When Grandmaster Flash appeared on The Masked Singer this week, the Bronx-born hip-hop pioneer made sure to keep his legacy intact — choosing to compete on the series’ New York Night and customizing his chunky-chained Polar Bear tracksuit to have more “swag.” And most notably, he paid homage to another New York act that “changed the game,” Blondie, by singing a song that changed the course of his life.
“Rapture,” which came out in January 1981, was the first single featuring rap vocals to go to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and frontwoman Debbie Harry’s line “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” — praising Grandmaster Flash’s skills on the turntables — made the then-23-year-old DJ a household name. And it all started when anther hip-hop trailblazer namechecked in that song took Harry to see one of Flash’s shows in the Bronx.
“This is before I became famous,” Flash, whose real name is Joseph Saddler, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This is all my come-up. It was a good friend of mine that used to come to all my parties, a big fan. He was one of the guys that could get in free anytime. His name was Fab Five Freddy. So, Fab Five Freddy says to me, ‘Yo, Flash, I got some good friends downtown. I wanna bring them up from Soho, bring them to the party. This is Blondie.’ Yo, I'm looking at this guy like, whatever. … Mind you, the audience that I had primarily then was Black and Latino. But there was this blonde-haired person that came to Webster PAL.”
After the Webster show, Flash and Harry “just talked to a few seconds, then she was whisked out,” and Flash thought nothing of it. “But then Freddy tells me that she says she watched me on the turntables, the way I orchestrated them, and that she was going to write a song about me,” Flash recalls. “She had all these huge songs out — like, we're talking a super-monster, powerful pop star — and she's gonna write about a DJ on a come-up? OK. .. But Freddy told me all the things; he says, ‘[Blondie’s] Chris Stein and her are gonna do this song.’ And I gotta tell you, six months later, our album on the label that we were on [Sugar Hill Records] wasn't done yet. So, people were coming to me like, ‘There's this song on the radio; it's everywhere! And it's talking about how quick you are on the turntables!’ I'm like, ‘Could this possibly be what Freddy was talking about?’ I go purchase the record, I play it, and I go: ‘Whoa. She kept her word.’”
Flash says the mainstream exposure “skyrocketed me to whites and people from different countries. And the work got better. People were booking me more. That song took me to where my thinking was. And when I say my thinking, I grew up listening to pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Latin, Caribbean, white bands, Black bands, foreign bands, American bands. This is what played on my stereo in my house. So, this song gave me a chance — because I really wanted to show this [hip-hop] to all races of all people, all creeds, all colors, all genres, but how do I do that? [Harry] gave me that door to go in. It helped me quite a bit. Her and I became like the best of friends for a long time. There's pictures out there with me and her when we were younger and the whole thing. It's a pretty cool thing.”
Sadly, Flash was supposed to appear in Blondie’s “Rapture” music video — the first rap video ever played on MTV — but Sugar Hill Records (which Saddler has legally battled over the years) refused to allow it; NYC artist Jean-Michel Basquiat instead stepped in for Flash at the last minute. “That was a real dark moment for me. That's when Basquiat took my place. That was supposed to be my moment,” says Flash. “It was very threatening to the label that I was on at the time, so they told [Blondie’s label] Chrysalis Records, ‘Nope, he can't do this.’ Ooh, I was so mad! I was so, so, so, so, so mad. But yeah, that's the story behind that.”
However, Flash made history of his own when 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” a seven-minute showcase of his dextrous turntable skills that included elements of "Rapture," became the first documented appearance of record-scratching on a recording. And Stein and Saddler had a cross-cultural onscreen collaboration of sorts two years later, when Flash appeared in Wild Style— the first major hip-hop motion picture, which turns 40 this year — for which Stein worked on the soundtrack and score. And like “Rapture,” Wild Style was another unexpected development that ended up becoming a defining moment Flash’s career.
“For me, Wild Style from a movie's perspective is everything,” says Flash. “And the strange thing about it is, I remember when we were shooting in the bandshell downtown in Manhattan. They had to get the recording equipment back the next day, because they didn't have the funding to rent it for another day, so they took me home, because we couldn't film my part at the bandshell. And I remember them taking me home and then some of the people in the van had to use the bathroom. So, they came upstairs to my apartment and one of the producers said, ‘Hey, can we shoot that DJ scene right there?’ I said, ‘Right where?’ He says, ‘Right there, on your counter in the kitchen.’ I'm like, ‘Well, I guess so.’ So, they ran downstairs, got the equipment, set it all up. Fab Five Freddy sat on the couch on the other side of the counter and he was kind of rocking with me. And I did my DJ thing, and that became one of the biggest scenes in the whole movie. … [Director Charlie Ahearn] got what he had, he got the equipment back to the rental place, and he had his film and he glued it together and then he showed it. And that scene became the iconic scene.”
