Turntable pioneer Grandmaster Flash also uses hard drive at gigs now

Grandmaster Flash (in red) on set with the cast of The Get Down, a Netflix drama series which is semibiographical.
Grandmaster Flash (in red) on set with the cast of The Get Down, a Netflix drama series which is semibiographical.PHOTO: NETFLIX

American DJ says he loves his vinyls, but also plays music from a hard drive

American DJ Grandmaster Flash - one of the hip-hop pioneers who popularised the art of DJ-ing using old-school turntables and vinyl records - is no purist stuck in the analogue past.

A keen adopter of technology, he plays a lot of his music at gigs these days from a hard drive, in addition to his beloved vinyls, of course.

"I'm always going to use turntables," he tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview from London, where he was on tour. "But I'm a scientist first. It is impossible for me to bring one-quarter of my collection on tour because if I did, I would have to hire many people to lift, to carry (the vinyl records).

"With modern technology, I can put a good portion of my collection in a real big hard drive and take it with me. That makes it quite wonderful," says the 58-year-old, whose real name is Joseph Saddler.

With modern technology, I can put a good portion of my collection in a real big hard drive and take it with me. That makes it quite wonderful.

DJ GRANDMASTER FLASH

His career is seeing a resurgence, thanks to the popular semi-biographical Netflix drama series The Get Down, helmed by celebrated director Baz Luhrmann.

Set in New York in the 1970s, it traces the lives of a group of teenagers and provides a glimpse into the early days of hip-hop culture. While most of the characters are fictional, real-life hip-hop pioneers such as Saddler, played in the show by Mamoudou Athie, are recurring characters.

Saddler, who is also consulting producer on The Get Down, says that the series will be back for a second season, but declines to reveal details.

"Let's just say it gets more interesting and it gets deeper," he says.

"It's been a labour of love working with Baz. What makes it really wonderful is that he took a chance on telling this story that had never been told before. The whole world is buzzing about it positively."

The story of how hip-hop rose from the New York streets to become a global cultural force is worth studying in schools, he adds.

"There's an old saying: To know where to go, you have to know where you came from."

The early hip-hop pioneers, he emphasises, started the culture "with almost nothing".

"No studio, no high-tech equipment, no Internet, no nothing. People need to understand that."

He likens the hip-hop movement to what ancient Egyptian civilisation did for mankind. Hip-hop today still uses the same elements as hip-hop back in the 1970s, he says.

Born in Barbados, he moved with his family to the United States when he was a child. His love of music grew out of his father's massive record collection, while his passion for technology began when he learnt how to repair electronic equipment in high school.

He picked up turntabling skills by studying the techniques of DJ progenitors such as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flowers, and came up with his own innovative tricks, such as extending short drum breaks into extended beats using two turntables.

In the mid-1970s, he formed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a highly influential group who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, a first for a hip-hop act.

His vinyls, DJ-ing equipment and even cap are also on display at the The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Looking back on his youth, Saddler says he never imagined that his music would go as far as it did.

"I was hoping it would go to Philadelphia and maybe Boston, when I was a teenager. I never knew that I it would be this big and I would end up talking to somebody from Singapore."

• The Get Down is streaming on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash not stuck in the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe