Caribbean Trailblazers: Grandmaster Flash
by Karen Rollins Nov 7, 2022
Joseph Saddler, better known as Grandmaster Flash, is widely recognised as one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJing.
Flash was raised in the US from the age of seven but was born in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1958 and has strong Caribbean roots.
Flash’s parents were both Barbadian. His father was a transit worker, and despite his young age when his dad left the family, Joseph spoke in an interview in 1982 about being introduced to music via his dad’s impressive collection of records featuring Caribbean and black American artists.
He recalled: “My father was a very heavy record collector… I used to open his closets and just watch all the records he had. I used to get into trouble for touching his records, but I’d go right back and bother them.”
When Flash moved to the US along with his mother and sister, the family unit soon broke down due to his mother’s poor mental health, and both children were put into foster care. They moved around, before spending five years at a facility near Poughkeepsie in New York, where he got his first chance to DJ at a high school dance.
When Flash was a teenager he would experiment with DJ gear in his bedroom and then in the 1970s he joined other DJs who were throwing parties in parks or community centres in the Bronx, such as Jamaican Clive Campbell (also known as DJ Kool Herc), who’s widely recognised as the ‘father of hip-hop’.
Flash was heavily influenced by DJ Herc and another innovator called Afrika Bambaataa, and experimented with ground-breaking DJ techniques including ‘cutting’, moving between tracks exactly on the beat; ‘back-spinning’ which is manually turning records to repeat brief snippets of sound; and ‘phasing’, – manipulating turntable speeds.
Flash’s special DJ techniques garnered attention and he started collaborating with emerging rappers including a group called the Furious Five.
In 1979, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five release their first album called ‘Superrappin’, and in 1983 they became famous around the world for the socially-conscious rap song ‘The Message’.
Unfortunately, the fame which Flash attained led to money and drug problems and his music career all but disappeared but his influence never went away.
In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first hip-hop/rap group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2011 the group were also recognised with a Grammy Hall of Fame award for ‘The Message’.
Flash has come a long way from his island roots and today is still a DJ playing for thousands of people all over the world.
He’s also working as executive producer on an original Netflix series called ‘The Get Down’, about the meteoric rise of hip hop in the 1970s, and that should ensure Flash’s role in creating the genre will never be forgotten.