Grandmaster Flash: True Life Adventures
Flash isn’t the type of guy to start talking about “How it feels…” but that’s just what you want to ask him. How does it feel to have today’s biggest genre resting on something you did as a teenager? How does it feel to have completely changed music? How does it feel, Flash?
“I don’t think about it.”
“If I think about it from the perspective of where hip hop is today, I don’t know… so I don’t think about what I’ve done. I’d probably be scared to death.”
Even if you had to?
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“The greatest DJ in the world” shouts Melle Mel from the 1976 stage of Harlem’s grand Audubon Ballroom, as the floor shakes and a spotlight finds Flash centre-stage. “Flash is fast, Flash is cool,” raps Debbie Harry – 1978’s sexiest woman alive, – on Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, a US number one no less.
“He takes a lime from a lemon, from a lemon to a lime. He cuts the beat in half the time. As sure as three times two is six – say Flash is the king of the quick mix.”
“Just the name Grandmaster Flash…” sighs Rob Swift, one of today’s most prized turntablists. “You mention that name to a DJ and it’s like you get tingles. On a hip hop level, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – they were the first ones. They laid down the pavement.”.
“This is what’s important to me,” says Flash finally, staking out his place in the scheme of it all. “First! I was first. I don’t care who’s better, who’s worse. My contribution is first. Because first is forever. I don’t care who does it later, who does it better, who does it whatever. First is forever. That’s the way it goes down in the history books.”
Before Flash? There was a lot going on. There was Kool Herc segueing together sweaty James Brown breaks for the sneaker kids. There were mobile disco jocks like Pete DJ Jones and Grandmaster Flowers lugging their rigs around town, showing the boroughs crowds seamless blends and a non-stop beat. Down in the Village there was Walter Gibbons hypnotising a devoted gay following with the stitched-together drum breaks of his “jungle” disco. In the first half of the seventies there were many DJs like these – mostly in New York – working hard to extend their craft.
After Flash the game was changed – because he crystallised these experiments into an actual form of music. The ideas that DJs were busily formulating – about snipping out the best bits of a record, about collaging a patchwork of songs together, about keeping an unrelenting beat – came together on Flash’s turntables. His name isn’t on the first page of hip hop history, but it was Flash who turned playing the breaks from a slap-dash quirk of Bronx partying into a precise and recogniseable sound. Before him there were breaks, there were DJs who played breaks, there were B-boys, there was breakdancing, there was rapping. But only after Flash was there this new form of music we call hip hop.
“Flash is simply the best,” bellows veteran producer Marley Marl. “Flash was one of the best DJs – he brought scratching to the forefront more than anybody.”
Hip-hop activist and “media assassin” Harry Allen calls him, “the first great drummer of the culture,” “One of the most articulate and insightful spokespersons for the culture. He’s a hero. He was the first DJ whose music I got. Whose music I loved.”
Using a term coined by pioneer turntablist Grandmixer DXT (formerly D.ST), Allen sees Flash as one of the three cornerstones of hip hop’s “tri-force”, alongside Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. “These three individuals laid down the fundamental forms – each made significant innovations that are part of the template of hip hop culture. And of the three, he was the first to go to recording.
“What Flash did was athleticise the break. He gave hip hop the wobbly, highly syncopated structure it has, by saying we could take the break and break it down even further.”
“Flash has star quality,” enthuses Tommy Boy honcho Monica Lynch “He looks fantastic. He was one of the first faces of hip hop because he had a lot of visual style. He was very showy. He had a look. Everybody knew what Flash looked like.” In a girlish moment she confesses she dug deep in her pocket to buy a limited edition Louis Vuitton record box simply because Flash looked so great advertising it. “Few DJs have the flair and style of Grandmaster Flash. He was a name that people could connect with – ‘Yeah, that guy’s a DJ’.”
No doubt about it, Flash is fast, Flash is cool.
Dating girls for records
If you believe the lie that DJs are egomaniacs to a man, you’d find little in Flash’s early biography to suggest he’d ever become the world’s most famous. But those who know the reality – that more often than not the guy behind the decks is an introvert whose records do his laughing and shouting – would probably spot the signs. Music entered Flash’s life, not just as a teenage soundtrack, but as an escape hatch. This isn’t the old cliché of music, like basketball, offering a ladder out of the ghetto. Yes, the seventies’ Bronx was a rough place to live, and sure, stardom, local or otherwise, lifted you above it or out of it. But Flash’s story is of a more personal escape. Meet him and you’re moved by his seriousness, his intensity, his attention to detail. He speaks eloquently and very precisely, with a bare minimum of emotion. This is a scientist, not a rock-star! As you get to know him, you realise that music, for Flash, was the way out of himself. Here was a quiet, withdrawn kid who would shoehorn his way into the limelight as a way of beating shyness. Flash, like the legions of bedroom turntablists who follow his example today, would propel himself towards showbusiness, not with raw, rocket-fuelled charisma, but with a precise goal, grim determination, and above all, with practice, practice practice.
Joseph Saddler’s parents came from Barbados to live in the Bronx and he was born there on New Year’s Day 1957. He was a studious kid, obsessed with electronics, and his passion for science was encouraged with an enrolment at Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School. “I basically didn’t have no childhood,” he confesses. If you wanted to find him after classes there was one place to look. “I was mostly in my room being a scientist. No girlfriends, no basketball, no hanging out – straight to my room.” Here, as he messed around soldering circuits and building little electronics projects, he developed a methodical, scientific attitude to life which would one day take his name to the world.
Around this time he started getting into hot water for rifling his dad’s record collection. Jazz, like Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Cab Calloway. “I guess he taught me the value of records, because whenever I would touch his I would always get a beating.” He’d also go steal his sisters’ tunes. One had a Latin thing: Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Joe Cuba; another was into the pop-soul of the time: Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, a little Sly and the Family Stone. “I was pretty fortunate to grow up in a household where I heard all this,” he says.
The teenage Flash soon found another source of records: “On the times when I did date, I would date women whose mother, or brother, had records in their house. There was always a motive.” he smiles. “If I went to go to a girl’s house to meet her people, I’d always look around for music.”
“Scuse me, do you have any records” he’d ask politely.
“Oh these old things, I been trying to get rid of them for years,” would come the answer. “And they’d open the closet and I’d go look and it’d be a gold mine in there. I’d be: OK, this person has to be my girlfriend for a minute.”
This begging and borrowing showed results, but it was far from a painless way to build a collection. “My father was pissed off that I would play his records while he was at work. And my sisters would beef about me taking their records. Everybody was beefin’,” he groans. The final straw came when a girlfriend rumbled his hidden agenda: When she found out what I was doing she cut me off. I thought, screw this, let’s go buy my own damn records. However, though it kept his relationships intact, paying for his music brought flack from a different angle. Then I started getting my head chewed out by my mother because she would give me money to buy a coat, or shoes. Instead I went to the record store and I bought records.
Flash’s tastes, then as now, were eclectic. It wasn’t just a black thing or a rock thing, or a funk thing or a jazz thing or a blues thing. I was still looking, still searching.”
One of the first records on his shopping list was ‘I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Baby’ by Barry White; he recalls it having a particular significance. His class had just been covering the theory behind stereo recording, and at home Mr White’s orchestrations brought the lesson vividly to life: “I really got to hear how the cellos were in the left speaker, and the drums up in the middle, and the guitars were on the right. We had learned on the blackboard what mono was and then what stereo was, so I was like: this is some shit. I’m going to school for this.”
Connected to music, his understanding of electronics took on a whole new dimension. Here was the science behind the spinning discs and the mysterious cabinets that made people get up and dance. Here was a purpose for the circuits he’d been studying – a cool end product to justify no end of nerdy experimenting. Young Joe Saddler went into a frenzy of soldering. “I’d start getting in my sister’s room and tearing up her radio and finding out how it worked. And going into the backyards and looking for electronics stuff, looking for capacitors and resistors. I would find cars that were burned and abandoned, take the speakers out, take the radios out. Try to make it work, try to make it happen.”
This was a kid working at full tilt towards something – though he didn’t know exactly what. Like any good scientist, his love of experiment needed a goal. Before too long our hero, thanks to the geography of party culture, would fall headlong into the story of dance music. But for now, he was all charged up with nowhere to go. “I wasn’t even planning on being a DJ,” he says. “I just was into electronics.”
To the beat y'all
In 1973 the 16-year-old Flash was still keen to find a path to greatness. Then suddenly his destiny became clear – he’d become a breakdancer! It was the fresh fly way to impress the girls – do some drops and flips and locks and body-pops like the kids on Soultrain. What could be more obvious? He made a fine start in pursuit of this dream, but then a thorny obstacle emerged – he discovered he had a tragic inability to breakdance. “I was kinda wack,” he admits. “I tried to learn it, I did some moves and landed on my back and hurt it a whole lot.”
Flash was forced to find a new route to stardom. Luckily, for the sake of his bruised bones, fresh career inspiration soon showed up – in the shape of the borough’s conquering musical demigod. “I got the word about a guy on the west side of the Bronx who has this massive sound system. He had this pair of Shure vocal master columns, and these two black bass bottoms.” When Flash tracked down this heroic figure playing in a park on his behemoth system he heard music like never before. Tracks like ‘Shack Up’ by Banbarra, ‘The Mexican’, ‘Funky Drummer’, and ‘Apache’ by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band. “Some of it my sisters had in their collection, some of it I never heard before. But it had such a great feel to it.”
