Lonnie Liston Smith is one of contemporary music's most versatile musicians. In a career that spans some 25 years, he has been headlined in a variety of recordings as a featured sideman for some of Jazz music's most illustrious leader's before stepping out to reveal his own original concepts as a bandleader in the mid 70s. He is a keyboardist of the first rank and has influenced a generation of young players who have acknowledged his rhythmic (swing), harmonic acumen and composing skills.
Lonnie was born in Richmond, Virginia into a musical household -- his father was a member of the Gospel Harmonizing Four. From a very early age, Lonnie remembers such groups as the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke being frequent visitors. There was a piano in the house and he began investigating its sound before receiving formal instructions a few years later. It was during high school that Lonnie became enamored with modern Jazz through hearing alto saxist Charlie Parker, one of the seminal figures in the music. It was not long before he was listening to Miles Davis (a future employer), as well as John Coltrane. Not surprisingly, he patterned his keyboard style after innovative horn players, and not the many fine pianists around. Of course, he was aware of artists like McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, and Thelonius Monk, but made a deliberate effort not to mimic their styles.
Beginning his career gigging in the Baltimore area as a teenager, Lonnie became adept at backing vocalists such as Ethel Ennis and visiting dignitaries like Betty Carter. While attending Morgan State University, he woodshedded with his peers, Gary Bartz (alto), Grachan Moncur (trombone), and Mickey Bass (bass). At the time, Mickey was gigging with drummer, Art Blakey and recommended Lonnie for the band's piano spot. He ventured to New York with Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which brought him significant visibility and the opportunity to record with the band. Next, Lonnie went with drummer Max Roach, which was unusual, as he rarely used a piano in his ensemble. Unfortunately, his year with Roach was not documented on vinyl, but these gigs did elevate his status as one of the up and coming players on the scene. He then enjoyed a 2 year stay with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which was documented by "Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith" on Verve and "Here Comes The Whistleman" on Atlantic.
There are lots of stories about the birth of jazz and the beginning of rock n’ roll, but hip-hip has founding fathers: one of them is DJ Grandmaster Flash. In 1971, Joseph Saddler was living in the South Bronx and studying electrical engineering. However, Saddler, a native of the Bronx, had a much deeper passion for music; he had been experimenting with his father’s vinyl since he was an adolescent. His knowledge of audio equipment led him to an idea that would revolutionize music: the turntable would become his instrument.
The career of DJ Grandmaster Flash began in the Bronx with neighborhood block parties that essentially were the start of hip-hop—the dawn of a musical genre now in its third decade. He was the first DJ to physically lay his hands on the vinyl and manipulate it in a backward, forward or counterclockwise motion, when most DJs simply handled the record by the edges, put down the tone arm, and let it play. Those DJs let the tone arm guide their music, but Flash marked up the body of the vinyl with crayon, fluorescent pen, and grease pencil—and those markings became his compass.
He invented the Quick Mix Theory, which included techniques such as the double-back, back-door, back-spin, and phasing. This allowed a DJ to make music by touching the record and gauging its revolutions to make his own beat and his own music. Flash’s template grew to include cuttin’, which, in turn, spawned scratching, transforming, and the Clock Theory and the like. He laid the groundwork for everything a hip hop DJ can do with a record today, other than just letting it play. What we call a DJ today is a role that Flash invented.
By the end of the 70s, Flash had started another trend that became a hallmark of hip-hop: emcees asked to rap over his beats. Before long, he had started his own group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their reputation grew up around the way the group traded off and blended their lyrics with Flash’s unrivaled skills as a DJ and his acrobatic performances—spinning and cutting vinyl with his fingers, toes, elbows, and any object at hand.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five went Platinum with their single, “The Message.” Meanwhile, the single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” introduced hip hop DJing to a larger listening audience than it had ever known before; it became the first DJ composition to be recorded by a DJ. The group’s fame only grew with “Superappin,” “Freedom,” “Larry’s Dance Theme,” and “You Know What Time It Is.” Punk and new wave fans were introduced to Flash through Blondie, who immortalized him in their hit, “Rapture.”
The rock n’ roll establishment also recognized Flash with an honor no one else in hip hop has received: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip hop group ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Flash is also the only hip hop DJ to ever receive that honor.
By the time the 90s rolled around, Flash was handpicked by Chris Rock to spend five years as the music director for his groundbreaking HBO series, The Chris Rock Show. More recently, Flash has played for audiences as large as the Super Bowl and as elite as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
Today, Flash has a weekly show on Sirius Radio, The FlashMash. The show is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of Flash’s tastes, spanning just about any genre from just about any corner of the world; it airs on Saturdays from 5-8pm.
On top of his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Flash has been the recipient of many awards, including VH1 Hip Hop Honors; The Icon Award from BET in honor of his contribution to hip hop as a DJ; The Lifetime Achievement Award from the RIAA; and Bill Gates’ Vanguard Award.
Although Flash has been in the business for many years, he shows no sign of slowing down: this coming year promises, a new album, and he will began his decent from the analog vinyl world of DJing to enter the digital world of DJing. His DJ application of choice will be the Trakktor Scratch by Native Instruments. and a long-awaited biography is to be published by Doubleday.
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