Rhythm and rhymes

Hip hop filled the usually staid living room at I-House, creating the expectation of a party instead of a book reading. A hundred folding chairs, seating an audience of white-haired professors and public-housing residents, replaced the usual pianos and soft-toned sofas. Grandmaster Flash—the legendary musician and deejay who, in 2007, became one of the first hip-hop artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—arrived at I-House at 6 p.m. last Wednesday to promote his new autobiography, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats (Broadway Books).

“My chronic achievement,” began Grandmaster Flash, who was born Joseph Saddler and also goes by GMF, “is being the first deejay to make turntables an instrument.”

He grew up with music in the Bronx. His father had an extensive jazz collection that he wasn’t allowed anywhere near. But when he heard the “click of the key and the bang of the door” signaling that his father had left for work, he would sneak into the living room and play music. When his father found out that his records had been touched, he began beating the young GMF, sometimes sending him to the hospital. But it didn’t quell his curiosity. “For me," he said, the question was “how does music live inside those little black tunnels?”

He discovered not only how the "tunnels" held music, but also how to manipulate them to create new sounds. Credited with inventing "cutting," an early form of scratching, GMF described himself as a scientist. He was the first to violate the rules of the previous generation's deejays, who “treated records like a child” and cleaned them with velvet cloths. GMF used his hands on the records for complete control of the sound. He would mark them with crayon to know when to turn them counterclockwise, prolonging the parts of the song he preferred. He replaced the rubber mat on his turntable with a piece of felt that he spray-starched on his mother’s ironing board when her back was turned.

During the Q-and-A that followed the talk, a Cabrini-Green resident stood to explain that he was recently released from “the penitentiary” and had started a record label. “I’ve got a track,” he said. Anywhere else, a famous musician might have been annoyed at an opportunistic fan trying to get his track heard. But the I-House living room's audience, collectively holding its breath for a moment, seemed to perceive an implied bond between the two.

“I seen that,” said GMF. “I seen the projects. And I’m gonna play that track on my radio show.”

Shira Tevah, '09

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Photos (left to right): Grandmaster Flash performs briefly during his talk; afterward, he signs a copy of his autobiography and poses for a photograph with a fan.

Photos by Dan Dry.

June 30, 2008