What’s more, this Herc guy was really playing around with the music, and that made it even more exciting. He’d repeat the bits the crowd loved best, fading from one track to a second copy of the same song, booming “Rock on my mellow” or “To the beat, y’all” through an echo chamber to cover the join and basking in glory as the lads dancing went full crazy. Not only that but he was enthroned above the crowd high on a platform so you couldn’t see what he was playing. Like the star he was. Like the star Flash wanted to be. “I saw people gathered from miles around just for one individual, playing music.” This encounter wiped out any dreams of breakdancing. There was now no doubt in his mind. “When I saw Kool Herc sitting up on his podium, heavily guarded, and all these people in the park enjoying themselves, that was it: I was gonna be a DJ.”
Kool Herc, christened Hercules by his schoolmates but known to his mum as Clive Campbell, is a Jamaican immigrant who stands nearer seven foot than six. Herc ruled the west Bronx as party king throughout the first half of the seventies. His success was founded on a ground-shaking sound system, a record box groaning with earthy funk tunes and an admissions policy which let in the raucous sneaker-wearing teenage element – a combustible crowd which most clubs were eager to keep off the premises. Herc’s trump card musically – something which gave him unrivalled appeal to the B-boying youth – was to play the breaks of records rather than the whole song, calling this part of his set ‘The Merry Go Round’. This, m’lud, was the breakthrough move from which hip hop grew.
Herc influenced a generation. As economics saw the DJ start to replace the local funk bands, kids throughout the Bronx saw how a mere disc jockey could be a star, could draw a crowd wherever he played. Downtown, disco was emerging from its underground origins and getting glittered up for the mainstream. Uptown across the Harlem River, while the grown-ups were dancing the hustle to pretty much the same songs as the folk in the Village, for Bronx kids under 20 it was funk tracks a few years old that were ruling the floor. And it was Kool Herc who was playing them.
Flash’s first reaction to Herc was to build himself a system. For a kid obsessed with electronics, seeing this afroed giant sitting behind a park-quaking set of components was like a glimpse of the holy grail. “With my electronic knowledge, and my ability to take junk and jury-rig it together, I started to put together some sort of makeshift sound system. And it was a piece of shit, but it was mines.” By 1974 he had just enough equipment and just enough balls to start calling himself a DJ.
For Pete's sake
No surprises yet. So far this is much the same tale you”ll have learnt in your ‘Keepin’ it real’ history lessons. The great Herc delivered the notion of playing the breaks from on high, picking out the choicest chunks of your mom and pop’s old records, and his disciples – Flash foremost – followed him into the promised land. But not so fast: there’s another key figure, more or less forgotten today, who played a vital role in the web of inspirations that led Flash to create his new science – Pete DJ Jones.
Like Herc, Pete Jones is a giant among men. He towers in at six foot eight with ham-sized hands that once played professional basketball. “Here is one dude that doesn’t have to wear any flashy clothes to stand out in a crowd,” wrote New York DJ fanzine Melting Pot in 1975. “When he lights a match, he looks like the Towering Inferno”.
“Music For All Occasions” advertises Pete’s business card and he still takes bookings at the age of 62. He’s just back from DJing a weekend at a holiday camp up in the Poconos and there’s a flyer in the lobby of his building advertising an upcoming R&B weekender for middle-aged Bronxsters with his name as a draw. Back in the day Pete Jones was one of the biggest DJs in the city, a name you heard constantly on party ads on WBLS. Today he’s squeezed behind the wheel of his little red hatch-back, with his knees hovering up near his chin. He gives a Deputy Dawg chuckle at his car’s poor fit and offers some melodic Carolina musings about the joys of fishing.
Pete was Flash’s greatest inspiration. Why? Because he kept the beat.
Pete Jones was the leading DJ in a scene which has never been accorded much importance. Plenty has now been written about disco’s gay black underground of the Loft, the Gallery and the Paradise Garage; this was disco’s straight black overground. It was a close-knit scene of mobile DJs who’d set up their rigs in hotel ballrooms (the Sheridan and notably the Diplomat, which Pete saw trashed by the crowd in a cross-state battle when he took on Newark’s finest DJs – Steak and Red) and in otherwise underpopulated restaurants. Places with names like Pub Theatrical, Jimmy’s, Gasky’s, Adrian’s, Hillside Manor, The Loft (no relation), Nell Gwynn’s… right across Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and New Jersey. Besides Pete, the other players were Cameron ‘Grandmaster’ Flowers, the scene’s founding big-shot who sadly ended his days panhandling outside Tower Records (and who was also an early graffiti writer), Maboya, a Panamanian who pioneered outdoor parties at Riis Beach before returning to Central America, and Ron Plummer a chemistry graduate who shot to fame as the scene’s Deejay Of The Year 1975 before heading off to medical school in Boston. The biggest boost to their fortunes, Pete recalls, was the beef crisis of 1971, which left restaurants empty and desperate. As ‘Where’s the beef?’ became the catchphrase of the day, disco came to the rescue with wily promoters turning eateries into niteries. “After they’d finished serving the last meal they’d start throwing the tables to one side and put the chairs on top of each other, put a makeshift bar up and the place would be jam packed until four in the morning.”
Pete, a teacher by career, got his DJing start in 1970, just after he’d moved from Raleigh to New York, by promoting a Bronx party around the first Grambling-Morgan game, a black college football fixture. After hiring a room but unable to book a DJ, he decided to do the job himself. “I went down to Sam Ash and bought the speakers and everything. I put this system together, went out and bought the top 20 and rocked the house. The party was so successful that the guy gave me the back room of the club every Friday and Saturday.” Later the same year he covered for a no-show Grandmaster Flowers in a jam on 57th St and his downtown reputation was launched
Through the seventies Pete played his punters what they wanted to hear: the length and breadth of the Billboard R&B chart sprinkled through with plenty of funky oldies and a smattering of more obscure southern soul. “You know what this is?” he asks as he picks out songs from a stack of dusty sleeveless 45s in his dark and crammed apartment. “It’s gut-bucket music. Yeah… gut-bucket music, poverty music.” An Ann Winley tune gets an airing, then ‘JB’s ‘Monorail’, then Grover Washington’s ‘Mister Magic’, Leon Haywood’s ‘Believe Half Of What You See’, Curtis Mayfield singing ‘Can’t Save Nothing’. “Gut-bucket music is stuff like James Brown, BB King, Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Dr. John,” he explains. “When I went downtown and played in a club and everybody’s dressed up, I’d play more of the stuff that was on the radio’ – and he draws out a list of commercial hits ranging from Kool & The Gang to the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. But his heart lies with music slowed by the heat of the southern states. ‘I used to hear other DJs saying, “That Pete Jones’ music, it puts me to sleep! Because it’s too slow.” It’s that special beat. It’s that downbeat. It’s the only music they listen to down south.”
While the music they played was hardly ground-breaking, rarely veering too far from the playlists of black radio, Pete and his peers were key in spreading the innovations of the more underground clubs to a wider audience, an audience that included the black population of the Bronx. Beatmatching, cuts and blends (or “running” records, as Pete calls it) were required skills on the gay scene thanks to pioneers like Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Cappello. Grandmaster Flowers, who’d been playing since 1967, as well as Plummer, Maboya and Pete Jones himself, deserve credit for developing the same skills at the same time and – crucial to our story – for showing them off to the wide world of greater New York.
“They would say that Flowers was a mixer and I was a chopper,” says Pete, describing Grandmaster Flowers’ style as being closest to the DJs in the gay clubs. “Flowers was an expert mixer. He didn’t chop too many of the records, he would bleeend. Plummer was a mixer also, but I liked to chop, I liked to get the beat – BANG! BANG! – I loved to chop. Even before I had a cueing system, I liked to chop them records up.” Emphasising his claims, Pete says he had two copies of everything. “I’d play a record over and over again, because you didn’t have many hits in those days, and you had to keep playing until four or five in the morning. So you’d play it over again and you’d shine a light on that groove and play it awhile. Best part of the record is usually that groove part,” he says with a chuckle.
Setting the equation
Most of the time dance music advances slowly and subtly. DJs on a scene pick out certain records and, by highlighting a particular style, spur producers to turn it into a genre. Flash’s innovations weren’t like that. His revolution wasn’t organic or accidental, it was all about vision and hard work. Flash imagined a future style of DJing and then bust his guts figuring out how to deliver it. He picked out the elements he wanted from two completely different DJs and set himself the challenge of combining them.
As he tells it, it was all about ‘unison and disarray’. Herc was the man because of what he played. But while he searched out obscure funk tracks and piled their breaks together for the B-boys, his technique, by all accounts, was pretty rough round the edges. The fever-pitch excitement of his ‘Merry Go Round’ came from the records he chose and the parts of those records he played – he had no concern for making clean mixes or keeping a steady beat. For Flash, this was a serious downfall.
“I noticed that if the crowd were into a record they would have to wait until he mixed it, because it was never on time,” he recalls. “I could see the audience in unison, then in disarray, then in unison, then in disarray. I said: I like what he’s playing but he’s not playing it right. So I says: I want to do something about that. The thought was to have as little disarray as possible. Didn’t know how I was gonna do it.”
