Before Rap Records
It was just the DJ playing music for the neighborhood. These parties were affectionately known as block parties, or more commonly “the jam.” This could have been any urban city in America in the early 1970s but in New York the DJ’s were not only playing the popular music of the day, they were broadcasting the more obscure cuts from popular albums that the radio wouldn’t dare touch, and the more daring DJs were playing unknown music by unknown groups altogether.
A microphone was always present at parties for announcements and such, and as a result the DJ was the original M.C. (master of ceremonies). Whether he or she was simply making an announcement, telling Jimmy to move his car, or asking the party people how they felt, the DJ was the host. The M.C. was not even in the equation in the earliest days of what later became known as Hip- Hop. The DJ was technically the original M.C. – keeping the crowds engaged and many times speaking in rhyme. These rhymes were not on the beat or syncopated and they were nowhere near 16 bars. In fact, the rhymes had no structure at all. Those in attendance compare the earliest rhymes to nursery rhymes.
Extending The Break
In the mid 1970’s — many years before anyone had uttered the words Hip-Hop in rhyme form or to describe a culture – DJ's started to speak over the breakdown parts of records where no one was singing, and the percussion was heavy. Radio disc jockeys like Hank Span, Jocko, and Gary Byrd had been performing this “Jive Talk” over music for years. The late great Pete DJ Jones – a Bronx D.J. who played for an adult crowd at some of the more sophisticated New York clubs — says that he started to take two copies of the same record and manipulate them on two turntables in an effort to extend the length of the songs, because he had to play 6 hour parties with a limited supply of music.
DJ Kool Herc - the man credited as the Father of the Hip-Hop subculture — was extending breakdowns of records as well but with a different motivation.
Kool Herc noticed that the energy of the crowd greatly increased at the breakdown part of these records, but the breakdown was only seconds long. Herc extended these breakdowns because he wanted to provide a soundtrack for the fraternity of young people who danced to these chaotic breakdowns (these dancers were coined B Boys and B Girls – later breakers).
Herc also had his own assistants and MC’s – Timmy Tim, Clark Kent, and Coke La Rock.
DJ Hollywood – one of the first DJ's to say full rhymes and spin simultaneously — says that he treated rhyming on the instrumental portions of the intros to records like an exercise.
“It was all about getting in and getting out before the singer started.”
The late Lovebug Starski was another influential DJ who said longer rhymes while spinning at the same time.
Melle Mel, Rahiem, and Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five in New York City in 1983. �� Walter McBride/WM Photography (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
DJ Grandmaster Flash aka Joseph Saddler of the rap group "Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five" performs onstage at Wembley Arena in 1985 in London, England. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
A young DJ named Joseph Saddler — code name Grandmaster Flash — was a student at Samuel Gompers Technical school in the Bronx. Flash was intrigued by the concept of extending instrumental breakdown parts of records, but Flash was literally a scientist.
Grandmaster Flash would drag electronic parts from junk yards and build speakers, modify echo machines and mixers, and repair his already existing equipment. Flash saw what Herc was doing with two copies of a record and two turntables, but he felt that Herc lacked precise timing that left the dance floor in disarray.
Flash was so devoted to improving upon what Herc was doing that he developed what he coined the quick mix theory which consisted of cutting. and the clock theory to perfect what he felt Herc lacked. Flash after seeing Pete Jones’ Clubman mixer with its cueing system, built his own cue switch and glued it onto his mixer so that he could preview the next record in his headphones before he debuted it to the public. Flash greatly improved upon what Herc was doing at his parties, and he amassed a huge following in New York, specifically the Bronx. Along with his assistants, The Disco Bee and EZ Mike, The Grandmaster Flash show was something to behold according to those who witnessed it firsthand.
The technical inventions and advancements of Grandmaster Flash are literally the building blocks of a culture. Flash’s neighbor was a drummer who used an electronic drum machine by the Vox company to keep his fingers nimble whenever he wasn’t able to set up his drums. Flash coined this drum machine the beat box. The beat box had bass, snare, hi hat and hand clap keys and Flash played the beat box like a typewriter. Once Flash acquired a crew of MC’s, the beat box became a center piece of their stage show.
Flash stresses that the human beat box is directly influenced by him.
“The term human beat box is not a random thing. After the popularity of my usage of the beat box diminished, it re emerged with people doing it with their mouths. They literally mimicked what I’d done and even the name came directly from my work."
