Grandmaster Flash Traces Hip Hop's Roots Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are synonymous with the birth of hip hop. But unknown to many, Flash was not part of the one song most associated with the group — "The Message." He tells Farai Chideya: "That particular record was part of the catalyst of me going into my drug addiction."

Grandmaster Flash Traces Hip Hop's Roots

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of song "Freedom")

GRANDMASTER FLASH: (Rapping) We don't care If your age is 10 or if you're a senior citizen Because we got the beat that just won't end

CHIDEYA: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are synonymous with the birth of hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash, a.k.a Joseph Saddler, was the mastermind of the group which consisted of five rappers with flash backing them is the quintessential DJ. In the late '70s, their performances in New York public parks and night clubs helped give hip-hop its identity. But the song most associated with Flash is this one, "The Message," featuring rapper Melly Mel.

(Soundbite of song "The Message")

MELLY MEL: (Rapping) It's like a jungle Sometimes it makes me wonder How I keep them going under

CHIDEYA: A classic, right? The problem is, Flash was never on that record. We'll get back to that topic in a bit. But first I asked Flash how he developed music sampling to seamlessly match one beat with another. It's a technique that became his trademark and the foundation of hip-hop. He told me, it all began at home where it was dangerous for a child to handle daddy's records.

Mr. FLASH (Hip-Hop Pioneering DJ): Three rules at my household. Don't go in the closet where my father's records was. He was a collector of records and don't go into the living room and don't touch the stereo. And the stereo lived in the living room. Three rules. He would come home from work, go into his closet, get a record, go to his stereo and sit in his favorite chair and sort of de-stress from, you know, from a day's work and when my father will go to work, I will wait for the door to slam and I would go into the kitchen and grab a chair and drag it to the closet where these records lived. And I would stand on my tippy toes and open up the knob and go in there and grab this black piece of plastic that had tunnels in it.

I had always wondered how does music live inside those little black tunnels? My father started noticing his records were out of certain sequences in certain orders and he would sort of ask gently, who's been to my records? And everybody, not me, not me, not me, not me and then his gentleness turned into somewhat of a roar and I guess by the time he came to me, the fear on my face, he would beat me. And sometimes he would beat me till I was unconscious and beat me to the point where I had to be rushed to the hospital and I'd wait for the door to slam and I'd go in the kitchen and get that chair and go to that closet, stand on my tippy toes and open the knob up, going in, go inside the records. And then, he would take my hands, he would take my hands and place it on the radiator, already it was boiling hot and burn my hands. I was screaming with pain and that wouldn't stop me from going inside their souls.

Years went on. What I would do is unscrew the back of anything electrical, stereos, my big sister's hair dryer or table radio or cassette player, whatever the case may be and I became public enemy number one in my house and, my mother had - finally sat me down and says, Joe, you just can't keep doing this anymore. I'm going to send you to a vocational technical high school and I was in search of something. I eventually went to see other DJs play and I found their style of DJing to be weird.

CHIDEYA: Weird in what way?

Mr. FLASH: The DJs I used to watch, they played this incredible music that radio would not play which was wonderful. But in the fashion that they played it, I found it to be a little weird. For example, there was 500 people dancing in a park to a particular song while it's playing, it looked wonderful to watch the heads go up and down. But as soon as the DJ would switch over in transition over to the next song, you could see like 500 heads go into like disarray. So, right from there, I just came up at a turn, disarray, unison and I would watch this for awhile and I found it to be slightly unnerving. For me, music had a common thread. The common thread was every band had a drummer. When the record was playing full instrumentation, those areas of the song, I wasn't too concerned with them areas, it was when the drummer had a solo or the drummer had a slight accompaniment with just the bassist or just the trumpet or whatever. Anything other than that was the whack part. So, the key thing was never go into the whack part.

CHIDEYA: So, you were looking for breaks.

Mr. FLASH: Looking for the get-down part.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLASH: This is what it was called.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLASH: Yeah, because at that time, everybody was getting down. So, you know, later, it was called the break. How do I connect the different drummers back to back without going into the whack part? That was the beginning of me coming up with the science. So, one day, I just sort of let the record play while the arm was on this area and then I just put my hand on the vinyl, I stopped it. And the silence kind of just, oh the silence sort of talked to me maybe? Oh, my God, I can control something here.

CHIDEYA: So, this is kind of like a mix of experimental physics.

Mr. FLASH: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: You know, practical mechanics, music.