“For Herc timing was not a factor. He would play a record that was maybe 90 beats a minute, and then he would play another one that was 110. But timing was a factor, because a lot of these dancers were really good. They did their moves on time. So I said to myself, I got to be able to go to just the particular section of the record, just the break, and extend that, but on time.
And that’s where Pete comes in.
Flash recalls: “The word gets back to me: there’s this guy who plays in the downtown clubs, playing the disco stuff. I hear he’s coming to the neighbourhood. He’s coming to my territory.” Imagining himself as a mini-Herc, and already armed with some fearsome funk tracks, Flash thought he’d have no problem trouncing a mere disco DJ. “I’m like, – Alll-right! I was sure I was better than him. Me and my boys got a couple of shopping carts and we put the speakers and the records and we walk over seven or eight blocks to 138th and Alexander. Mitchell houses.
“But as I’m walking, the ground is sort of vibrating. Wow, is there a car accident happening… continuously? And as I get closer and closer the ground is shaking to a beat. He was playing this song, and it was like neeeeeeeaarrr-pumm, and then it goes into this disco beat. As I go into the park this system was so powerful it was shaking concrete.”
Undeterred, or at least stubborn enough to carry on, Flash hooked up his meagre equipment opposite Pete’s. “I set up and when he turned off I turned on. I had a bunch of midrange and some tweeters. Of course when he turned it back on he was the complete frequency. And I’m thinking: You fucking asshole Flash. You popped all this shit to your friends, you’re gonna go over there and beat this guy that plays disco.”
Pete recalls their first meeting “I was working for the department of social services at the time and this woman called me and said she had a young DJ and they were really trying to launch him. Trying to get him known, get him out there. So we set up this battle. I used to have a Volkswagen, I had my bus. I had those big horns like they have at Yankee Stadium. I had two of those. Then Flash came down. He was talented. He was fast. I’d say he’s one of the smoothest mixers, other than Grandmaster Flowers. He reminded me of Flowers.”
“Pete could have totally humiliated me,” admits Flash. “But he was very cool. He gave me his card and we became friends after that. He said, “Here’s my number, why don’t you come to a couple of gigs of mines.” I took it with a grain of salt, like – ah, he’s not going to fucking call me. I don’t even play the same shit he plays. But he called me. I think my first gig with him was with the Stardust Ballroom in the Bronx.”
Aside from befriending one of New York’s biggest DJs, this meeting gave Flash the final inspiration he needed. Pete’s music was not what he wanted to play, but Flash was transfixed by the idea of continuity. What blew him away was hearing records merge into each other without losing the beat. This was the first time he’d heard blends.
“It was incredible that you could hear that other record coming in from the horizon, and then all of a sudden it’s right here, and then it becomes the record. He was playing Donna Summers, Trammps, stuff like that, and he wouldn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t very fast at it, but he would blend from one and I could hear the other one coming in. No horses galloping. Bass drum on top of bass drum and snare on top of snare.
“The music he was playing was not to my liking at all – I was playing the obscure R&B and rock but he was playing just disco – but the way he was playing it – the blend, where there’s no disarray, there’s unison, the crowd was into a frenzy and he was blending it – tight!
For Flash it was a eureka! moment. Lightbulbs popped inside his head as he imagined somehow connecting Pete’s continuity with Herc’s breaks. Even as he conceived this he knew it would be massive. “I watched Herc with unison and disarray and I watched Pete with unison,” he explains. “Herc went straight to the meat of the sandwich – the get-down part of a record – and it would get the people hype. I seen his audience lose their minds. Pete would play his style of a break and the people that came to his party – I seen them lose their minds. I knew that if I could just come up with the formula in between I would have something.” Seamless mixing seemed to work for disco. Could he do the same with the chunks of funk that the B-boys loved so much?
Methodical and obsessed, Flash now set himself this goal of playing breakbeats with precision. “I was like: how can I take the Herc tracks – that kind of sound – and find a way to make it seamless…?
“I had to figure out how to take these records and take these sections and manually edit them so that the person in front of me wouldn’t even know that I had taken a section that was maybe 15 seconds and made it five minutes. So that these people that really danced, they could just dance as long as they wanted. I got to find a way to do this.” This is what the world would one day know as hip hop: music made from breaks of records sampled, edited and repeated in a continuous rhythm, using nothing but two turntables and a mixer. At first, he had no idea whether it was possible, just that it would be amazing – and that if he could get it right, he would make history.
Into the laboratory
Flash became like a physicist on the tail of a new elemental particle, so sure of its existence he won’t leave his lab before he’s nailed it. Each part of his style was the result of rigorous testing. Nothing came about by accident; it was all from hundreds of hours of trial and error. How do you do this? Maybe this would work. No? OK how about this? Forget fiddling around, this was serious research. For months, during high school and then while working as a messenger for a company called Crantex Fabrics, he spent as much time as possible shut in his room relentlessly pursuing his goal. Immersing himself in the technical mysteries of turntable torque, cartridge construction, needle configuration and the like, examining every aspect of the machinery which he aimed to master.
“Friends of mine used to come to my house and say, ‘C’mon, let’s go to the park, let’s go hang with girls.’ I’m like, ‘Naw, man, I can’t do that. I’m working on something.’”I didn’t know what I was working on, didn’t have a clue. All I know is that with each obstacle there came an excitement on how to figure it out. How to get past it… How to get past it, how to get past it.”
First equip your lab. In his quest to become a DJ, Flash had tried out all sorts of turntables. His earliest system had decks scavenged from old radiograms and re-housed in wooden cases he’d built. “Of course they were horrible,” he admits. In desperation he had even tried out a Fisher price Close and Play toy record player, to see if it could do the job. He then set his sights on decks like the ones he’d heard of in the Hunts Point Palace, a nightspot round the corner from his house. Too young to get inside but well-informed about the quality of the club’s equipment, he’d found out these were Thorens TD125s – thousand-dollar audiophile monsters with swinging weights and delicate gimbals, supposedly the best in the world. After negotiations with the neighbourhood thieves, a pair appeared in his house.
“I looked at my old turntables and I looked at their Thorens and I was like: OK, now I can continue my science.” Their reputation preceded them, but the Thorens were more or less useless. Problem was, while his experiments demanded a quick start and a lot of torque, it took the Thorens about a day to start going round. “They had horrible pick up – horrible,” he recalls. “If I held the record while the platter was spinning, I would literally have to push the record up to speed.”
He started rating turntables, testing them wherever he could. “My thing was, it would have to be from a state of inertia up to speed by at least a quarter of a turn. If not then it didn’t qualify. If I went to somebody’s house I’d try out their turntable – I stopped the platter – and turned it back on. If it took too long to get up to speed then it was the wrong turntable.” After fiddling with half the decks in the Bronx he bumped into the Technics SL120s, a predecessor to the SL1200s “This went up to speed at about a quarter of a turn, and it had decent torque.” Finally the experiments could resume.
Another particularly thorny problem was cueing – listening to the next record to find the part he wanted without the audience hearing it too. At the time, mixers with the necessary extra pre-amplifiers and headphone sockets were rare and expensive, and Flash was only vaguely aware such technology even existed. Again, Pete Jones provided the spark. Although Herc had an impressive GLI 3800 mixer, he didn’t much use headphones, preferring to just guess and crash one record into another, so it wasn’t until Flash finally got a close look at Pete’s system that he understood how the disco DJs pulled off their crisp blends. “Because Pete had headphones, I guessed that he was hearing the track before he played it.”
Flash pulled out his soldering iron and went to work. “What I had to do was build what I called a ‘peek-a-boo’ system. The mixer I was using at the time was a Sony MX8 microphone mixer. I bought two external pre-amps to take the voltage of the cartridge and boost it to line level and I could hear it. I had to go to Radio Shack to find something that could split two frequencies independently. So I put a single-pole-double-throw switch up the middle and just split the two signals. An spdt switch is something I learned on the blackboard at school. Put the grounds up the middle and the positives on the end. In the centre position it would be off. Click it to the right and you’d hear the right turntable, two clicks to the left and you’d hear the other one.
Pete Jones still has the warhorse of a mixer that inspired this bout of amateur electronics. When he plays out he uses a modern model, but back home between his dusty decks, blending his gut-bucket 45s, is an ancient GLI 7000 unit the size of a television.
Salted away in his bedroom, Flash edged towards his vision of a completely new way of playing records. It was a lonely existence, often with his ‘best friend’ Caesar, – his miniature Doberman pinscher – as his only company. He left his room to walk Caesar, to go to school or go to work. Every other minute was spent at the decks. “There wasn’t too much playtime, because whenever I would run into an obstacle it would nag me so much so I had to go back to it” Eventually his doggedly clinical approach started to pay off. By the end of 1974 he could cut and mix records exactly as he wanted. In true laboratory style, he named his new techniques ‘theories’. If he could have patented them, he would.
Central to it all was the ‘Quick Mix Theory’. This is the idea of taking a short section of music from one record and cutting it into the same section from a second, on time, back to back. “It was basically taking a particular passage of music and rearranging the arrangement by way of rubbing the record back and forth or cutting the record, or back-spinning the record,” explains Flash. This is the basic skill required of a hip hop DJ: to manually sample a few bars of a song and, by cutting between two copies of the same record, to repeat them as many times as he likes.
