Grandmaster Flash: Breaking Rules and Records


Children break rules. Our parents tell us not to ride our bikes past the yellow house down the street; we probably passed five yellow houses before we actually turned around. “Don’t play ball in the house”; before we knew it, mom’s favorite picture frame is shattered on the floor. For us, these were innocent discrepancies that helped build character and learn the importance of authority. For Grandmaster Flash, disobedience set the stage for an unbelievable future as the only DJ in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Grandmaster Flash, born Joseph Saddler, spoke slowly and effectively to our small crowd at the 2008 DJ Times DJ Expedition in Atlantic City. Although the seminar was conducted like a question and answer session, Flash stole the mic and nearly reversed the fashion to a spoken biography. By conversing about his path to success, Flash simultaneously marketed his new book, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.

Flash began by describing how disobeying his father helped lead to his career. The living room, the closet filled with vinyl, the stereo system; all forbidden areas in the Saddler house. Flash described the system for fulfilling his curiosity; he waited for two sounds indicating his father’s departure for work. First, a faint “click” signified his father throwing the work bag over his shoulder. Second, the “bang” of the door implied his father has exited the house. “I’d wait five to ten minutes in case he double-backed,” Flash said. While his father was at work, he would have nine hours to fulfill his fantasies: learn about music, learn about the equipment, and learn “respect for the black disks.”

What makes Flash’s story more interesting is his relentlessness, fighting through his hospitalizations by abuse, to use the decks. No disciplining, from beatings to having his hands placed on the radiator for continuously disobeying, could stop him.

Remember that bicycle you’d ride too far down the street? Flash didn’t even bother riding his; instead, he used the wheel and a sewing needle to locate the music on the disk. Intrigued, he wanted to learn how they worked, where the music came from, and what he could do to make them better. With this, he entered an experimental stage of his life, discovering the importance of torque, using crayons to mark breaks, and using felt to make scratching possible. Flash was revolutionizing the DJ profession; beginning the transformation into what we know it as today.

Rightfully named, Grandmaster Flash mastered a style of DJing unknown and initially unaccepted in his early lifetime. Any follower of Flash’s career knows of the struggles with getting gigs, signing with Sugar Hill, and the continual pursuit for respect. Now, as he walks to the front of the seminar room, not one person questions “What has this man done to belong here?”

As Grandmaster Flash told his crowd that day, “I don’t want to be known as the first DJ to scratch or the first DJ to mix. I want to be known as the first DJ to have started it all.”

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