about digital technology?

 “I’m very happy with it from a production standpoint. If you go in to a studio and say take a sample of a Flash record, take a sample of a D Train record, you make it all work, and you make it a record then you put it out. After you’ve gotten clearances, of course. That’s fine. To use modern technology in a live performance setting, I have a problem with that. If a DJ is needed, let a DJ do it. I haven’t fully accepted CD machines, I guess that I’m a vinyl purist. I want to be able to touch the vinyl, it’s part of the artistry of what I do. Whereas with the cd machine, you pop it in and a computer does it for you. I don’t know if I’m with that too much, not yet, but I guess I’m coming along.”

Suppose that the current digital technology existed when you were first starting. Do you think you would embrace it? Were you initially attracted to the idea of mixing, or vinyl specifically

“That’s a good question. I know I was unhappy with the way DJs were doing things. I guess if all the DJs were using digital technology, I probably would have said ‘wait a minute, I’m going to go in there and do something else with it.’ But if digital technology had existed then, but DJs were still doing things with vinyl, I wouldn’t have touched digital technology, I probably still would have done it with the vinyl. Technology has its pluses, though. But I think in a live arena it doesn’t. If it can be done live by a human being, then let it be done live. Consumers should see that, because that’s the idea of them buying a ticket for 25 bucks, to see how you did it. As opposed to taking a DAT tape and putting it in and sort of live lip synching over the vocals. I hate that, it’s so, so horrible. When someone can just stay home with their $18.99 CD and hear that. But technology does have its place.”

BACKGROUND INFO:

Joseph Saddler (born January 1, 1958), better known as Grandmaster Flash, is an American hip hop recording artist and DJ. He is considered to be one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJing, cutting, scratching and mixing. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, becoming the first hip hop act to be honored.

Grandmaster Flash carefully studied the 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 (or, quick-mix theory): Early New York party DJs came to understand that short drum breaks were popular with party audiences. Kool Herc began experimenting with the use of two identical tracks to extend the ‘break’, or instrumental section, resulting in what was known as ‘break-beat’. Grandmaster Flash perfected this technique where 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 cued up and ready to play. Using the backspin technique (also referred to as beat juggling), the same short phrase of music could be looped indefinitely.
  • Punch phrasing (or, 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 as a form of adding to the musical entertainment 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