Flash’s supporting ‘Clock Theory’ was key to this. He needed a superfast way to find the beginning of a break. Initially he practised cuts and blends like the disco DJs – with the aid of headphones. But if you want to play tiny two-bar breaks back to back you don’t have time to listen to the record and wait for the right part – you have to get there straight off the bat. “I had to figure out how to recapture the beginning of the break without picking up the needle, because I tried doing it that way and I wasn’t very good at it.’ Clock Theory let you spin the record back to exactly the right place without having to pick up the needle. “You mark a section of the record and then you gotta just count how many revolutions go by.” To this day, a hip hop DJ’s records will be plastered in little stick-on paper strips, the starting lines for the break.
Flash even experimented to find the perfect way to spin back the record, emerging with sub-theories to describe the different methods. The Dog Paddle Theory is where you wind the record by walking your hands on its outside edge. If you prefer you could use the Phone Dial Theory, where you stick your finger near the label to spin it back.
A great influence on Flash’s style has been his impatience. “I’m fidgety,” he confesses. “I can’t wait for a record to go from the beginning to almost the end and then go into another record.” On the other hand, he was driven to create the quick mix so he could extend chosen sections of a track at will. “On the music I liked, the best part of the record was always too short,” he explains. “Frustrating. Frustrating. Frustrating. I would listen to records and I would notice: wow the breaks on these records are really short. Either that or they were at the end of the song. Or it was a problem where the best part is really great, but it would go into a wack passage right after.”
So what records did Flash use to perfect his technique? Stand back spotters, here comes the good stuff. You’ve got a library list of breaks stapled to your anorak, but which were the actual test tunes in the Flash laboratory? One of the favourites was ‘Lowdown’ by blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs. This was a track he worked to death perfecting his skills. But it was a relatively late addition to the Flash canon. The earliest tunes he can recall using were ‘Do It’ by Billy Sha-Rae and early Barry White records, ‘because his joints had drums in the middle.’ He’d use different records depending on his mood. Full of energy and confidence, he’d pick out a challenge; tired and up against an irritating problem, he’d plump for something easier. “It’s like a person who works out,” he says. “Sometimes he’s using 40lbs and some days he wants to push 100lbs.” One of the heaviest weights to play with was James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’. “You had to really be in the mood for that. Because the drummer played for just two bars, then the record would be off.” Another track that took some lifting to keep it out of the mud was by Ace Spectrum, a track he called ‘The Piano Song’, where the good part went straight into an unplayable piano solo. “‘Rocksteady’ was another one that was really a pain in the ass – ‘cos it went Rock-uhuhuh… Steady-uhuhuh, then it went totally undanceable. It went into this real high string shit and the bass drum really got lost. So you had to really be on your toes.” If funky drummer weighed in at 100lbs, when he wanted to do a lot of reps he’d choose something easy on the arms – like Jackie Robinson’s ‘Pussy Footer’ or Bob James’ ‘Take Me To The Mardi Gras’. Or he might go back to old favourite Barry White for ‘I’m Going To Love You Just A Little Bit More’. “The break went forever, so you didn’t have so much rush.”
By teaching himself to streak between his two turntables, to zip each record back to the first beat of the break, and to play, repeat and recombine a few selected bars, Flash became able to completely restructure a song at will. This was manual sampling, live looping, live remixing.
On his birthday, mild-mannered Joseph Saddler, a whirlwind of speeding arms and fingers, become a superhero: Grandmaster Flash. He’d already been ‘Flash’ for a long time, it was a nickname which predated his DJing, earnt for the daft reason that he went around with a friend called Gordon. Now ‘Grandmaster’ signalled his arrival. “That came from a fellow by the name of Joe Kidd. Said to me you need to call yourself a Grandmaster, by the way you do things on the turntables that nobody else could do.” The name of Grandmaster Flowers – then one of the top dogs in the city – must have influenced Joe Kidd’s suggestion. But Flash soon eclipsed Flowers to make the title all his own. “It sounded good,” he says. “It connected with Bruce Lee, who was the leading box office draw for movies at the time, and it connected to this guy that played chess. These guys were very good at their craft. I felt I was very good at my craft. I found it fitting.”
As his DJ powers grew, Flash found lonely days practising giving way to a more sociable existence. His friends Easy Mike and Disco B were around, both would eventually DJ with him. B helped him perfect “passing-the-pancake” a tag-team way of changing records quickly, and he teamed up with another DJ Gene Livingstone, “the bully of the block”, who was useful muscle for protecting his equipment (“You didn’t want to get in no shit with Gene. He’s always trying to kick somebody’s ass.”). ‘Mean Gene’ also happened to have a better system than Flash’s, and a mother far more tolerant of the all-day racket these kids were making. So over to his house they went.
Flash soon decided it was time to make his discoveries public. He’d ventured outside a few times before he had the formula totally locked, playing test sets in a tiny park on 138th and Cypress. Now it was time to strut. Off to 63 Park they went, up the block from Gene’s house at 169th Street and Boston Road.
“I’m gonna be the man. I’m gonna beat Kool Herc,” he told himself as they lugged record boxes across to the park. “If I play the get-down part of ten records in succession and keep ’em on time, I’m going to have people totally excited. If I take the most climactic part of these records and just string ’em together back to back to back, I’m gonna have the audience in a total uproar.” At the park, eager with confidence but nerves jangling, he fired off a salvo of quick-mix breaks. ‘Johnny the Fox’ by Thin Lizzy, Billy Squier’s ‘Big Beat’, ‘I Can’t Stop’ by John Davis and the Monster Orchestra, ‘Disco Flight 78’. No warm-up set, just straight in, on time, playing one behind another.
The audience rewarded this unique performance with a wild display of… nothing. “When I played, it was silence like this…” he recalls, “and it was maybe three or four hundred people in the park.” After months of careful practise, after perfecting a totally revolutionary style, after giving them the first taste of a music that would one day sweep the world… nothing. No-one was dancing. “It was totally quiet. Almost like a speaking engagement.” Flash was devastated. “I cried for a couple of days. Went home and cried like a baby. What’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong? What am I doing wrong?”
In months to come this park would become his home turf, scene of countless nights of outdoor partying, but for now the audience was not interested. Perhaps they were just shellshocked, maybe his music was too alien to get a handle on. “A lot of people ridiculed it. I was so excited, but just nobody would get it,” he says. “Nobody really understood what it was I was doing.
Introducin’ the crew you gotta see to believe
We’re one, two, three, four, five MCs
I’m Melle Mel and I rock it so well
And I’m Mr Ness because I rock the best
Raheim – in all the ladies’ dreams
And I’m Cowboy to make ya jump for joy
I’m Creole – solid gold
The Kid Creole playin’ the role
Dig this –
We’re the Furious Five plus Grandmaster Flash
Givin’ you a blast and sho’ nuff class
So to prove to y’all that we’re second to none
We’re gonna make five MCs sound like one…
It’s September 2nd, 1976, Broadway and 165th Street in Harlem, the Audubon Ballroom. This beautiful crumbling theatre is where Malcolm X had once lectured (and where he was assassinated). It’s been a night fraught with problems. Tempers are unraveling; Flash and his crew have been pacing in panic. He must have been mad to book this massive place. They’d played Manhattan before: Harlem World, Club 125, but no-one Flash knows ever booked a theatre. Parks, school halls, little clubs, sure. But a fucking ballroom? Insane. His ‘manager’ Ray Chandler put him up to it, big Ray, of local numbers-running muscle the Chandler brothers. Big Ray the ex-cop who you didn’t ask too many questions. A month ago Flash had held back as they’d climbed these long, long stairs to meet the old guy who ran the place. Even then, Flash had wanted out. It was too big. “Ray this is, this is… nah, I don’t think so.” But Ray’d convinced him – a month of promotion, flyers at all the other jams – and then just vanished into the shadows of the theatre and done the deal.
No going back now. But fuck. Would you even hear his system in this huge place? He’s been there since five, testing it. Hired some extra cabinets out of fear. Then at 8.30 Disco B overloads a bass amp. Blew the transformer. Smoke comes out like black feathers and that evil smell of burnt electrics sends Flash’s stomach to his mouth. Could have strangled B. They had to find the guy who built the amp.
After they scratch the rig back together Flash buries himself in a back room till 10.30. Then he dares himself to look around. There’s about 500 people in the hall, milling around to Kool DJ AJ’s warm-up. Flash’s usual size crowd. But 500 people don’t look like shit in a hall this big.
Then when he ventures outside – amazing! A line. A long line! Jeez, it turns the corner, it turns the next corner. A line round the block! And cars: license plates from Philly, Connecticut, DC…
And now they’re taking the stage. It’s hot. The room is packed. The crowd is loud, jumping up and down, the floor is moving. The system’s holding up, the lights flash on, the kids are ready to rock, it’s a fuckin’ show. There’s maybe two thousand people in here, all to see Flash and the Furious. Mel’s introducing him. Shit, this is it.
“The greatest DJ in the world”, shouts Mel. Flash is almost shaking. More lights. They’re cheering, shouting, whistling. Some kids actually scream. They’re here to see us – kids from the fucking projects. This is what it’s like to be a star. Shiiiiiit! Hit the beat! Let’s go!
“When we took the crowd to a climax, the floor was shaking,” remembers Flash. “The floor was fucking shaking, it was really something. And next day, man, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was heroes. It was like, after that there was nothing else we couldn’t do. After that there was no hurdles we couldn’t climb. Anything after that, it was a piece of cake.”