Mr. FLASH: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like what you were doing was probably something that most people didn't understand. Did you talk to anyone about this as you were doing this?

Mr. FLASH: No. The only like - while I was kind of solving the problems, I would ask my friends to come to my room, like look, you know, I figured something out and they found it to be quite boring and don't you think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLASH: You know, we go to the basketball court, let's go see the girls, you know. Be right there - after awhile, they just stopped coming to my house, you know? Was just - I didn't have no audience.

CHIDEYA: You're clearly someone who is an inventor. But when did you take it out on the streets?

Mr. FLASH: I took it out on - after the four years of coming up with this, I took out in the streets and I said to myself, if I played the greatest rock drummer, the greatest jazz drummer, the greatest blues drummer, greatest funk drummer, greatest R&B drummer. Back to back to back on time to the beat. No disarray only unison. I'm going to have a park in a frenzy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLASH: It didn't happen that way and was extremely quiet. People were pushing over the rope, trying to see what it was what I was trying to do and I found that quite annoying. I didn't want you to push over the ropes. And then the first successful MC to rap on this was cowboy. So, now, people were no longer staring at me. They went jamming and this gave me a chance to do the science and DJ's weren't very happy because I was touching the body of records were, you weren't supposed to do that.

(Soundbite of song "The Message")

Mr. FLASH: (Rapping) It's like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

CHIDEYA: Grandmaster Flash's "The Message." It is, no matter how many influences run through that song, it's your song.

Mr. FLASH: That record probably was the gift but the curse to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Definitely, a lot of people loved the song but - put it this way, if you and I create something from the bottle and if treats, you and I become very popular. We're just doing it in clubs and we're doing it in gymnasiums and doing it with almost no money. And then when we get to the chance of making a record deal, you decide that you want to make records by yourself. Everything was made one DJ, five MCs. Somewhere along the line, the record company figured, well, we're going to split this template and we're going to just put one of the rappers on the record and the rest of them are not going to play a part in any of this record, I remember asking her and begging her and as to you, please do not do this because you...

CHIDEYA: When you say her, who do you mean?

Mr. FLASH: Talking about Sylvia Robinson, the one who owns Sugar Hill Records. I was like you will destroy a template that we designed and nevertheless she wanted it her way. So, then I guess, I looked at Mel and I'm going to do what he's going to do and he goes in and that there was probably the most painful things because people like yourself, remember the most prominent records, but there was - the Furious Five wasn't on those records, you know, and you split the atom and you then you still call it the entire atom. You know, something I designed. I just could not handle that. So, my tinkering with drugs mixed with my depression of watching something that I'd built fall apart, catapulted me deeply into doing drugs. I walked away from the turntables. I went up from sniffing it to smoking it. When you're smoking it, you know, the whole group fell apart.

CHIDEYA: What year do you think that you really lost your grip on...

Mr. FLASH: Eighty-two, '82, '86 because now, here comes these records, "The Message." One rapper. New York, New York one rapper. Survival, one rapper. How does this happen right before my eyes? And this has taken me on some serious roller coaster, you know.

CHIDEYA: I have to say, it sounds like you - you put a lot on yourself. That you take a lot of responsibility for things that may not have even been your fault, that you internalize a lot of things.

Mr. FLASH: I probably did. I probably did. I mean, but you got to look at it like I put the group together. I did. It was my concept and that's kind of how I really want it to stay. So, I wanted to say this, I had to eventually forgive. Have - had to forgive my dad for the beatings, God rest his soul. He's in the ground. I had to forgive Mel for what he did. I had to forgive Sylvia Robinson. I had to forgive these people, you know, so sobering up was pretty scary for me. I was able to take the slow walk back. So, the story is about someone who went through it. Got hoodwinked by people you would never think would and then forgive them. And that's kind of where I'm at right now. But - it's no longer my story because I held it for long enough. It's not my story anymore. It's your own story.

CHIDEYA: That was DJ Joseph Saddler, a.k.a Grandmaster Flash. His autobiography is called "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats." He joined me here at our NPR West studios. You can listen to more of this interview at our blog, That's News & Notes.

I'd also like to thank everyone else who's worked on News & Notes during my time here because today is my final day as host of News & Notes. I pass the baton to the great Tony Cox. It's been my great pleasure to host this show and to get to know those of you who listen. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio consortium. Next week, from the oat to the bowl. It's going to be a big day in D.C. Join us for our in depth inaugural coverage. I'm Farai Chideya. This is News & Notes.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.