The echo chamber was a device that would add a delay or echo to whatever signal was connected to it. The echo chamber was always on, so it wasn’t very useful for vocal performances. Flash wired an actual light switch into the echo chamber with which he could turn the echo off and on at will. This seemingly small advancement would prove to be of utmost importance to the MC very soon.
Flash was the first DJ to display scratching on a record in the form of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel.” This was the record that introduced scratching to those outside on the boroughs of New York.
“I approached Sylvia (Robinson) many times about making a cut record. After one of our tours, she let me do it and it took three takes just to get the dexterity. By the third take, I had it locked in”
Masters of Ceremony
When Flash debuted his quick mix to the public — mostly at neighborhood parks (these parks were actually the asphalt playgrounds of various New York high schools – 23 Park was Flash’s home base) — he described the scene as a seminar. No one danced, they stared in amazement at his new DJ techniques.
Flash attempted to speak over the records like many other DJ’s but he hated his speaking voice, so he made his mic available to anyone who could entertain the crowd. Many tried but all failed except one – the late Keith Wiggins later known as Keith Cowboy.
Keith Cowboy was a master MC with the control of a ringmaster who specialized in crowd participation. Keith would ask the crowd what their favorite designer jean was, what they thought about the basketball game the night before, and he is credited as the inventor of the staple of crowd participation in rap music – the still utilized “all the ladies in the house say oww/all the fellas say ho/throw ya hands in the air and wave ‘em like you just don’t care.”
Cowboy was the answer to Flash’s dilemma, and he soon became Flash’s first MC. Many consider Cowboy the first MC in the genre. Cowboy is also credited with developing the phrase "Hip-Hop," which Afrika Bambaataa would later use as the name to identify the subculture of Mcing, Djing, B-Boying and Graffiti writing.
The Brothers Glover
Brothers Melvin and Nathaniel Glover, inspired by the poetry of their older sister Linda and Herc’s MC’s Coke La Rock and Timmy Tim started to experiment with a back & forth style where they split words and phrases between each other. Melvin and Nathaniel would later become Mele Mel and Kidd Creole, and after perfecting their routines, the Glover Brothers began to hop on the mic at the parties of Bronx DJ’s who had sound systems and gave parties. It was inevitable that Mel & Creole would cross paths with Flash & Cowboy, and when they did one of the first and most influential rap groups was formed – Grandmaster Flash & The 3 MC’s.
The difference in the 3 M.C.’s and others who rhymed at the time was a matter of style. The “Jive Talking” DJ’s like Hank Span and Jocko didn’t rhyme on the beat, or as DJ Hollywood describes it, “in syncopation.”
The MC’s/DJ’s like Coke La Rock and Timmy Tim were not saying full rhymes, they were saying phrases and fragments and they weren’t on the beat. The 3 MC’s were saying full rhymes in syncopation.
Kidd Creole says that the first person that he ever heard say a full rhyme about themselves in syncopation was his brother Mel. Scorpio says confidently, “If it’s one thing that we own the patent on, it’s saying full rhymes on beat.”
Many first and second generation MC’s maintain that Mel and Creole’s DNA flows through every modern day M.C.
The Furious 4
Eddie Morris aka Mr. Ness was best friends with Mele Mel, in fact they were in a breaking crew together and they once danced against Mean Gene (Grandwizzard Theodore’s older brother) and Grandmaster Flash. Eddie (who eventually changed his name to Scorpio because according to him he was getting so many girls that he called himself a stinger) was always in the company of Grandmaster Flash & The 3 MC’s and he eventually became an MC himself and joined the group forcing a name change to the Furious 4. Scorpio affectionately known by those close to him as Scorp, says that at one time only a rope separated the crowd from the rappers at a jam. He says that Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 4 built the first stage in Hi- Hop, where they were elevated over the crowd.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5
Guy Todd Williams was an MC with a Bronx crew called The Funky 4. The Funky 4 who would eventually become label mates with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 at two different labels are credited with being the second established Bronx MC crew after the Furious 5. Even though many aspiring MC’s and groups harmonized, Guy was actually a legitimate singer who acted as a secret weapon in the Funky 4 with his tandem rhyming and singing skill set.