Rising to a Fever
In the overheated uptown party scene, Flash shot to fame like a bullet. There wasn’t even two years between him crying his eyes out as a failure in 63 Park and this climactic arrival as a local superstar. In three years he’d have records out with the Furious Five, in five years a pop star would name-check him in a number one song. In six they’d have their own worldwide hits. They’d go onstage in Europe and people would know all their words. Damen und herren, Grandmaster Flash und die Furious Five!
Flash had started by playing a few gigs with Pete Jones. “Pete was as cheap as hell, but his crowd was lovely,” he says. Then he’d fallen in with promoter extraordinaire Ray Chandler and started Black Door Productions, charging a dollar a head to hear Flash in a tiny two-room basement next to 63 Park that had a door they’d painted black. It was here the Furious started coming together. When the cops began messing with them about overcrowding Ray found The Dixie Club, a Jamaican place on Freeman Street that was down on its luck, and rented it for Flash. “It was my base for a long time. Like Herc had the Executive Playhouse, Flash had Dixie Club.” Eventually he fell in with DJ Hollywood a rapping DJ whose evolving style straddled disco and the emerging sound of hip hop. Hollywood was part of a clique of DJs at Club 371 in Manhattan with Eddie Cheba, another disco-style rapper, and with Reggie Wells a DJ who had a show on WBLS. While most club DJs refused to let him anywhere near their decks, Reggie was the exception. “They’d all say ‘Well Flash, we’ve heard of you, we know you can play, man, but we don’t want you damaging our records’. But Reggie understood my style and let me get on 371’s turntables.” Club 371 was always busy. Flash remembers it as full of incredible women; he’d often go hang there even though he had to put on a suit jacket to get through the door.
Finally, from just before they started making records up until things got too crazy to hold down a regular club gig, you’d find Flash at Disco Fever, a smallish Bronx nightspot writ large in the annals of hip hop. Fever was run by an energetic community-minded Italian Sal Abatiello who hired Flash for just $50 a night. As the scene started producing stars, this became their watering hole and Flash’s ‘Terrible Tuesdays’ would regularly fill up with rap royalty. “That’s when everybody started coming for open mic,” recalls Sal. It started when the Furious Five would take turns. You get Mel, you got Raheim, you got Cowboy… Starski would walk in, so now you’ve got six people. And then Hollywood might walk in, so that’s seven. Kool Moe Dee might walk in. You might have Treacherous Three or Sequence and suddenly you got a line of freaking recording artists, with hit records on the radio, stood waiting on line to get on the mic!” Among many others spotted enjoying the rugged glamour of the Fever were The Sugar Hill Gang, Larry Smith, (producer for Whodini), a young upstart promoter called Russell Simmons, even on occasion funk star Rick James (clearly a hero to the scene, going by early rap’s obsession with shoulder-pads and silver leather jumpsuits).
Flash recalls the club’s private hideaway where the VIPs consumed their sparkling favours. “The Ice Room,” he beams. “The motherfucking Ice Room. Sal would be pretty easy with the champagne and stuff. You do something, you rock the house, he’d give you some champagne, he’d make you feel like a star. Of course it would attract women, and you’d take them to the Ice Room. We can go to this private room, do our thing. Crazy shit used to happen.”
“Fever was in a dark, funky part of the Bronx,” recalls Steven Harvey. “Everything was broken, glass was broken, the train station had rain dripping down everywhere. It looked like Blade Runner, an abandoned city.” But Flash would be dressed smart for his Fever gigs: “a button-down shirt, regular slacks, regular shoes, little cap,” remembers Sal. “He was very modest.” He played long sets, stretching out certain records with extended bouts of quick-mix cuitting, and he’d bend his playlist more towards disco. The Fever’s booth was about five feet up in a little cage. When Flash wanted to give the MCs a chance to battle he’d lower a mic down over the booth window. With the MCs keen to show off and impress the ladies, Flash was often beseiged. “They’d be like, “Yo Flash lemme git the fuckin’ mic man. Let me get the mic,” cos if you rocked the crowd all them chicks wanted to get with you.”
Clubs were only a small part of the story. Throughout his reign in the Bronx Flash’s main focus was one-off parties, in schools, community centres and the Webster Avenue PAL (Police Athletic League), which was known for hosting Herc parties. Back when Flash was starting out he had played a few parties in abandoned buildings, with him charging 25 or 50 cents admission, but electricity was always a problem. “It wasn’t too safe and they had the big dumb rats”. And of course, all through each summer, right up until recording and touring took over, Flash and his MCs played block parties and jams in the parks.
To poor New Yorkers, block parties were nothing new. Local festivities in closed off streets and in the city’s many parks have a long tradition (a New York park can be as small as a single asphalt basketball court). The entertainment might come from a local band playing funk and soul or salsa and merengue. The DJs just took over this tradition.
In the parks the music would last from the afternoon well into the early hours, with the police usually turning a blind eye, reasoning that it was keeping teenage troublemakers out of harm’s way. If they were out of reach of any other power supply, DJs and their crews would break open the base of a street lamp and risk electrocution to hotwire the sound system. Flash would play maybe once a week in 63 Park at 168th and Boston Rd. There was a real grapevine about these events and soon his name – and tapes of his parties – were circulating right across the five boroughs.
“You began to hear a slight inkling about a guy named Flash, who was supposed to be the fastest DJ, ‘cos speed became the thing.” recalls Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti artist and a key ambassador of the scene. Freddy would often venture uptown from his native Brooklyn in search of a Flash party. “Two o’clock in the morning some hot hazy Saturday night, you’re just bored. You’d venture out on the train up to Harlem and just walk around. You’d roll up on some heads on the corner, you might recognise somebody, ‘Yo money where they jammin’ at. Anybody jammin?’.” After getting hold of a Flash tape, Freddy eventually saw him play downtown at the Smith Projects on the Lower East Side. “I got to see Flash, saw him do his thing, it was amazing, it was like state of the art. I’ll never forget because it was still the Furious Four. It wasn’t even the five of them at the time.”
Flash got Furious
As much as Flash brought a completely new style to DJing, The Furious Five shook up the newly reborn medium of rapping. The mobile disco DJs had MCs, as did Herc and Bambaataa, shouting up the party, name-checking people in the crowd, raising the energy levels. Some, like Hollywood or Eddie Cheba carried on the old jive-rhyming style of radio DJs. But in the Bronx, MCing for the most part was about informal rabble-rousing: clichés, couplets, “Who’s in the house?”
Furious broke the mould. They were performers. Unlike most MCs who sat behind the decks with the DJs, Flash pushed them onstage. They practised their rhymes – complex tag-team arrangements where they’d finish each others’ lines – and they rustled up stage clothes so they looked the part. From the get-go they were stars. They rammed it home that this was a new kind of music. They knew they were revolutionary and they were proud of it.
“They were fantastic live. They were so fantastic at performing,” beams New York musician and journalist Steven Harvey. “They’d come out and chant, ‘We’re not a band! There’s no band.’ They were so polemical about their position when they played live. It was like seeing the MC5 of hip hop: There’s no band, this is five people and two turntables.”
“He had five different guys, five different styles,” enthuses Sal Abatiello. “Nobody was doing that. Cold Crush came after, but nobody had the foresight to be there with so many people except Flash.”
“First was Cowboy [Keith Wiggins],” recalls Flash. “Then it was Kid Creole [Nathaniel Glover]. Then Kid Creole got his brother interested, which was Melle Mel [Melvin Glover], and Mel got his best friend Mr Ness [Eddie Morris, aka Scorpio], and then Raheim [Guy Williams] came from a group that we used to battle, a rival group, called the Funky Four. That’s what created the Five.” LuvBug Starski was an occasional guest, as was Kurtis Blow, who was nearly a sixth member of the Furious. Both had MCed with Flash in his earlier solo period.
Nowadays, all the industry cares about is the very visible rapper, but back then the DJ ran the show. It was DJs who introduced the idea of MCing, even though eventually this move would push them into the shadows.
“The DJ was very much the major part,” confirms key Zulu Nation DJ Jazzy Jay. “It was never The Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash, no it was always Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It was DJ Breakout and the Funky Four. Charlie Chase and the Cold Crush Brothers. You know. It was never the other way round. Not like you see today, you’ve got artists they come out, they never even had a DJ.”
Flash, ever keen to add entertainment value, first recruited MCs to make his quick mix less intimidating to an audience. After his failure in 63 Park, he believed rhyming was the answer, a way to make people relate better to his unique style. “At first I tried to talk,” he laughs. “I was wack! And I couldn’t cut and talk at the same time.”
Then he just left a mic open. “I put a microphone on the other side of the table to see if anyone could vocalise to my arrangements. And nobody could. Until Cowboy – Keith Wiggins. Keith grabbed the mic. And he wasn’t technically good, like he wouldn’t go into any thesaurical, dictionarial, heavy words. He was simple. He was like the ringleader of a circus.”
For Flash the self-conscious teenager, an MC soaked up the attention, leaving him to focus on the demanding job of slicing up songs. “It was great because people would no longer look at me. Cos that’s what I didn’t like – everyone watching me. With Cowboy, although I was in the park physically, mentally I could be up in my room and just line up the records.”
