Joseph Saddler – Grandmaster Flash – is nearly 60. We are now literally living in the future. What can a 60 year old guy from the Bronx tell us about DJing? Well, in some ways, not much, and in other ways, almost everything.
Here’s an excerpt from 1983’s Wildstyle. It all looks really quaint from our future-present viewpoint, doesn’t it? But that’s history right there, that’s an early part of hip hop history recorded for posterity. Yeah, yeah, it’s a decade after the official “Kool Herc birth of hip-hop” narrative, but you pays your money, etc. What we can’t see here is the background to it – the young Joseph Saddler as a geek, messing with mixers, old stereos, soldering irons, trying to figure out how to break things apart and make them work again in a different way. That’s such a transparent metaphor for his technique, but there you have it – taking things to pieces and re-engineering them into something new is what he’s known for.
This is what Flash perfected, the endless looping of breaks, the adventures on the wheels of steel, creating long and seamless backdrop of block-rocking beats for people to party against. Yes, other people did it, but nobody applied the geeky precision that Flash did. He didn’t go to block parties to party, he went to block parties to analyse them, to break them down to their nitty grits, and to understand how to rock a party. I love the unashamed earnestness on show here.
And I love this excerpt of Flash from 1998. It’s as though he started to realise what he created, and he shows his colours as a total electronics geek (“well actually, mixers at the time didn’t have what I call the peekaboo system, which allows you to pre-hear the cut before the people hear the cut, I had to inject that. And then I figured out a way to take a passage of music and repeat it over and over again, which a lot of people thought was kinda idiotic”). Then he drops a few tracks (I’m pretty sure he misses a cue and fluffs the second cut), loops a bit of Apache, then gets cut off before he even starts by the presenter, who introduces Jam Master Jay. Jay pays his respects to Flash, then absolutely rips it up. It would be unfair to compare two totally different styles, but you can’t help but think that the future of DJing showed up and kicked Flash’s arse that night.
Except, not so much. Flash is a DJ from way back, when DJs were DJs, not turntablists, not scratch technicians, not freestyle jazzbo musicians. Flash is the icon that he is because he invented the whole damn thing. He invented the peekaboo technology, the looping of great breaks from many records into a longer performance, and more importantly, he studied how to rock a party like no other. You can argue that he hasn’t progressed technically as a DJ, but that’s to profoundly miss the point. He hasn’t needed to progress as a DJ for the same reasons that KRS-1 hasn’t had to progress as a rapper. He sets the standard by which others are judged. Hell, he more or less invented it. And that’s why I’m as excited as a DJ with two decks to see him playing in a venue like the Brudenell in Leeds.