Flash says he’s “already in talks with them about us coming together and doing something [to commemorate] the Wild Style thing,” but Wild Style isn’t the only phenomenon marking an anniversary in 2023. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the entire hip-hop genre, and Flash is working on various celebrations, which he jokes is “like planning this gigantic, super-duper wedding.” There will be several concerts and lectures in the Bronx, including a big August block party that’s “gonna be a full production” with Flash’s handpicked “musical gunslingers, the best DJs.” Recently, Flash also participated in an all-star, decade-spanning hip-hop tribute that was by far the biggest highlight of this year’s Grammy Awards, he still seems to be coming off the high of that historic night, when luminaries like Nelly, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, the LOX, Run-DMC, Jazzy Jeff, and Ice-T thanked him for his innovation. “It's mind-blowing. It is absolutely mind-blowing. I can't say it any other way,” he marvels.
As one of the genre’s first and most innovative turntablists who pioneered and perfected techniques like backspinning, punch phrasing, and scratching at Bronx house parties, creating the vocabulary that DJs employ to this day, Flash can still recall his modest first experience DJing a block party at age 16. “You gotta remember, All these things we were doing as children. You gotta realize, we was doing this as recreation in the ‘70s,” he chuckles. “I had handmade speakers made of plywood, and at the top of the speaker was a window and I put lights on it, like little Christmas-tree lights, so I could think I was in a disco. I was just really, really poor; it was my first situation.
“I would go to the supermarkets and get three or four shopping carts, and me and my boys would put the crates of records in the shopping cart and put the makeshift sound system and go to the nearest park,” Flash continues. “And so when we would get to the nearest park, we would wonder how we would be able to plug this system in. And with my knowledge of electricity, I looked at the lamp post and I broke open the door and I wired the extension cord in the lamp post and ran the cord into the park, plugged everything up.”
Saddler attended Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School and “grew up as a geek, but I kept it quiet for a long time, because being a geek back then was not cool, so you don’t tell anybody that,” he says with a laugh. “But yeah, pretty much in my teenage years I didn’t do the girlfriend thing, or the smoking thing, or the wild things that teenagers do. When I was 18, I was going to the backyard looking for old turntables and old receivers and old electronic stereo parts, and bringing them in the back room and just trying to jury-rig things together. That’s what I was doing in my teenage years. … I was just doing it for the moment. Never, never — and I humbly say this — in my wildest dreams did I think that this thing would catch on like worldwide fire.”
Obviously, as Blondie once said, Flash was cool. But despite the groundwork laid by “Rapture” it took a long time for rap to be considered a legitimate art form in the mainstream pop world. For instance, the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony took place in 1986, but it took two whole decades for the Hall to recognize hip-hop, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the genre’s first Hall inductees (in a Class of 2007 that also included R.E.M., Van Halen, and Patti Smith). “It was pretty, pretty big. I always looked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a place that would never accept us — I need to be honest — because it was that kind of place. It was pop. … I didn't think that that building would even accept us or our community. I was wrong. That was pretty cool,” says Flash.
“Journalists was saying [hip-hop] was gonna be like a ship passing in the night. How wrong were they?” says Flash. “Hip-hop is a nucleus to everything. I don't care if it's a beverage or it's fashion or it’s electronic products — every corporation uses our slang terms, uses our way of life. They pitch to us to buy their stuff, you know? And to be one of the inventors of this, I’m speechless. I'm humbled, because when you're an inventor of something, you could put it out there after your life's work and the world could say, ‘I don't like this.’ That could have happened. This thing could have missed. But here we are, 50 years later. It's humbling. It's absolutely humbling.”
When Grandmaster Flash was revealed on The Masked Singer this week, host Nick Cannon called him an “icon” and “the pioneer of a whole culture,” and judge Nicole Scherzinger gasped, “We’re looking at the man who invented scratching!” Flash doesn’t take any of these accolades for granted.
“People call me ‘legend’ and it scares me, because a lot of times when you are the builder of something, either you pass away or you go into obscurity, and people don't see you anymore,” Saddler muses. “So, every day I wake up, and I [know] I’m truly blessed that what I've taught… touches the planet. This whole thing could have missed.”
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