The Furious Five were first complete in 1975 at a party in 63 Park. They’d practise at Flash’s house or at the Black Door, always working around Flash. “We’d come up with routines to records like ‘Celebrate’ by Pleasure or James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’. I would cut the record and they would do a move to the blast, or I would do a cut and they would move to the cut.”
“Mel, he was like a prophet. Not only did he have incredible timing, but he could go from a subject matter about dissing somebody to talking about how great Martin Luther King was. And the way he would just structure it was just incredible. He wasn’t one of the first to join, but that gave him lead position.” When Mel and Creole put together their more serious stuff, working out the tag-team rhyming that would become so influential, here Flash would give them a quiet beat, like ‘Bra’ by Cymande to rap over.
“But when it came to taking a party to a height and getting the crowd to a frenzy, that was Cowboy’s job. There’d be a time during the party when it was just me and Disco B, we’d be playing the music. The MCs would go somewhere, go hang in the party. But if I was getting ready to play ‘The Bells’, or ‘Apache’, Cowboy would come to the mic, and right from there we’d get ready to set it off.”
For the record
The fame they enjoyed uptown and then throughout New York soon grew into something bigger as records came into the equation. With the release of a couple of lo-fi tracks on Paul Winley’s label, and then with the speeding success of The Sugar Hill Gang in summer 1979, the hip hop world fell into confusion. When he heard ‘Rappers’ Delight’ fill the radio, a record by a group unknown to the Bronx, Flash was incensed. “I was like, “Damn, I could’a been there first.” I didn’t know the gun was loaded like that.” He vowed to turn his anger into action.
Ironically, he’d turned down an earlier approach from a guy named Terry Lewis (the Furious Five later recorded a track, ‘We Rap More Mellow’, under the name Younger Generation on Lewis’ Brass Records). “I was asked before anybody. And I was like, “Who would want to hear a record which I was spinning re-recorded with MCing over it?” And boy was I wrong.” No-one really knew how recording careers would affect the scene. “There was a few little records going around and everybody’s kind of excited: ‘Oh, shit it’s on a record’,” recalls Sal Abatiello, “but nobody even dreamed it was going to be like it was.”
The group were already enjoying huge local success under the wing of Ray Chandler. Flash was treated like a rock star by Ray’s security staff The Casanovas – he recalls often being whisked out of back doors while Disco B or Easy Mike finished a gig. Then he started noticing an incongruous older guy hanging at the back of all the shows. “He made Ray very nervous. He looked like undercover, looking for drug dealers or guns or whatever.” This proved to be local record mogul Bobby Robinson who offered the group a deal. Years ago, Robinson had signed Gladys Knight and the Pips and saxophone legend King Curtis. Flash and the Furious Five became the second rap act on his Enjoy label (after The Funky Four (Plus One More) and released ‘Superrappin’’, a funky rip-off of ‘Seven Minutes Of Funk’ by Tyrone Thomas & the Whole Darn Family. This was a break which the group used in their live show, so it seemed natural to cut a vinyl version of it (replayed by a session band) complete with rhyming from the Furious Five. Around this time DJ Hollywood had pioneered the lucrative habit of playing several gigs a night. Having vinyl to their name let Flash and his crew follow suit. “That was our extra added bonus to go round and do two or three extra parties. Not only were we doing what everybody else was doing, but we had a record.”
But the group’s ambition proved greater than Bobby Robinson’s results. Unable to get them the kind of radio play Sugar Hill Gang were basking in, Robinson saw Flash and the Furious leave in frustration. Their contract was bought out by a husband-and-wife team from New Jersey with long music biz experience, Sylvia and Joe Robinson, and they found themselves on the leading label for this new music – Sugar Hill. Flash and the Furious Five quickly made up for lost time and emerged as recorded rap’s first superstars.
Their first track on Sugar Hill was ‘Freedom’ a raucous party jam built from a cover of ‘Get Up and Dance’, then a popular club record by TK Records artists Freedom. The backing track was laid down by a phenomenal group of musicians who had coalesced as the Sugar Hill house band: Bass-player Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip McDonald (both from longstanding New York session funkers Wood Brass and Steel), and (white) drummer Keith LeBlanc. At times the band variously included percussionist Ed ‘Duke Bootee’ Fletcher, Nate Edmunds on keyboards, an arranger called Clifton ‘Jiggs’ Chase and a horn section called Chops.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see how the move to making records was what eroded the DJ’s central role, but at the time, no-one knew any better. How did Flash react when he went into the studio and saw his job taken up by a band? “Quite frankly I just thought that it was the only way that it was done,” he says. “At Enjoy, they had a great house band, and Sugar Hill had a great house band so I was like OK that’s how it’s done.” He didn’t worry about how the group’s dynamics might change when they became recording artists; his thoughts were still centred on their stage show and he was happy that he’d have a unique track to play – an instrumental version of the tune for the crew to rhyme over. “It didn’t really threaten me, ’cos I knew when we played live I was gonna be the one that set it off.”
He doesn’t claim to be a producer, but in many ways, he was. Certainly, if you compare his studio role to today’s dance producers – armed only with samples and good musical ideas – there’s no difference. “I was like a point guard,” he says, describing how he’d conduct the whole session. “The band would be in the booth and the MCs would be in the mic booth and for these people who had no idea of how this science works. I’d be like ‘He talks first, he talks second, he talks third, he talks fourth, he talks fifth. Watch it carefully’. I had to teach the room how these MCs do what they do. If any of them slurred a word, no-one else in the room would have known, ’cos the formula was too new to them. I would say, ‘No go back and cut Creole again. Creole in the talk booth, check it, I didn’t hear what you said there. Go back in and punch that part again’.” Describing it as, ‘Looking over. Making sure my crew sound right,’ he emphasises “I baby-sat that record from start to finish to make sure it was the best record it could be.”
It wasn’t until 1981 that Flash got the chance to spotlight his real skills on vinyl. After ‘The Birthday Party’ in 1980, a second track for Sugar Hill, came his landmark track, 1981’s ‘Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’. Seven minutes of quick mix excitement starring a host of the period’s hit tunes, this was the first track made successfully with records and turntables, not session musicians.
“It takes a lot of willpower in a record company situation to do that,” argues Steven Harvey. “For him to dictate what he wanted to do. Most places, they’re going to go, ‘Here’s the track’ and force you to do what they want.”
“At first I didn’t think it was gonna be accepted,” says Flash. “I wouldn’t even know how to ask a record label, ‘Let me make a record with records’.” But Sylvia had seen him battling against bands on the road. “She’d seen that this turntable artistry caused a frenzy.” In a four-day break from touring Flash went into the studio and laid it down. “It took three turntables, two mixers and between 10 and 15 takes to get it right,” he recalls. “It took me three hours. I had to do it live. And whenever I’d mess up I would just refuse to punch. I would just go back to the beginning.”
And how did he react when he heard the playback?
“I was scared. I didn’t think anyone was gonna get it. I thought, they might understand this. DJs’ll probably love it.” ‘Adventures…’ made number 55 in the Billboard R&B chart, and in clubs, both at home and in Europe, the record was huge.
The group’s most famous song remains 1982’s ‘The Message’, which made number four in the R&B chart and number eight in the UK. With it Flash and the Furious were lauded for creating a hugely influential record, hip hop’s first socially charged rap.
“ ‘The Message’ was the announcement that hip hop was gonna be culturally significant,” says Richard Grabel, one of the first journalists to cover the scene. “White rock fans, and certainly white rock critics, have always been content oriented. Up to that point rap hadn’t given them much to write about lyric wise. But now it was doing it. And that’s when all the writers started covering it.”
Ironically, the group resisted doing the record for as long as possible. It had nothing to do with what they did live and it was a complete departure from the hedonistic attitude of the scene.
“While we were on the road Sylvia asked us to consider doing this record,” says Flash. “But the subject matter wasn’t happy. It wasn’t no party shit. It wasn’t even some real street shit.”
‘The Message’ was actually written by percussionist Ed ‘Duke Bootee’ Fletcher, a professional songwriter at Sugarhill. Ironically, despite the song’s enduring ‘voice of the ghetto’ resonance, it was actually composed on a piano in Fletcher’s mother’s basement in the suburbs. His original demo dates back to 1980 and featured him rapping, with music centred around African log-drums. “Doug and Skip and Keith had made a lot of records for Sugar Hill in a similar style and I think they wanted to try something new,” says David Toop. “The lyric was interesting, the feel to it, so they did this experiment with the log drums, this slow African feel.” But Flash argued that this was too slow and funereal. “So what eventually came out was a record very much in the style of System and Jammers and D Train and all those records of that time.”
More than refusing to record it, at first the band actually ridiculed the demo. Flash remembers listening to it on a tour bus and the band spoofing all the words.
“We would laugh at it. This fucking shit is stupid. It’s bullshit.”
They’d get back to the office and Sylvia would ask, “What do you think of the tape?”. “…alright,” would come the non-committal answer.
“Well when d’you think you can do it?”
An even more non-committal “…soon”.
Sylvia made it clear it had to be done; she wanted to record it with Duke Bootee and Mel sharing vocals. Flash pleaded with her to let the whole Five rap on it, but to no avail, Finally Mel laid down the vocals on his own and slipped in some rhymes that he and Raheim had written way back (The ‘child is born’ part at the end). ‘The Message’ propelled hip hop towards 20 years (and counting) of social and political subject matter. But as a record which involved so few of the group, it also propelled Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five towards their break-up.
