By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — A Hip-Hop giant and one of the genre’s founding members is coming to Nashville this weekend as part of an effort to save a historic building. Grandmaster Flash is the headliner for a benefit concert at the Ryman that is part of efforts to convert the currently vacated Morris Memorial building into a Civil Rights museum. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and was designed by a Black architectural firm. A press conference was held last Friday during which coalition members discussed their goals and talked about the upcoming concert.
They said 100 percent of the proceeds from Sunday’s event will go to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. The Morris Memorial building, 330 Charlotte Avenue, was once a vital part of Nashville’s Black cultural scene. It was built in the 1920s for the National Baptist Convention by the firm McKissack & McKissack, co-owned by brothers Moses and Calvin. It was named for longtime president Elias Camp Morris. Prior to the building, the site was home to the Commercial Hotel, the home of Dabbs & Porter, who also just happened to be Nashville’s largest slave-trading firm.
But that unsavory history aside, the Morris Memorial building was the place where numerous Black community functions were held for decades. At one tine there was also a bank there , as well an insurance company, plus the offices and print shop of the National Baptist Convention. Activists not only want to commemorate that history, but use the building to spotlight other achievements by the McKissick & McKissick firm, who designed several other local buildings. The Metro Council voted down last month an offer to purchase the building for $6 million, which is half of the original $12 million price the current owners have sought. The Metro Human Relations Commission hosted an event at the National Museum of African American Music two weeks ago to help the campaign.
Joseph Robert Saddler AKA Grandmaster Flash enjoys legendary status as both a DJ and producer. He created the Quick Mix Theory, a technique that involves stretching out drum breaks in songs by using duplicate copies of vinyl records. This helped originate cutting and scratching as DJ techniques. His early notoriety came for playing parties throughout the New York city area and working as a producer with pioneering rappers Kurtis Blow and Lovebug Starski. In the late 70s Flash formed a group whose members included Cowboy (Keef Cowboy), Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and The Kidd Creole (Nathaniel Glover AKA Kidd Creole). Their original name was Grandmaster Flash & the 3 MCs. Reportedly, group member Cowboy, in scat singing the words hip/hop/hip/hop in a fashion mimicking the rhythmic cadence of soldiers, helped popularize the term as a general catch-all phrase for a cultural movement that included not only rap, but break dancing, graffiti, and clothing.
When the group’s personnel evolved with the additions of Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams) and Scorpio (Eddie Morris AKA Mr. Ness) their new name became Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They released their first single “Superrappin” on Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy label in 1979. They switched labels to Sugar Hill Records in 1980, and a year later released the historic “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” A brilliant seven-minute number that fused underneath teeming raps elements of multiple songs from Blondie’s :Rapture” to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” Chic’s “Good Times” and the group’s composition “Freedom.” It was a showcase for Flash’s turntable brilliance and also was the first documented appearance of scratching on record. Their 1982 hit “The Message” stands as an epic presentation of the social ills plaguing urban communities. It was chosen by the Library of Congress in 2002 to be added to the National Recording Registry, the first Hip-Hop recording to receive that honor.
Sunday’s concert will also feature Parson James, Reyna Roberts and special guest DJ Kurtwurk.