Grandmaster Flash aka Joseph Saddler is a legend of hip hop and has his name on one of the most important records in the genre’s history – The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five from the ground-breaking Sugar Hill Records. But it’s as a turntable pioneer, inventing the art of scratching and treating DJing with the experimenting attitude of a scientist breaking new boundaries that we should probably think of him. Name-checked on Blondie’s number one single Rapture – which introduced millions to the emerging art of rap – he continues to play live and produce his own music (his new, 12th album is out soon). Though there has been a rift between some of the original Sugar Hill signings, the place of Grandmaster in the story of the music is secured and an early turntable is archived in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC. Below, he answers Margaret Chrystall's questions...
1 The first question is one that probably any hip hop fan/ DJ would ask: what gave you the idea to get your hands on the vinyl and scratch and start to mark the vinyl with crayons etc?
I've read that you seeing a young boy dropping the needle on the record to find the start of the track might have been one early inspiration ...
GF: The break on the song was undeniably too short. In order to replicate the break it would have been impossible to pick the needle up and put it down in a counter clockwise circular motion, so I had to realign it at the top of the break. That’s why I used crayons to mark the vinyl, so I could find that break ...
2 Rapture, the Blondie number one single in 1981 in the US and also big in Europe and UK put rapping on the map for a lot of people outside the hip hop world who had never really heard it before. You are name-checked in the lyrics –"Flash is fast, Flash is cool" and I imagine the song must have meant a lot to you.
You scratch mixed it that same year on your ground-breaking The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel Adventures. That used multi decks live in the recording where you also played Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust and Chic’s Good Times and it was the first time that scratching and what I know you think of as your turntable science had been recorded.
Rapture’s also included on your 2002 DJ mix album Essential Mix: Classic Edition. But you didn’t show up for the Blondie Rapture video back in 1981 and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat got the gig instead! Can you remember why?
GF: Sugar Hill told me I couldn’t show up for the Blondie – Rapture video. Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records would not allow it and told me that I couldn’t.
3 The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC displays in their historical archives the vinyl records and a turntable you used.
In 2007, Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five were the first hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame the year you also published your life story, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.
Which one of those two makes you most proud?
GF: Wow, both of them, man! It was incredible to be included in the rock n roll hall of fame with such great artists. That made me proud.
Writing the biog was like a heavy building had been lifted off my shoulders. It was a relief and therapeutic to be able to let those ill feelings from the past go ...
4 Enough of the past – I know you are constantly checking out new DJs and hip hop acts. A young Scottish outfit Hector Bizerk (who ar playing Belladrum too) proudly told me once in an interview that you had bought their album when you both played the same gig.
But one of your famous statements is "this is the lost art of hip-hop".
Where would you like to see you – and it – heading over the coming years?
And for the extreme, extreme future, should you make it to heaven’s pearly gates, what would you like (band/DJ/hip hop crew etc) to soundtrack your arrival?
GF: I’m a mere mortal – I can’t tell you what the future of hip hop is. Personally, I take it day by day and live by the motto that we’ll see what tomorrow brings...
I am a strong believer in God – when you talk about dying, God is listening and I’m not rushing it, it’s not something I even think about. I live for today.
Grandmaster Flash appears at Belladrum on the main Garden Stage on Friday.