Hip-Hop: Grandmaster Flash Talks Life, Beats

It all started in the Bronx, N.Y., in the late 1960s. The soon-to-be pioneer of hip-hop, Joseph Saddler, would wait until his father left for work, then sneak into the living room to play his records. He'd sit, and listen, and stare—mesmerized by how the music played. Later, he'd turn that obsession into DJ legend, scratching and spinning the turntables to create new beats, which he'd test out at the Bronx block parties from which hip-hop would emerge. He later teamed up with five MCs to form Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, landing a record deal with Sugar Hill and releasing one of the first crossover rap tracks in history, the socially conscious 1982 hit "The Message." In 2007, the group was the first hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But Flash's success didn't come easy, and his new memoir, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats," makes that very clear. From cocaine addiction and an abusive father to his volatile relationship with his record label, Flash, now 50, writes candidly about the struggles he endured to achieve success, and what came after it. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett about the book, his life and what he thinks of hip-hop today. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Describe your childhood obsession with records. How far did it go?
Grandmaster Flash: Whenever dad would go off to work, I'd wait for the door to slam and I'd grab a record and turn on the stereo. Eventually, my dad would scratch his head and be like, "Have any of you been going through my records?" He'd ask everyone, and by the time he got to me, I was so terrified you'd think the word "yes" was written on my forehead. I'd get my brains beat out of me, sometimes until I was unconscious. Then he'd put my hands on the radiator and burn them, in hopes that it would keep me out of the closet. But it only peaked my interest more.

Was it that you loved the music or you wanted to know how it worked?
The plastic grooves of the records to me were like tunnels. I wanted to know, "How is there music inside these little tunnels?" When I became a teenager, I started taking apart all the electronic equipment I could find. I became public enemy No. 1 in my house, because everything that made noise—from a stereo to a hairdryer to the washing machine—I'd take apart, trying to figure out how it worked. When I didn't have equipment, I'd go into people's back yards and take their junk—old stereo equipment, car parts—and bring them back into my room to take it apart. I was in search of something.

And eventually you ended up at a technical high school.
Yes. After a while, my mother said, "You have to stop doing this—your sisters are angry at you, they want to blow-dry their hair and [the dryer] won't turn on." Once I was there, I started to understand what made these things work.

How'd you develop your method for mixing records?
I started learning why things do what they do, and I came up with a science I called "quick mix theory." I learned you could actually do things with the vinyl—touch it—which was unheard of for the time. I just decided one day that I would put my four fingers on the record. And when I held it, and moved it in a backward and forward motion, it was like "Ohhh."

What's it like to go into a club now and see DJs using digital turntables?
Well, you still have to know how to DJ. If you was wack on vinyl, you'll be wack on digital, too. And if you were good on vinyl, well, digital is less work, so you should be phenomenal. It's just that now DJs can walk around with 20,000 records inside of a laptop. You're still physically playing—you still gotta move the record in a backward-forward motion—but the music's on that record in a wave file. So you don't have to carry two boxes of records.

Do you still collect vinyl?
Yeah, I have to.

Because you love it?
Yeah, I'm straight up in love with it. I'm a fiend. When you're the inventor of something you've been doing for 33 years, and then what you have done is now converted into a different format, it takes a little bit of getting used to.

What do you think about hip-hop today?
I look at commercialization as a vehicle. When I was doing this in the Bronx in the early '70s, the only way this music was being heard was if someone was fortunate enough to get a cassette of our performances. And that cassette might go to Philadelphia, it might go down south—but it wasn't going across the world. Today, they talk about Grandmaster Flash in Germany, in Australia, in Japan, in England and in Paris. There are more countries and more places to perform than I'll probably ever in my lifetime see. And when you can find something that you love, and make a living at it, then I have no problem with commercialism.

Would the 18-year-old Flash ever have envisioned such mainstream success?
Never in my wildest dreams. When I started doing this, I always thought about how if this could just get out, to be talked about, to be heard by other genres of people, they'd be hooked. But never did I think rich white suburban kids would be listening to it. Or that if I'd go to places like India or Burma or Africa, that I'd be looked at as some kind of superhero.

How have mp3s changed what you do?
It's a gift and a curse. The joy of finding that hit record is gone now. It's just too easy to acquire a jam. Other than that, I'm a scientist, and modern technology is great.

Has technology killed the art of DJing?
Hip-hop has four elements: the graffiti artist, the DJ, the breakdancer, the MC. What modern technology has done is to allow an MC rapper to bring an electronic player, and there's no need for the DJ behind him. That looks a little weird to me. A band I'm cool with. But the fans should see the humanism in music, even if the record skips, even if the MC forgets a line. The way I see it, the economy's pretty rough. If I'm gonna pay 20, 30 bucks to go see you, I need to see you naked and raw. I paid for this.

What's it like having all your baggage out there for the world to read?
Scary. I've been asked for many a year by people who know my background, and know I survived, if I'd talk about it. And I always said, "No, no, no." So for me to tell the story ... my mom, my pops, the drug habit and the pain, this was the most fearful thing I've ever done. But people kept telling me, "What you've gone through can help so many people because you survived." And that was the breaking point for me. I'm here to attest that despite the cocaine, the bad record deals, not having the perfect family, I survived and I made something of myself. And I'm OK.