Grandmaster Flash (old) schools a Park City Song Summit lab
Hip-hop pioneer discussed his revolutionary inventions
Attendees of the “Birth of a Culture” lab discussion graduated from a crash course of Grandmaster Flash‘s “Quick Mix Theory,” and caught a glimpse inside hip-hop’s technological father’s brain Saturday at the Park City Song Summit.
The multi-media masterclass dove deeply and comprehensively into how Lifetime Achievement Grammy winner Flash, born Joseph Saddler, created the tools in the early 1970s that are used by hip-hop DJs and producers today.
“(There is a discussion about) who invented cutting, scratching, transforming,” he said during the presentation. “I invented none of that. But what I did invent was the mechanics to make it all possible.”
Flash’s story begins when he was a child, growing up in the Bronx.
“In the Saddler residence there were rules,” he said. “The smaller children, meaning myself and my baby sister, Lily, were not allowed in the living room where the ‘brown box’ lived.”
That “brown box” was the family’s cabinet console stereo, according to Flash.
“There was another cardinal rule,” he said. “The babies were not to go into the closet where ‘Dad’s music lived.'”
Those rules only piqued the interest of the impressionable Flash, who watched his father’s every move.
“Dad would come home from work, Mom would make his meal, and he would get his spirits,” Flash said. “He would go to this closet and he would take out these square things that had art on them. He took out this black circular thing and put it into the ‘brown box,’ pressed a button, and music came out. And I would think, ‘Oh, my god. My dad is a magician.'”
Eventually, Flash began wondering, ‘What if,’ and one day he broke the family’s first rule.
“Sound comes out of the ‘brown box,’ and Mom runs into the living room and said, ‘If Joe catches you, you’re going to get — reprimanded,'” Flash said. “Mind you, my father is the older brother of the 1957 Featherweight boxing champ, Sandy Saddler, and he had hands of stone.”
Although Flash had put the record away, his father, who was a track worker for the New York City subway system, knew something was amiss after looking in the closet when he came home from work. And he called the family into the living room to ask if anyone had touched his records.
Although Flash’s “heiny gets tanned to the 10th power,” he put another record on the “brown box” the next day.
“It eventually turned into son versus dad,” he said.
When Flash reached his early teens, his father had left, and his mom took on the responsibility of raising the family alone.
“At this particular point of time as a young teenager, I had to figure out where the music was coming from (on the records),” he said. “Mom was a seamstress. Mom had sewing needles. So when Mom wasn’t looking, I would get a needle and I would go to the ‘brown box’ and I would put a black disc on it. (When I) put the sewing needle on the black disc, there was vibration. (I realized) the music lives in the black tunnels.”
From that point on, Flash became obsessed with learning the working parts of electrical items, including his sisters’ hair dryer, the TV, the stereo and the washing machine.
“I became Public Enemy No. 1 in the house, and my mother said, ‘You’ve got to stop tearing these things up, because you don’t know what you’re looking for,'”
To help satisfy Flash’s curiosity, his mom sent him to Samuel Gompers Vocational Technical High School.
“That is where I learned about George Westinghouse, Edison, Nikolai Tesla, AC versus DC, Solid State versus vacuum tubes,” he said.
Flash also learned about resistors, capacitors and transformers.
“Once I understood the electronic things, I went back to the vinyl, and this is where the study of the turntable came in,” he said. “I can remember when Mom and Dad had house parties and (when) the drum beats solo part came, the heinies would move a little bit more, and I said to myself, ‘This is the best part of the record.'”
Flash found those little drum parts in everything he listened to.
“That’s when (I started) listening to pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, R&B, alternative, Caribbean and Latin just to look for that one part where the drummer had the solo,” he said. “The drum solo would come and it would only be a couple of seconds, and that really pissed me off. (I wondered) why this part of the record was so short.”
So, Flash decided to embark on a mission to extend the 10-second drum break into 10-minutes, by spinning the turntable counter clockwise, he said.
“Behind the projects in the Bronx, there was a junkyard, and that’s where I started to slowly jerry-rig and put together my system,” he said.
The first thing he did was get rid of the rubber mat that came with all turntables, because he needed a different type of material.
“The rubber caused a resistance, and I needed the platter to spin clockwise while I moved the record counter clockwise,” he said. “Since my mom was a seamstress, I was able to touch rayon, polyester, cotton, denim, suede (and) felt.”
The soft-touch of felt appealed to Flash, and got his juices flowing.
“I went to the fabric store and cut out just enough felt for two copies of the circular records,” he said. “The problem was the felt was limp. Somehow or another I needed to make it stiff. So when Mom wasn’t looking, I used spray starch on the two circular (pieces) of the felt.”
Flash called his creation a wafer, because it reminded him of the eucharists the family would eat every Easter at church. And that was the birth of the slipmat, one of today’s DJ’s most needed tools.
The problem was there still was some resistance with the felt on the turntable, he said.
“I remember when I got good grades, Mom would make chocolate-chip cookies, and she had paper that was like wax,” Flash said. “So when Mom wasn’t looking, I would take a piece of wax paper and put it on the steel (turntable) platter. Then I would put the wafer on top. Now the platter could spin clockwise while I could go counter clockwise where the drummer had that short solo.”
With this invention, Flash, who, in 2007, became the first hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, revolutionized hip-hop, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“I made it easy for the DJ to become a musician,” he said. “If you look at a really good DJ, he is moving the sample back and forth. He’s making music. He’s composing.”
Flash’s innovations also gave producers a new world of sampling possibilities.
“The producer takes a fragment of music that was (made) in the ’60s or ’70s where the equalizer wasn’t all that great, and he takes modern technology and adds a big production around it,” he said. “Then the producer will bring a great rapper to make the album.”
To emphasize that point, Flash called emcee Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run D.M.C., who was in the audience, up to the stage for a freestyle jam.The Park City Song Summit ran from Sept. 7-9 at Canyons Village. For information, visit parkcitysongsummit.com.
Country music singer and songwriter Mitch Rossell is set to perform Saturday at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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