Stiffed by the black mafia
The hip hop world learnt plenty from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Not least about the ruthlessness of the music industry. Flash and his pals made almost all the mistakes that future generations would learn from.
In 1982 Steven Harvey started researching a piece about them. It would detail their experiences as they left their neighbourhood behind and stepped gingerly into the murk of the music business. He was going to call it ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Industry’. He interviewed Sylvia, he sat down with Flash, he spoke to the Furious Five and to the Sugar Hill musicians. It would have been a powerful portrait of the band. But as Harvey gathered their tales, the project lost all appeal. Here was a group who had once fired his imagination like few others, but now anything he wrote would just be a story of decline.
Sylvia fed him with lurid tales of the band scarfing endless cocaine. Flash was freebasing now, she told him, chasing highs in an effort to stave off the inevitable low of the fall from fame. And the more he learnt about Sugar Hill, the less he wanted to know. On the face of it, here was a hugely successful black-owned company. But its success was built on exploitative contracts and sinister mafia connections (par for the course for an independent American label). In William Knoedelseder’s gripping book ‘Stiffed’ we read that mobbed-up music biz legend Morris Levy controlled Sugar Hill and his mafia chums referred to Joe Robinson as ‘Morris’s nigger’. When CBS considered taking on Sugar Hill’s distribution in 1983, an executive argued against the deal by describing the label as ‘the Black Mafia’.
Harvey had no stomach for picking over the corpse of a crumbling group, nor for detailing the questionable finances of their label. “I just thought, here you have a black-run business and whatever you want to say about them, they’ve done an incredible thing. Am I here to tear them to shreds? Am I here to write about the musicians, who I think are great, as being drug addicts? Am I even here to figure out whether this is even true? I don’t care, honestly, I’m not interested in trashing people.” He never wrote the piece. In fact, all his research demoralised him so much, he gave up writing altogether.
“We we’re just lovers of our craft,” says Flash, “and that’s how we walked through the door: Lovers of our craft, plain and simple. Didn’t know a damn thing about business. We went from being successful to being giants from one record. But one factor was wrong in the whole equation. How the contracts were signed. And how the deal really looked after you realised you just made this serious oops.”
To this day you’ll find Flash and the Five’s back catalogue in any record store, but little of the money – if any – seems to have made it back to the band. Despite the group’s success, Sugar Hill has always maintained that record sales have still not covered their expenses and studio costs. And certainly ownership of their material remains out of their hands. “All I know is we don’t own any of our shit right now,” says Flash with a sigh.
In fairness to the Robinsons, back then it would have been a very radical contract that recognised Flash’s contributions. The notion of a DJ composing music from other music was unprecedented; he wasn’t going to get far claiming songwriting royalties. And on most of the Sugar Hill tracks, he’s absent from the recording. These were songs he’d created for a live show, but when they were captured for vinyl the music was played by a band.
With hindsight, Flash wishes he’d taken more time to learn about business. More than that, he wishes he’d had a mentor, a guide. He thinks of Joey Simmons of Run DMC, who was steered around the sharks by his older brother Russell. Sal Abatiello had offered to manage Flash, something which might have dramatically changed both men’s stories. But Sylvia was having none of it, pushing the group into hurriedly signing their contract (famously on the hood of a car) before they had a chance to seek outside advice. “She would not allow it. She was like, ‘If you don’t take care of it now we’re gonna blow the deal’.” After the success of ‘Rappers’ Delight’, they had little doubt knew this was the label they wanted on their records. “We knew she was the thing. Sugar Hill was the label to fly with.” Sylvia lured them over to her house in Englewood, tempting the kids with the trappings of wealth. “It’s a fucking mansion on a hill,” remembers Flash. “We thought: could we get this? Maybe we could.” Sylvia piled on the pressure to sign the deal. “She was like, “
‘If you don’t sign now…’.” Trapped in Jersey, blinded by the glitter that music had brought Sylvia, Flash and the Furious found themselves on the sharp end of a dilemma: “It was like, do we go across the bridge and take this contract to a lawyer, which might take time, or do we sign now?”
They were kids from the worst part of Bronx. It was a fucking mansion. They signed.
“We were a pretty egotistical type of group,” says Flash. “We knew that wherever we ended up we knew that we could handle it.” But tied in to a contract that did nothing to benefit them, a sense of futility washed over the group. “When we finally got our paperwork analysed and we knew how much of a mess we was in, then things just started breaking up. Everybody went into their own fears. Like shit!! its fucked up it’s fucked up.”
Things were exacerbated by the tensions that the recording process introduced, not least between Flash, who it marginalised, and Mel, who was effectively promoted to the role of frontman. Flash believes Syvia did all she could to drive a wedge between DJ and MCs, calling meetings he knew nothing about, and giving Mel the lion’s share of the band’s meagre royalties. “Me and Mel were the two pillars in the group. If the two pillars of the group can’t support the structure it’s not gonna last.” Sal Abatiello remembers how things affected Flash “He kinda stopped coming around. The Furious Five still came to the club, but I never saw Flash. He was very embarrassed. He wasn’t doing well. There wasn’t a good vibe going on.” Sal recalls how the two friends fell further apart. “You know Mel is a very aggressive guy and Flash is a passive guy. He started becoming a hermit and staying in the house.”
The band had split temporarily before, pre-Sugar Hill, with the MCs going off to record ‘We Rap More Mellow’. Back then things had been patched up pretty amicably. This time, with much more at stake, and with cocaine working its paranoid ways, a final split was inevitable. However hard he fought, the end had arrived. “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was my thing, period,” stresses Flash. “It’s something I took from a thought, and staying in my room all them years and coming up with the musical formula and then hiring these five talented people to compliment it. The whole thing was mine, and I did whatever I could to protect it.”
When Melle Mel recorded ‘White Lines’ (initially put out under Flash’s name), everyone knew it was over.
Young creative energy exploited by the wily old music business. It’s a story as old as money from music. After the dust settled Flash lost it. “I felt, basically. Like shit,” he says. “And I went heavily into a drug thing for a minute. My sister had to come and save me.” Cowboy was not so fortunate, and drugs eventually claimed him, leaving an empty microphone on the stage when the group came together in 1994 for a series of reunion gigs
Now though, Flash refuses to look backwards. “If I did it once I can do it again,’ he says optimistically. ‘So here I am, more vibrant, more visual, I own a house now, a couple of cars. My family’s well. I make money. I’m fine now; I’m in control of my own destiny. And it’s just beginning. It’s all good now.”
Grandmaster Flash. Scientist of the Mix. It’s impossible to imagine how hip hop would have developed without him. Doubtless the same ideas would have been picked up by someone (and there were definitely DJs doing similar things who might have figured things out eventually), but without his determination, vision and ruthless innovation, it might have taken a lot longer for all the elements to emerge.
In his quest to add everything possible to his performance, Flash was relentless. He was the first to do ‘body tricks’ like turning his back to the decks or spinning records with his feet. He is credited with the important idea of punch phasing, where a stab of horns or a lick of vocals is ‘punched in’ from one record over the top of the other.
Flash’s innovations caused the other Bronx DJs to get serious. The big names hurriedly recruited young guns with similar skills. Herc, whose brilliance had never been about mixing, recruited Jay Cee. Bambaataa, whose power rested on the depth of his record collection, found Jazzy Jay and Afrika Islam. Theodore was there, and Charlie Chase from Cold Crush, and D.ST, and gradually a new generation of ‘pause-button’ kids following in their wake.
As Jazzy Jay remembers, with everyone competing to find new breaks and introduce new styles it was an exciting time. “We was always doing something that would catch the crowd’s attention, always doing tricks, backspinning back and forth. Flash would create one style, then Theodore would go and do something else. I would go and do the next thing, we was like in that three, in that tri-circle right there, we were doing our thing. so we was all in that circle of DJs that was getting props for actually inventing the artform known today as scratching.”
Then Flash was on the beatbox – the first to introduce a drum machine to the mix. Given that hip hop’s second wave was all about synthetic beats – with ‘Planet Rock’ giving birth to the wide world of electro and then Run DMC coming along with their booming 808 drum lines, the idea of connecting hip hop and drum machine was pretty visionary.
“There was this drummer who lived on 149th Street and Jackson, I think his name was Stanley,” remembers Flash. “He had this manually operated drum machine and whenever he didn’t feel like hooking up his drums in his room, he would practice on this machine. You couldn’t just press a button and it played, you had to know how to play it. It had a bass key, a snare key, a hi-hat key, a castanet key, a timbale key. And I would always ask him if he ever wanted to get rid of it I would buy it off him. A day came that he wanted to sell it and I gave it a title: beatbox. My flyer person at the time put this on the flyer: “Grandmaster Flash introduces the beatbox. Music with no turntables.""
He didn’t play the machine, a Vox percussion box, over the top of records. “No, what I would do is play it, play it, play it, doomm ah da-da uh-hah. Stop. Zoom. Play in a record. And then, while the MCs was MCing, where you would fade the beat out for a minute, I might switch back to the turntables.” You can hear an approximation of this in ‘Flash To The Beat’, a track they laid down for Sugar Hill. It was a real high part of their performance.
