January 11, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 22
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Grandmaster Flash makes Rock Hall of Fame history

Dan Devine

With the announcement Monday of the five artists elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2007, the Hall’s voters sent a message about the shrine’s attitude toward rap music.

More to the point, they sent “The Message.”

When the newcomers are welcomed at the Hall’s annual induction ceremony at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 12, hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five will make history as the first rap act to join those elite performers immortalized in rock music’s pantheon.

Joining Flash and the Five as 2007 inductees are arena rock legends Van Halen, alternative mainstays R.E.M., punk rock poet Patti Smith and 1960s girl group The Ronettes, an eclectic collective representative of the multifaceted development of popular music in the latter part of the 20th century.

“We couldn’t be more proud to honor this unique, diverse group of rockers, rappers, singers and poets. This is what rock and roll is all about,” said Joel Peresman, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which oversees the Hall’s museum in Cleveland.

There are those who argue that what “rock and roll is all about,” however, does not include rap music, a position based in part on the dividing line of musicianship — on one side, performers who sing and play their own instruments; on the other, those who rap, rarely use live instrumentation and use snippets or samples of other artists’ work as the building blocks for their own compositions.

As is the case with any hall of fame, disagreements over particular inclusions or snubs are also predicated largely on taste — if you love hard rock and hate rap, you might rage about Flash getting his Hall pass while hugely popular bands like Kiss and Judas Priest still wait for theirs. By the same token, hip-hop heads — some of whom are probably still miffed that groundbreaking emcee Kurtis Blow, eligible since 2005, hasn’t made the cut — may be more apt to wonder why a group as important as Flash and the Five got rejected in ‘05 and ‘06 before gaining entry in their third year of eligibility.

The criteria for induction, as listed on the Hall’s website, read like this: Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record, and are selected based on “the influence and significance of the artist’s contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”

Hip-hop’s contributions to rock and roll are significant and undeniable. From landmark rap-rock collaborations like Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” and Public Enemy and Anthrax’s “Bring tha Noise” to the onset of full-fledged hip-hop bands like the Roots, from the horde of contemporary rock acts that use turntables as instruments or hip-hop’s growth from underground subculture to multibillion-dollar industry consumed as much (if not more) in the suburbs as it is in the cities, it’s hard to deny hip-hop’s impact on American culture and music.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a group recognized as essential to that art form’s invention deserve to be recognized for that contribution?

Arguably hip-hop’s greatest innovator, Flash (real name: Joseph Saddler) began spinning records as a teen growing up in the Bronx, performing live at area dances and block parties. At age 19, he was taking technical school courses in electronics by day and DJ’ing on the New York disco circuit by night, developing the original techniques — “cutting,” or moving between tracks exactly on the beat; “backspinning,” the manual movement of records to repeat brief bits of sound and “phasing,” the manipulation of turntable speeds — that would make him a legend and comprise the tactical arsenal that DJs use to this day.

In the late 1970s, Flash began working with the Furious Five — rappers Melle Mel, Cowboy, Kid Creole, Scorpio and Rahiem. Flash’s unparalleled DJ skills and the Five’s signature rap style of trading and blending lyrics made them legends in the New York club scene.

In 1982, the group released their second full-length album, “The Message,” featuring the classic title track, a breathtaking marriage of Melle Mel’s lyrics laying bare the harsh realities of life in the inner city and Flash’s jittery, utterly danceable backbeats. “The Message” indicated hip-hop’s potential as something more than shiny dance music littered with 10-cent boasts — this new sound offered a vital new outlet for urban youth, a vehicle for social commentary shining a spotlight on the issues people saw in the streets but never on the news.

Now, 25 years after they changed the face of music, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are once again breaking new ground. By letting Flash and the Five in the door, the Hall has set a strong precedent for how it will deal with influential, commercially successful and critically acclaimed hip-hop acts coming up for induction in the near future. And there are plenty of them.

In the next two years, Afrika Bambaataa, the Beastie Boys, Ice-T and Run-D.M.C. become eligible, and strong cases for enshrinement can be made for all four. In 2010, it’s L.L. Cool J. The following year? Eric B. & Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa. Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, N.W.A. and Public Enemy all become eligible in 2012. De La Soul and Slick Rick come up the next year, Gang Starr and Queen Latifah the year after them, and A Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube in 2015. 2Pac in 2016. Common, Dr. Dre and The Pharcyde in 2017. Snoop in 2018. Biggie, Nas and Outkast in 2019. Jay-Z in 2020.

Will all of them make it in? Maybe, maybe not. But for the next decade-plus, whenever anyone has this barstool debate over who should be in, about who influenced and contributed to the development of music, they’ll all be in the discussion, and they’ve got Flash and the Five to thank for that.

In an interview with the website AllHipHop.com shortly after being nominated for the Hall the first time in September 2004, Flash said that while the nomination was a significant milestone, there was something more important to him than recognition: education. Namely, history lessons.

“It wasn’t just my group alone, there are so many [hip-hop groups] who have no video footage, archival means or hit records to display,” Flash said. “The world of hip-hop needs to know who these people were.

He then asked, “When will we start looking back to teach the new heads [what] they need to know?”

March 12 seems like a pretty good start date.

Below: Mos Def (l) and Grand Master Flash attend the 14th Annual Gotham Awards Gala, held at Chelsea Piers on Dec. 1, 2004 in New York. Flash will be the first hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (AP photo/Jennifer Graylock)

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