Grandmaster Flash might easily have missed the hip-hop revolution. Born in Barbados and transplanted to the South Bronx as a child, he began his adolescence far from the city, in a group home for foster children in rural upstate New York. By the time he returned to the borough’s Fort Apache section in 1971, things were changing fast. Music was getting more percussive; teenagers with spray cans were scrawling hieroglyphic names and full-fledged murals on subway cars.
He was Joseph Saddler then, a nerdy high school student who liked to take appliances apart to see how they worked. In a few short years, though, in the hardest-hit part of a hard-hit city, he helped to invent what many would agree was the most sweeping cultural movement of the last 40 years, and then he barely hung on to see it bloom.
The four-decade roller-coaster ride of Grandmaster Flash, now 58, is a tale as improbable and as distinctly New York as that of hip-hop itself, filled with raw creativity, fame, drugs, broken friendships, lawsuits and, finally, something like smooth sailing. In parallel with the city that produced it, hip-hop emerged in the mid-1970s as a symbol of urban decay and evolved into a gilded spectacle of consumption. Mr. Saddler, the music’s first virtuoso, rode its initial wave, got crushed by the second and rebounded as one of the few from his generation whose careers are still going strong.
On a recent day in Harlem, he spread a wrinkled sheet of paper on the table of a Mexican takeout place as if opening his notes for a lecture. His features have filled out from the angular profile he had as a teenager, but he still looked athletic and lithe. He had just returned from England, where he had D.J.ed for 10,000 people. He was wearing a bright red baseball cap with the letters GF and a T-shirt that said Grandmaster, not exactly incognito.
These are good times for Grandmaster Flash. After a long fall, during which he was addicted to cocaine, estranged from some of his six children and sleeping on his sister’s couch, he has homes in the city, on Long Island and in Atlanta, but spends most of the year on the road, D.J.ing (you can’t call it spinning records) in the United States and abroad. For the past 15 months, he served as an associate producer on the director Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down,” a new Netflix series that features an actor playing Mr. Saddler as a teenager.
The series, set in hip-hop’s gestational period, has brought him back to the streets and parks where he started, now a middle-aged man straddling two eras connected by a sound that people said would never last.
“So here it is, 40 years later, it caught on,” he said. “Pretty euphoric.”
He declined to talk about the bad times or his early record company, Sugar Hill, or the rappers he worked with, the Furious Five, two of whom have called Flash the Milli Vanilli of hip-hop. He sneered at a nearby restaurant called Sugar Hill Cafe, saying the name made him sick.
“Life has been good,” he said. “Even during the times that were really tough, I’m really O.K. People poke holes in me. Some people are mad at me, most people love me. It’s O.K. Nobody’s perfect.”
These days, he said, he enjoys being a father, and lying low when he is back in town. The world is finally catching up to him. “You gotta realize that this thing here, this is the youngest of all the cultures, hip-hop,” he said. “Rock’s been around forever. Pop’s been around forever. This is the youngest, so it’s the least understood. But it is the biggest. The biggest monster.”
JOSEPH SADDLER WAS BORN on the first day of 1958 in Bridgetown, Barbados, the only boy in a family of four girls. His father, who left the family when Joseph was 7, was a record collector and a transit worker who liked to drink and who used his boxer’s hands against his wife and children. Joseph’s mother was a seamstress who spent much of his childhood in and out of psychiatric care.
Joseph and his younger sister entered foster care when he was 8, shuttling first among foster homes in the Bronx, then spending five years at the Greer School near Poughkeepsie. There, he got his first chance to D.J. at a school dance, playing Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” for an interracial crowd.
There are almost as many versions of hip-hop’s origin story as there are people who tell it, but most begin the musical portion — graffiti came earlier — with three Bronx D.J.s who began throwing parties in parks or community centers. Clive Campbell, a slightly older Jamaican from Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx who called himself DJ Kool Herc, drew crowds by mashing together instrumental breaks on records, spurring dancers to perform the acrobatic moves that came to be called break dancing or b-boying. In Soundview, Afrika Bambaataa, a former member of the Black Spades gang, played at the Bronx River Community Center. Flash was the third.
“I say the Bronx created it,” he said. “We all played a part. Herc was first, the founder. Then Bam had the most selections. And I just came up with a way to deliver the music, technically speaking. So the three of us together sort of figured it out.”
Their launching pad was a city in shambles, nowhere more so than the Bronx. In 1975, police officers and members of other public safety unions, responding to calls for layoffs, created a pamphlet, Welcome to Fear City, that warned: “Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.” President Jimmy Carter toured a blighted stretch of Charlotte Street in the South Bronx in 1977, as helicopters buzzed overhead to assure his safety. Amid the decline, Flash had a child and a job delivering garment patterns, making ends meet by spinning records at parties in parks and school gyms.
AT THE MEXICAN RESTAURANT, Flash walked patiently through what he called the Quik Mix Theory, the turntable breakthrough that started it all: 4bf = 6rc = loop. Four bars forward equaled six rotations counterclockwise equaled a loop. He could start a beat on one turntable, let it play for four bars, then switch to another copy of the same record on a second turntable. As the second record played, he would rotate the first record counterclockwise for six revolutions, putting the needle back at the start of the beat, ready to go when the record on the second turntable finished its four bars.
It took him nearly three years to perfect the formula, he said, but when he did, people thought it was magic. To him, it was more like the map of the human genome.
“This is my math and my science,” he said. “I’m
actually readjusting time. I’m taking this break, it’s 10 seconds, I’m making it 10 minutes, you don’t know when it’s beginning or ending.”
Voices could now rhyme over the beat without being interrupted by a record’s verses and choruses. “This was the birth of rap,” he said, only partly overstating the case. “So this Quik Mix Theory caused the whole culture. It’s scary to think about sometimes. But that’s what it did.”
But first someone had to rap. Flash tried emulating the patter of disco D.J.s, who talked while they spun, but he was too busy with the turntables, so he left a microphone for people from the crowd to talk. “Many people failed,” he said. A local resident named Robert Keith Wiggins, calling himself Cowboy, started spitting call-and-response rhymes to Flash’s beats, exhorting crowds to say “ho” or to “throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care” — lines that would become hip-hop staples for decades to come.
Date Posted: Wednesday, August 31st, 2016 , Total Page Views: 593
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