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.

Chapter: Start

Growing up with music and technology

Growing up I had a fascination with things that spun around…My father would put this black disc inside of this machine, and sound would come out. I found this very intriguing…

Grandmaster Flash in the Hip Hop Evolution Netflix series

Grandmaster Flash was born Joseph Saddler on January 1, 1958, in Barbados, West Indies. He then grew up in the Bronx, one of the five New York boroughs. In the 1970s, the Bronx was an underprivileged and socially challenged area. Joseph Saddler was interested in both music and technics and started early on to explore electronics and mechanics around him. 

 

 

Musical influences 1970s
Chapter: The Birth of hip hop

Birth of hip hop in the streets

Partly as a reaction to fashionable parties down town, or disco clubs they didn’t have access to due to their young age, the Bronx kids hosted their own block parties in the streets, with the music they wanted to listen and dance to. Soul, funk and beats were played on vinyl records by the young Joseph and his companions.

Together with DJs Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, who is said to have thrown the first bloc party, Joseph “Grandmaster Flash” Saddler became the one most influential bloc party DJs. They were the “holy trinity.” The nickname Flash was due to his rapid hand movements. Together, they would be the masters and founders of a new way to use the records and play the music and would pave the way for hip hop, more based on the drums and the bass.

Kool Herc
Afrika Bambaataa
Grandmaster Flash 1998

After trying many different things I placed my fingers on the vinyl…I had absolute control of the music.

The turntable scientist

The obsession about all kinds of technical gear made Grandmaster Flash start to look for different ways to use the record players and how to play the songs and the beats in different ways. The magic first happened when he started touching the vinyl, something that would seem forbidden for many DJs, and he started spinning and counting the spins, back and forth, using two records of the same song just as Kool Herc, and connecting technique and technology. A mechanical sample in some way. He had to invent the gear he needed himself, and built hos own system.

Birth of Hip Hop on record

At the same time, the hip hop movement grew, with its four essential pillars first defined by Afrika Bambaataa: DJing/turntablism, MCing/rapping, breakdancing and grafitti art. Musician Sylvia Robinson started the first hip hop label Sugar hill records and for the first time, a hip hop track was actually recorded, having existed only through live performances before. The single Rapper’s delight with the Sugar hill gang was released in 1979 and hip hop as a genre took the first step outside the streets and bloc parties, and into being a more commercial genre for the next 40 years and on.

During the beginning of the 80s, several hip hop artists would start releasing their music. Among them, one of the biggest successes would be The Message by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness/Scorpio och Rahiem. Although

 

Early recorded hip hop
Sylvia Robinson in 1976 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Fair use)

The message: Hip hop becomes social and politic

In the beginning of the 80s, the Bronx was literally on fire, the area was marginalised and its youth severely underprivileged. Born in these streets, the hip hop movement then became a voice of the situation, as a reaction to Reaganism and social abandonment. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message became an important milestone in contrast to the former bloc party hip hop with improvised rhymes. The message is a social commentary on the area where they grew up. “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under…” 

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five: The Message
Chapter: The mixing Techniques

The Adventures of the Wheels of steel

Grandmaster Flash invented revolutionizing Dj techniques that would evolve through the upcoming decades and influence the evolution of hip hop as a genre and composition overall on a large scale. The peek-a-boo system, the quick mix theory, the slipmat…

“I went to a fabric store. When I touched this hairy stuff – felt – I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sides and ironed it until it became a stiff wafer. After that, I was able to stop time.”

 

The Quick mix theory dramatised in "The Get down" on Netflix.
The quick mix theory applied
Clip from Wild Style, a film based on hip hop culture released in 1982, featuring Grandmaster Flash.
Chapter: 1990s-2000s

Rise in the 1980s

After The Message had reached tremendous success and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had toured the world, the following releases were surrounded by disputes between the members and the record label.

Grandmaster Flash and some members of the original Furious Fives changed to the Elektra label and released three albums under the name Grandmaster Flash.

In 1987, the original Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five reunited at a charity concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, and recorded ”On the strength” in 1988, before splitting up for good.  

Grandmaster Flash 1987
On the strength, the last album of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

1990-2000:
producing, musical direction and recognition

In the 1990s, Grandmaster Flash produced other hip hop artists and became the musical director in the successfull  <i>Chris Rock Show</i> 1997–2000.

He has received numerous awards, and in 2007 he was inducted in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame as the first hip hop artist ever, together with the original Furious Five. They were introduced by another influential hip hop artist – and biggest fan – Jay-Z.

Bu the end of the 00s, Grandmaster Flash released a concept record where he for once did not lay his hands on the turntables: <i>The Bridge</i>. By inviting contemporary hip hop artists from all over the world (among them Swedish rapper Afasi), he united his producer skills and “old school” references together with the modern sounds of hip hop at the time.

 

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five accept and perform Rock Hall Inductions 2007.
Grandmaster Flash back playing in the Bronx in 2009.
Concept album The bridge released in 2009.

The timeline is being updated…