As a singer, Guy was mentored by Rahiem Leblanc of the R&B group G.Q. Rahiem Leblanc was such an influence on Guy, that he changed his stage name to Rahiem as well. On May 11, 1979 The Funky 4 battled Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 4 at the Webster Avenue P.A.L. That night Rahiem left the Funky 4 and joined the Furious 4 giving birth to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5.
The fashion sensibility of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 has been at the forefront of many Hip-Hop discussions throughout the years, but even more so in recent years as the generational urban fashion gap widens. The online availability of the groups older photos have served as ammunition for members of multiple generations to prove that the seemingly outlandish dress styles of today are not that new at all.
Mele Mel strikes a defensive tone as he proclaims, “We dressed like we were entertainers that people were paying money to see. If we dressed like the people in the crowd then there’s no entertainment value. We built stages made of tables before there were rap records because we wanted to be elevated from the crowd.”
Scorpio echoes Mel’s frustration at the comparisons: “We were opening up for The Clash, Parliament Funkadelic, The Bar Kays, Billy Idol and Rick James. We had to dress like the people that we were performing with. Once we started to travel outside of the states we would buy one spike belt, then one led to two and before you knew it we were covered.”
Creole agrees adding, “We used to hang out with Eddie Murphy when he was just getting popular from Saturday Night Live. We were wearing custom leathers at the time, and he asked who made our clothes. We referred him to our designer he was soon rockin’ leather on his comedy specials - Delirious and Raw."
The Rap Records
At the end of 1979 there were over a dozen rap records. Bobby Robinson in Harlem and Sylvia & Joe Robinson in New Jersey owned and operated Enjoy! and Sugar Hill Records respectively. Sylvia Robinson discovered and signed The Sugar Hill Gang and released “Rappers Delight” in September of 1979 – the first commercially successful rap recording in the history of the genre.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 released two records in 1979: "We Rap More Mellow" (under the name The Younger Generation on Brass Records) and “Superappin’” on Enjoy Records. As part of Sylvia Robinson’s effort to monopolize rap as a recorded medium she bought the contracts of most of the rap artists on Bobby Robinson’s (no relation to Sylvia & Joe) Enjoy! label including GMF&F5. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 enjoyed a run of hits on Sugar Hill that included “Freedom,” “The Birthday Party,”,“Flash To The Beat,” “Showdown,” “It’s Nasty,” “The Message,” and “ The Message full-length album.
“The Message,” written by Sugar Hill house band percussionist Ed Fletcher aka Duke Bootee was the song that splintered the group forever. “The Message” is credited as the rap recording that introduced social consciousness into the genre, and no one wanted to record it, stating that it was too dark and depressing. Sylvia finally convinced Mel to record the song along with Fletcher, effectively birthing a solo career for Mele Mel. Mel recorded “The Message II” and “New York, New York” with Fletcher as well and the records were still credited to the entire group.
The group splintered into two separate factions not long after, and Mele Mel added the title Grandmaster to his name. After the name change, Mel achieved commercial and critical acclaim with “Beat Street Breakdown”, “Vice” (from the Miami Vice soundtrack) and “White Lines” as a solo artist and the group saw success with “Pump Me Up” and “Step Off” as Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious 5. Flash, Creole and Rahiem started their own faction of the group known as simply Grandmaster Flash, and they saw success with “Girls Love The Way He Spins,” “Style,” and “Larry’s Dance Theme.” The original group has reunited a few times over the years, but they were never able to rekindle the magic of the glory days.
The influence of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 is undeniable, especially amongst their contemporaries. They were the only group from the era before rap records to be able to take their DJ. on tour after signing a record contract. Flash was that important to the group and their live show.
Sugar Hill Records vocal coach Craig Derry says, “Flash literally set the template for the DJ to play arenas. I watched him explain to the sound men that they needed a quarter inch plug to connect his turntables to the arena’s sound system. Now its standard for DJ’s to play arenas as an act. No one did it before Flash.”
Cowboys' call & response, Mele’s social commentary and use of metaphor, Creole’s mastery of the echo chamber and “yes yes y’all” segues, Scorpio’s flamboyance and futuristic style of dress and swagger before it was a word in Hip-Hop, and Rahiem’s unique cadence and singing abilities made this group an unstoppable force.
The Library of Congress archives, Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (first rap act ever inducted) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award make the group the most decorated crew from the first generation of pioneering rap artists.