Q&A: Grandmaster Flash

The hip-hop pioneer talks to Rolling Stone on the eve of his Doha gig

By Joseph Hammond
Aug 27, 2014

Together with The Furious Five, Grandmaster Flash (real name Joseph Saddler) released one of music’s most influential albums, The Message, in 1982. With its scratching, quick mixing, and use of multiple MCs, the LP laid the groundwork for modern-day hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five became the first hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and Grandmaster Flash released his autobiography the following year. He has subsequently collaborated with acts ranging from Snoop Dogg to Paul Oakenfeld. Grandmaster Flash spoke with Rolling Stone Middle East ahead of a performance in Doha on April 25th about everything from the changing world of the DJ to Alexander the Great.

In the flight over from New York, what were you listening to?            

Journalists always ask about the flight. I was listening to gurus like Dr. Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra on the flight. I don’t want to just listen to music, I want to listen to people that have done major things in life. And find out how they did it.

You have earned the moniker “Godfather” for your role as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop and the DJ scene. What do you think people forget most about that time?

I think the biggest mistake with the origins of hip-hop is that people see it as a 1980s phenomenon when the origins were actually early in the 1970s and the foundations of hip- hop actually start in 1969. I’ll use the Eiffel Tower as an example – people look at it and want to know how they put that restaurant on top but the real question is how the structure was built from the ground-up.

You’ve called DJing as you know it “The Lost Art of Hip Hop”

The “Lost Art” is a type of turntable science we had; there was no such thing as cut and paste and no such thing as the Internet or the technological conveniences that we have now. All we had was vinyl. What we could do is study acts like Queen, Michael Jackson and the Incredible Bongo Band looking for that exciting part in the song.

Hip-hop then was pulling together a series of beats and records of different genres from around the world and that’s why it was so explosive when it came out because we DJs were playing the break to some of the greatest artists of all time. So when the rapper put the vocal on top of it, it was quite obvious it was going to explode. The ‘Lost Art’ is my style, I invented it. I’m going to do some of that tonight.

Do you like the direction hip-hop has gone?

I think, overall, it has moved in a good direction. The new sounds give you new ideas and tracks to master. It keeps it interesting for me. I am a scientist first; I am extremely happy with most of the technology I see. When I first started as a DJ, I had to carry three or four milk crates of vinyl to a performance. Now you can carry thousands of songs here [picks up his phone]. You have programs like Traktor and Serato which are able to do things with time code that you used to have to do with two big washing machine size recorders, each with 24 tracks. You’d have to lock these two things together with the time code, maybe one machine is drums and bass, the other the horns and vocals. Now you have these programs to take care of that on the mp3s. I travel with 4 terabytes of music.

You’re the nephew of the great boxer Sandy Sadler. How did he impact your life?

My father’s brother was the most kind and amazing uncle to have…

His four fights with Willie Pep were some of the best fights ever.

Oh man, When I watch those fights and see what he did in the ring, I see a different man than the kind, tiny, gentle, Sandy Sadler I know. When I was young, he wanted to teach me to be a fighter and we did some training, but the problem was I was asthmatic. You can’t go through all that intense training just to have an asthma attack in the ring.

So if not for the asthma you might have been a champion of the world rather than a Grandmaster

[Laughs] Maybe, maybe… it’s possible.

What advice would you give to young DJs?

Hip-hop was created by DJs that study artists. Study the classics: Queen, Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, Limp Bizkit and others. You have got to study entire albums. In many ways DJing today is too easy. But to make it to the top, don’t cut class and do your homework. It’s also important to learn to read the audience.

In history, I admire Alexander the Great. He wasn’t a king who ruled while sitting in a chair. He led from the front. He went out there and took what he wanted. He started small. And it’s the same with the DJ scene. First you conquer your hotel, your block, your country and then you start looking internationally.

We are all here to serve people and if you serve people correct, you will be remembered long after god takes you from this Earth. Again, like Alexander the Great, it’s not about what you do, it’s about that legacy of service you leave behind to the people. The DJ is a servant of the people.

This is your first time in Qatar but you’ve performed in Dubai several times. What’s your understanding of the region musically?

This is a young region in terms of DJing. Everywhere I go there is something to learn from talking to local DJs. I was here exchanging with DJ Legacy for two hours to understand the scene here in Qatar. He is going to open the show and when I’m setting up at the beginning I’m going to be studying the crowd’s reaction to his set. For the first five to 10 minutes, I’m watching how the crowd reacts to songs. Then I launch my set. What could be killer here in Qatar could clear the floor in Germany. It’s important to remember that music today is a global fusion so you have to be aware of what is going on in other regions.

Speaking of fusion, we recently had that joint track between Snoop Dogg and Tamer Hosni…

Yeah, in terms of rappers, I have to say Snoop Dogg is probably the most open-minded, and he’s always been that way. One time we were in Australia and he said to me “Godfather, what’s next? What you getting ready to do?” We talked about the future and he told me what he wanted was to push the envelope with international collaborations, working with everyone from the Middle East to Japan. I respect him for that. He’s amazing.

You released your memoir in 2008. You’ve had half a decade to reflect, so what would you add today if you had the chance?

I didn’t have a unified theory of hip-hop in my memoir. I should have had a chapter explaining that hip-hop has become more than just a record: it’s a culture, music is part of a culture. DJing, breakdancing, graffiti… it’s all part of a wider culture now. And it’s a global culture.