It started in the Bronx, in New York, with neighborhood block parties during the 1970s. It soon became a global phenomenon. The convergence of creativity and community are what helped birth hip-hop, both as a culture and as an influential music genre. In a fitting tribute to its origins, DJ Grandmaster Flash, a hip-hop forefather, will be spinning tracks at a lively bash Wednesday at Kennedy Plaza. The Wichita Riverfest’s Wet ’n’ Wild Neon Dance Party promises to be a high-energy event.
Teri Mott, director of marketing and communicationsat Wichita Festivals Inc., said she expects the event to bring out multiple generations of hip-hop fans because of the legacy of Grandmaster Flash and the younger artists he has inspired. Opening for him will be beatmaker Durazzo, of Oakland, Calif., and the Wichita-based DJ Carbon. In a tribute to hip-hop fashion, fans are encouraged to wear neon colors. Water slides and a dunking station will also be set up to keep audiences cool as they wait for the music.
“All ages and genres will be there,” Flash said. “I’m going to plot this one like a block party. They’re usually the most fun because I can do the most experimentation. I can put a Caribbean record behind a rock record and a break-beat record behind a pop record and move it around. Some DJs play one of a genre for a couple of hours, but I play a little bit of everything for two hours. The outdoor events allow you to experiment even more. It’s such a wider mix of people.”
Starting in the early 1970s, Grandmaster Flash (whose legal name is Joseph Saddler) pioneered the art of hip-hop DJing, mixing, and cutting. While most DJs simply handled records on the edges and laid down the tone arm to let them play, Flash used his hands to physically manipulate them in backward, forward, and counterclockwise motions. Instead of a tone arm guiding his music, he marked up the vinyl’s body with florescent pens, grease pencils, markers, or crayons, allowing the bright colors to be his creative guide. He also fashioned the Quick Mix Theory, which allows a DJ to make music by touching the record and gauging its revolutions to make a unique beat and sound. Today’s DJs are, in many ways, playing a role that Flash invented; he set the foundation for much of what they can do with a record. Another trend that Flash helped jumpstart was the advent of emcee rappers. By the end of the 1970s, lyrical rhymes and verses set to synthesized or instrumental beats had become a staple in music that would soon spread worldwide.
Connecting his history to music today, Flash sees relevance in bridging different styles of music.
“I’m a ’70s DJ,” Flash said. “I come from an era in time where there was noise, pandemonium, the expression of hearing your favorite tune from the first beat and getting a reaction. … That’s what I try to do when I perform today. We had to find the hottest songs from the greatest bands – be it a major label artist or a teeny-tiny, little label – and look for the moment the beat was right. Sometimes it was a pop beat, a rock beat, a jazz beat, an R&B beat, a funk beat, an alternative beat, a disco beat. I’m basically weaving all these different genres (including Caribbean) all into a set.”
Flash is especially celebrated for bringing hip-hop into the mainstream with his group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their 1982 hit single “The Message” went platinum and exposed a wide audience to the beat and sounds of the genre. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” brought DJing to a wider audience, further popularizing its appeal. Other notable tunes to come from the group include “Freedom,” “Larry’s Dance Theme,” “Superappin,” and “You Know What Time It Is.” The group was active for about five years and recorded two studio albums. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip-hop/rap artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Flash has also had success as a solo artist, releasing 7 studio albums. “The Bridge (Concept of a Culture)” is his latest, released in 2009. The album features guest appearances from rap notables such as Snoop Dog, Big Daddy Kane, and Q-Tip. Its arrangement is in keeping with Flash’s perspective on hip-hop music in general.
“Hip-hop is universal,” he said. “It always has been, always will be. That’s because its roots are universal. It comes from the DJ; we DJs have to find the greatest bands. It’s in the roots. That’s why it is so universal – we choose from a musical smorgasbord of a little bit of everything, musically speaking.”
Flash said that what excites him most today is a noisy atmosphere – an extremely noisy one. He hopes that will be the tone for this upcoming show. When asked what audiences can expect, he said that all depends on the energy he receives from the crowd.
“I read each audience separately. I try to read the audience anywhere I am. Every audience has their own particular signal that they send me,” he said. “That will tell me if it’s more current, more classic, less vintage, more vintage, less funk, more rock, less jazz, more funk – that kind of thing. I get different signals from each territory that I’m in.”