Trying to describe the importance of Grandmaster Flash to the development of hip-hop is like trying to describe the impact The Beatles had on pop or Kraftwerk had on electronic music: after a while, you just run out of superlatives. Flash didn’t emerge in isolation, just as The Beatles were one of dozens of Merseybeat bands and Kraftwerk developed from krautrock. Like those two acts, he broke from a local scene through to a wider public consciousness. And, like the Beatles especially, once a higher profile was achieved his innovations came to define the genre.
More than anyone else, Flash established the DJ as a musician in his own right, with the turntable as his instrument. He never rapped, as many casual listeners to the output of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five assume. In fact, Flash has virtually nothing to do with the two singles that are most often associated with him: he doesn’t appear on The Message (its beats are performed by live musicians) and he left the group entirely by the time of White Lines (Don’t Do It). Neither release, however, would have been possible without the breakthroughs made by Flash: as the first DJ to create tracks entirely from samples of other songs, the first to beat match records and loop drum machines and the first to scratch, he devised a vocabulary without which all future turntablists would be rendered dumb.
Of all the classic singles released under his name, the one which best captures the scope of his accomplishments is The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel; seven minutes of breakneck sampling that flits between Blondie, Chic, Queen and more to create something entirely new. Without this 12”, there’s no DJ Shadow, no Timbaland, no Kanye West. Without Grandmaster Flash, the pop cultural landscape would look totally different.
Grandmaster Flash plays the Jazz Café on 20 April.