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Before it became a vehicle for instigating turf wars and peddling Chicken McNuggets, hip-hop existed as a rich fusion of four elements—DJing, breakdancing, rapping, and graffiting. These elements collectively comprised an alternative form of entertainment and self-expression for inner-city youth, while creating a burgeoning impetus for social change. At the center of this cultural maelstrom was Grandmaster Flash, né Joseph Saddler, who, along with fellow DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata, formed a veritable holy trinity of hip-hop.
In the 30 years since Saddler’s heydey, however, the genre’s rough edges have been whittled down to reveal a slick, commercially malleable force to be reckoned with. With his first studio album in 20 years, the ambitiously titled “The Bridge: Concept of a Culture,” Saddler exposes this tension in its harshest light. The legendary turntablist struggles to remain relevant in the culture that he created and falters consistently, alternating between brilliant displays of his forte and a weak compliance with cliched notions of marketable hip-hop songs.
The grand master consistently becomes ensnared in sounds and influences that are not his own. Saddler, who debuted his craft at block parties and nightclubs throughout the South Bronx in the 1970s, puzzlingly indulges in bass-laden, ominous beats that elicit doomsday scenarios and desolate imagery. “What if hip-hop was never born?” an electronically slurred voice asks on “What If,” before KRS-One delves into a harrowing description of this hypothetical world. Another portion of the album is dedicated to bland, generic grooves that are heavily indebted to R&B, rather than hip-hop. Mr. Cheeks inexplicably raps about how he enjoys the “vibe” of a “live band,” on “Grown & Sexy,” and the track accordingly sounds as if a DJ played a negligible role in its creation.
Luckily, “The Bridge” is not completely devoid of convincingly boisterous party starters. The brooding “What If” is followed by a much-needed upswing in the form of “Tribute To The Breakdancer,” an exuberant celebration of hip-hop’s very own dance form. Saddler builds up intensity with a spirited salute, bellowed over hand claps and a prerecorded roaring crowd. By the time he gleefully announces, “I’m gonna name drop!” excitement reaches a crescendo with a b-boy roll call and fantastic usage of The Incredible Bongo Band’s classic “Apache” drum break. DJ Kool, perhaps best known for the perennial party favorite “Let Me Clear My Throat,” is featured on “Here Comes My DJ.” “DJ ready? Dance floor ready? Everybody ready? Let’s go!” he shouts, before vigorously imploringly listeners to put their hands up, shout on command, and perform a series of other delightfully nonsensical tasks for the sake of a good time.
No fewer than 28 contributors make an appearance on “The Bridge,” including lesser known MCs as well as established names like Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, and Big Daddy Kane. Unsurprisingly, several lines are dedicated to paying homage to the man laying down the tracks—“Before rappers was turning mics on, he was up at 63 Park, playing the right songs,” Lordikim notes deferentially on “Bronx Bombers.”
Perhaps in a misguided attempt to echo the uncomplicated wordplay of hip-hop’s early days, the lyrical content becomes hopelessly mired in uninventive rhymes and hackneyed phrases. On “I Got Sumthin’ To Say,” Lordikim flows over the energetic, drum-heavy track to cringe-inducing effect: “Baby, you bad—not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.” Paired with insipid production, these lyrical offenses render several tracks unremarkable at best.
“He was the first to put his fingertips on vinyl, spinning backwards and that’s why today he’s known as an idol,” we’re reminded of Grandmaster Flash’s past innovations on “Bronx Bombers.” Unfortunately, even with a promising line-up and an abundance of talent, the idol fails to deliver. Saddler appears to be disoriented by the myriad directions his culture has taken, and instead of connecting these concepts, “The Bridge” ultimately amounts to an odd amalgamation of garbled influences and mediocre songs.
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