Grandmaster Flash graced the stage in front of approximately 10,000 people cheering — but not at the turntables. He stood there as Joseph Saddler addressing Lehman College more than 3,000 graduates at its 55th commencement on Thursday, June 1, in honor of 50 years of hip-hop in the Bronx.
“Commencement is a special academic ritual that puts an explanation point on the sentence that says ‘I went to college and I succeeded,” said Lehman College’s president Fernando Delgado. “Success is never guaranteed, and some of us have to travel a bit farther along to get there than perhaps others — but if you’re sitting there in your robes, no matter how you got here, you all succeeded.”
Grandmaster Flash’s journey to Lehman as a recipient of an honorary degree was a long one.
“I came from the projects, 2730 Dewey Ave., in Throggs Neck,” said the hip-hop pioneer.
Saddler made sure to credit the Bronx for his success and his contribution to the genre’s culture during his keynote speech. And now he was honored for it, alongside former Assemblyman José Rivera, who represented parts of the Bronx for more than two decades.
Lehman bestowed the two with honorary degrees.
Rivera took home a doctoral degree in humane letters, whereas Grandmaster Flash received his honorary doctorate in music.
This was not Saddler’s first such honor. The Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer received an honorary doctorate in fine artss at Buffalo State University last year. He was among three SUNY notable alumni who were honored with honorary doctorates: journalist Darryl Dennard and Eric Greenburg, director of U.N. relations and strategic partnerships for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But he found Lehman College’s honorary degree the most important because it’s where he came from.
In the early 1970s, growing up in the projects, he said it taught him love and perseverance. People would spot the DJ at block parties behind the turntables. And during that time, he was spinning his own beats before hip-hop became big.
It is unknown when hip-hop was born, but its origins are known to be in the summer of 1973, when Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc, spun music on turntables to create a beat, at a back to school party held in the recreational room of his apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Ave.
Saddler also started in the Bronx — he often was the DJ at block parties. He was essentially the first DJ to physically lay his fingertips on a record player and make it into an instrument.
“The DJ no longer had to drop the needle down on the record and let the record just play — I looked at the turntable and said, ‘I’ll turn it into an instrument.’ I took off the rubber and put wax paper and felt and then the vinyl,” Saddler said.
He brought the method of cutting and scratching known as the “quick mix theory” and attracted break dancers who were “the stars of the time,” the DJ said. The theory was an endless loop of two records playing on two different turntables that could be manipulated.
“When the platter was spinning clockwise, I could just spin it counterclockwise and stay in one particular area that the rapper was speaking,” Saddler said.
In 1975, a fan walked up to him at a party acknowledging him. “Damn Flash, you handle those turntables like a grandmaster.”
He then looked up definitions of grandmasters. And during that time notable people were Bruce Lee who was a grandmaster of martial arts — amongst others. Already known as “Flash” that is when the Grandmaster Flash was born.
“We from the Bronx,” Saddler said. “We are starters. We are finishers. We are very, very important.
“I must tell you, young people, as you go out into the world, you will probably do what I did — make mistakes.”
He continued to express the number of mistakes he made in his life for the “quick mix theory” to come to fruition. “As you leave here, you will scrape your knees,” he guaranteed. But as Bronx people, he said, “We go hard.”
Lehman was valuable lesson
Alesha Alli, who earned her bachelors degree in psychology, was the student speaker at the commencement. A magna cum laude presidential scholar, Alli was a Psi Chi honor student, and became active in student government.
The high-achieving student is not from the Bronx but a first-generation college graduate born and raised in a small village in Guyana.
Leaving everything behind, at the age of 14, her family moved to the United States to achieve what they thought to be called the American Dream — like many Lehman students. Her parents worked hard with little to no days off to make their dreams for their children come true.
“I’m glad my growth took place here at Lehman,” she said. “It taught me a valuable life lesson, resilience. Resilience is the ability to keep going even when the odds are stacked against you.
“It is the determination to never give up on your dreams no matter how difficult the path could be.”
But Allis’ journey to college is not complete. Even now, as she graduated, she wants to complete a bachelor of science degree in nursing.
Lehman’s reputation is known for serving the Hispanic serving community. It offers a diverse range of quality education.
This year Degree Choice ranked it No. 3 in the Best Colleges in the Northeast — ahead of Princeton, Harvard and Columbia. It also ranked No. 3 on the list of Best Colleges in New York.
Both rankings are based on economic return on investment and the length of time it takes students to repay their education.
Meanwhile, last year Degree Choice ranked Lehman No. 1 for best Hispanic-Serving Institution nationwide and No. 2 as the best college in New York. Also, it ranked No. 1 for best psychology and nursing programs.
It also supplies an advanced music certificate with a doctorate of musical arts, decorates of education of musical arts, and a doctorate of philosophy.
For Saddler, he noted music is an endless cycle.
“Before Covid, I traveled to 150 countries for 18 years,” he said. “I’ve seen this thing (musical students he might have inspired) from here, to Africa, to Zimbabwe to Australia to Japan.”
“Every day I wake up, I pinch myself — But it is still exploding, It’s still happening,” he emphasized greatly to The Riverdale Press. “I live by the moment. And today was just another incredible moment.”