'The Get Down' Is Right: Grandmaster Flash Was Hip Hop's First Master | Gradient
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‘The Get Down’ Is Right: Grandmaster Flash Was Hip Hop’s First Master

The Get Down

The Get Down sees reality as an extremely fluid concept, mixing real people and places from New York City’s summer of 1977 with fictional and fanciful ones with gleeful abandon. Google autofills “Is The Get Down” with “based on a true story,” and the answer to that question is a categorical no. Instead, Baz Luhrmann and Co. treat ’77 and the birth of hip hop as musical samples to mix into its own song.

Luhrmann’s main focus, as ever, is on romantic love as a messianic force. Luhrmann’s first major feature was Romeo + Juliet (twenty years old this year!) and, in a sense, Luhrmann has been creating riffs on Romeo and Juliet archetypes ever since. In The Get Down, it is Zeke (Justice Smith) and Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola). They’re both aspiring artists whose talents catapult them into the struggle, violence, sadness and beauty of rap’s gestational period. The result is frequently a mess, but it’s a gorgeous one, and what you take out of it probably largely depends on what you bring into it.

One thing that will help you is a little knowledge of the real people and places The Get Down is referencing.

One character that looms particularly large is Grandmaster Flash, who is a literal guru in Luhrmann’s vision. He’s played by Mamoudou Athie as a Mr. Miyagi-like keeper of secret wisdom about the art of DJing, which he protects like guarded religious secrets.

In reality, Grandmaster Flash was a generous soul, and his mark on DJing can’t be overstated. For transforming the turntable into a true instrument, for pioneering emceeing — for inventing half of the technical terms being used in this very article — Grandmaster Flash’s shadow looms over the world The Get Down recreates. In fact, he’s got a show credit as a consulting producer.

Flash was born Joseph Saddler in Barbados on New Year’s Day, 1958. His family migrated to the Bronx, and Saddler attended a technical high school where he learned to repair electronic equipment. His father had a love of Caribbean music and American black music, and he put together an impressive record collection.

As Saddler grew up, he grew interested in the work of DJ Kool Herc — the closest thing to the godfather of rap as the genre has — and tried to mimic Herc’s use of two turntables to isolate the percussion portions of disco tracks. Moreover, Saddler used his electronics education to tinker with the guts of the machines, improving them and developing his own unique style. He invented the quick-mix theory, juggling percussion beats indefinitely, to the crowd’s delight. He also came up with phrasing: dropping short samples of other music into the sustained beat.

But undoubtedly, Saddler’s most famous contribution to DJing is the development of scratching. Although Grand Wizzard Theodore — a younger DJ who would go on to apprentice under Grandmaster Flash — is generally considered to have invented scratching, Saddler perfected and popularized it.

Scratching and punch phrasing were more than just sonic innovations — they transformed what it meant to be a DJ. Before Grandmaster Flash, DJs were largely passive. They chose what songs people danced to, and that was that. In that sense, they were little more than nascent Spotify playlists. What Grandmaster Flash pioneered was the art of DJ as performance art. You couldn’t just drop a needle on a record and call yourself a DJ. DJing became a skill, and then, an art. By the time he was 19, Grandmaster Flash’s notoriety had reached the living legend-y status depicted in The Get Down.

If that were all Grandmaster Flash brought to the scene that would make him a legend, it would have been enough. But Flash wasn’t done yet. He started collaborating with Cowboy, Melle Mel and Kid Creole: Their collective impact would be immense. Melle Mel started calling himself the “master of ceremonies,” which he eventually shortened to “emcee.” Cowboy teased a friend for enlisting in the army by saying he would spend his days marching around to the beat of “hip/hop/hip/hop,” a beat he eventually worked into an onstage performance, which then became shorthand for the entire genre. This team was joined by two more emcees of prodigious buzz: Scorpio and Raheim.

They called themselves Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the Bronx worshiped them. All that adoration and five bucks could have paid for a bus pass to Queens. The radio wouldn’t play hip hop yet, but that changed after Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a surprise hit, proving that mainstream had a taste for rap, provided it was dressed up with some cloying earworms.

After briefly signing to Enjoy Records in 1979, the group took their talents to Sugarhill Records, where songs like “Freedom” and “Birthday Party” became modest hits. But the real breakthrough was “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” 1981, a seven-minute blitz of innovative brilliance, combining bits of Queen, Blondie, Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, Chic and some of Grandmaster Flash’s own earlier work. It was the first time turntables and DJ scratches had ever been recorded on an album. It’s as thrilling to listen to today as it was in ’79, and it catapulted the group into a rare stratosphere of cool.

The first true test of their star power came as the opening act for the Clash, and it went terribly. White America was still waking up to the idea of hip hop, and while Joe Strummer and Co. were more than willing to magnify New York hip hop (and appropriate it, as they got the urge), their fans were not so open-minded.

Things improved in 1982 when they released “The Message,” one of the most influential songs in the rap canon, the grandfather of conscientious hip hop. The song dealt with inner city violence, drugs and poverty in a way few songs had ever attempted, and no pop songs had. Mel’s blistering, detailed description of life in the ghetto was a revelation to listeners who had previously only thought of rap as party music. Here, it was being used as a form of real expression and cultural examination. The song rocketed to #4 on the R&B charts, #62 on the pop charts and was eventually archived by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry.

Flash wasn’t on “The Message.” He wasn’t on a lot of Furious Five recordings, because while he determined how the group would sound and play, the label was still unsure about using turntables on a real recording. This was one of the many things that led to bickering and infighting among the group.

The tensions between Flash and Mel reaching a breaking point that would dissolve the group shortly before their anti-cocaine anthem “White Lines” dropped. Flash would stay more or less quiet in the ensuing years, releasing nothing of substance until the ’00s. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would be the first hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They deserved every inch of the honor.

Because for all Grandmaster Flash’s technical innovations and charismatic prowess, his true legacy rests on something less tangible, that ephemeral something that captures a moment before the moment actually arrives — a confidence that transforms what might be into what is. Flash saw DJing and created something special out of it. Without him, there would be no Run DMC, no Public Enemy, no Naughty by Nature and, in the final analysis, no Tupac or Biggie.

So when The Get Down alludes to Flash as a mystical shaman-type character, its exaggeration of degree, but not kind. If he had any magical secret, it was really just to work hard and keep doing you, but let’s face it, in the music industry, those traits are as rare as magic spells.

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