“I stayed in my room for a month. And once I learned how to play it, myself and my MCs made up routines, “Flash is on the beatbox.” So the first time we did it, we didn’t get screams and yells and whatever, It was, “Oh shit! Flash got this new toy.” It probably got back to Bam, it probably got back to Herc, Flash is making music – drum beats – with no turntable.”
Scratching is another innovation which Flash can claim a huge hand in. To some it’s only a little zigga-zigga noise; to others it’s a milestone in music and the root of everything they do. Fevered debates arise around the subject. Who was the first? Who invented it? Who discovered it? We’re now going to set the record straight. Scratching is often attributed to Flash, he conceived of it first and he gets points for showcasing the idea, but it was brought to life by Flash’s student – a young kid called Theodore Livingstone.
Theodore was little brother to Flash’s one-time partner Mean Gene. He became record boy for the duo, spending hours in Downstairs Records, searching for records with breaks for Flash and Gene to play. Little Theo had an amazing talent that would propel him straight to the top division of Bronx DJs. He could find the beginning of a break by eye and drop the needle right on it. Gene hated the idea of his kid brother messing with his decks, but while Gene was out at work, Flash encouraged the little half-pint, instructing him in the ways of the quick mix. For a while (until he and Gene teamed up with a third brother Claudio to become the L Brothers) Theodore DJed as an opening crowd-draw for Flash. Who could resist a little shorty standing on a milk-crate to reach the decks?
And the truth of the scratch? As Theodore happily admits, Flash did have the idea first. In all his lab work there’s no way he could have missed it – there it was zick-zick-zacking its way between the records he was dicing and splicing. He heard it and he knew it was something worth exploring. Problem was, he couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate it into his style. “He had a vision of scratching records,” explains Theodore, “but he couldn’t really present it to the people.” Then one day, with his moms banging on the bedroom door and Ralph McDonald’s ‘Jam On The Groove’ moving under his fingers, Theodore found how to use the fader to bring the scratch to life.
Flash acknowledges Theodore’s role in taming the scratch, but emphasises that it was an extension of the skills which he had already created. “Scratching is actually taking a record and moving it back and forth, that’s where it basically starts. And then it’s only a matter of the rhythm and how do you work the fader. I’d have to say, rearranging a passage of music is mines – cutting, rubbing the record back and forth, But Theodore had a way to put another rhythm on it.” For Flash the scratch was the elusive sound that came as he flitted between records; Theodore saw how to make it his drum. In return the scratch made him the Grand Wizard.
Astonishingly, though he admits he’s a truly horrible rapper, Flash played a key part in forging the art of the MC. Putting together the Furious Five was a crucial move, but Flash was also possibly the first person in hip hop to actually sit down and write a rhyme as opposed to just throwing out stock phrases. Theodore recalls how, while playing with Gene, sick of hearing the same old clichés, Flash took it on himself to progress things.
“He said, “Yo, the only thing you guys say on the mic is ‘Clap your hands and throw your hands in the air, this person over here, that person over there, this person’s in the house, that person’s in the house,’ “ so he wrote a rhyme and tried to get everybody to say the rhyme, but nobody wanted to say it. He actually sat down in a corner, wrote a rhyme and tried to get his MCs to say it. ‘Dip dive, socialize, try to make you realize, that we are qualified to rectify and hypnotize that burning desire to boogie, y’all,’ that’s exactly what he wrote. Couldn’t get anybody to say it, so he got on the microphone and he said it himself.”
“I wonder how he feels to be Grandmaster Flash,” ponders turntablist Rob Swift philosophically, “and to see how he’s influenced so many people like myself, and Cash Money, and everyone who came after him.”
DJs don’t come any more inspiring than Flash. Even putting aside all his technical innovations, the impact he made on the world was huge. He made thousands of kids want to be a DJ. He made records which changed music. And he was the first DJ to be a pop star.
Ours is an age cluttered with famous DJs. Flash was world-famous when most were only children. Back when Flash and the Furious hit the charts, most people were utterly confused by the notion of a DJ who was a performer, let alone a star. “People didn’t know what I did, or thought I was a rapper,” he says.
“We take it for granted now, but the whole idea of performing DJs was just really radical,” says hip hop historian David Toop. “Sampling has become so much part of every pop music that nobody really thinks about it anymore. But at that time, to make music from other people’s records in a creative way was a breakthrough.”
“His band was named after the DJ,” points out Marley Marl. “Grandmaster Flash & The furious Five – the DJ up-front. That’s enough innovation right there.”
Until he saw Flash, New York DJ Johnny Dynell saw DJing as just putting records on. “I never saw it as artistic or creative,” he admits. A DJ on the city’s trendy art-scene through the eighties, Dynell always thought of his visual art as more significant. “But in 1979 I went with a friend to this church basement and I saw this battle, with Grandmaster Flash, Hollywood, all those early guys. And Flash was DJing with his toes. He was scratching, which I'd never heard before. He just rocked my world. They were playing the same records I was playing, like James Brown, but what they were doing was taking two copies and going back and forth and making this new thing out of them. To me, coming from the art world, I thought it was brilliant. I thought, I'm going to have to tell Andy (Warhol) about this. This is incredible. It’s like Marcel Duchamps.”
For the hip hop DJs Flash was always the role model. D.ST (Now DXT), the first DJ to win a grammy, as turntablist on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, recalls how Flash’s every move was scrutinised.
“Certain DJs you went to listen to, others you went to watch. Flash was a DJ you went to watch. People would always watch to see if he’s gonna do something new. ’Cos he’s always gonna do something new.
“I could go to Bambaataas’s party, I don’t need to watch Bam, ’cos I know he’s just gonna play dope records, he’s not gonna do nothing really technical. I know Herc is not gonna do nothing, he’s just gonna play great records. There really wasn’t any DJs of the level of skills that Flash had. Flash was the person, when I saw him I was like: that’s it. When I was at home practising, it was that I was aiming at.”
Even the current generation of master turntablists hold Flash up as a key inspiration. Q-Bert points out that Flash envisaged their new sport of beat-juggling (rearranging records so fast you’re playing with individual drum-beats) long before it was a reality: “I guess he was the first one to cut on-beat, and that’s totally the first beat-jugger right there.”
Roc Raida remembers how seeing Flash on TV was what finally convinced his folks to allow him some decks. “Every second my mom was like ‘Do good in school, don’t bother us about the turntables’. Then there was Flash in the news cutting ‘Freedom’ back to back. And that showed them. That Christmas came around and they bought me turntables.”
It wasn’t just his success that was inspiring. Rob Swift emphasises the grace and mastery with which Flash communicated his craft. “Some DJs you would watch and it was just a guy moving a record back and forth, but then you’d watch Flash and he’d make you connect with what he was doing. There was an artistry to what he did, a feeling. In every art-form you have people who know exactly how to communicate that art-form to you. Whether it’s Bruce Lee with martial arts, or Michael Jordan with basketball. That’s what Flash was, he was one of those people.”
If you want to pick out one thing to represent Flash for your time-capsule, it would have to be his ground-breaking recording ‘Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’.
“He inspired so many with that record alone,” insists Marley Marl. “ ‘Wheels Of Steel’ inspired DJs right around the world to get on those turntables and not let the beat run out.”
Mark Rae of Rae and Christian sums up the record’s impact. “When I heard it I had no idea how it had been made. And that made it all the more amazing. Flash invented sampling before they had the machines to do it. He influenced so many people about scratching. Records like that are as good as it gets. Who makes cut-up tracks of ten pieces of other people’s records now?”
There are few records which actually capture hip hop – a live form – in its pure sense. The earliest records were made with session bands and most of the rest were made by studio trickery – digital sampling and the rest. So they’re only recreations of the real deal. Until recently, aside from a few scratchy sixteenth generation battle tapes, there was little that documented hip hop. That’s why of all the old school records ‘Adventures on The Wheels Of Steel’ remains so important.
Harry Allen calls it hip hop’s ‘Rosetta Stone’. “It’s a record that documents the culture. It’s a record done live. It’s Flash at his peak, doing what he did. It’s not him multitracking it. It’s a record about hip hop culture and how it begins.”
To those who heard it at that time it was a revolutionary moment. Making music from samples is the norm today, but when ‘Adventures…’ came out it had never been done commercially before. It was the first record made from nothing more than other records, a record made by a DJ, the scratch-filled proof that turntables could be real instruments
“It was a moment of real revelation, because it was so different to anything that had gone before,” exclaims David Toop. “It was just like an epiphany. You’d read all these things about hip hop jams but the records were like R&B disco records – they only translated what had gone on. ‘Wheels of Steel’ was actually what had gone on.”
All this is why the album you’re holding album is so important – it’s a continuation of that ground-breaking single. In 1981 Flash made ‘Adventures…’ as a recording of a mix he’d play live. What if he’d been able to make a whole album of his live music? Twenty years later, he has. These are The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash and this unique collection is a document of what actually took place all those years ago. If you had a CD-quality recording straight from Flash’s decks as he rocked 63 Park in the early eighties it would have sounded something like this.
Hip hop has changed almost beyond recognition since ‘back in the day’. Like most American culture it’s been packaged and marketed to within an inch of its life. Thankfully, thanks to underground clubs and independent labels, there’s still a place for phenomenal DJs – there’s still a direct lineage from pioneers like Flash and his peers. Recently, two of today’s finest turntablists, Roc Raida and Q-Bert of the X-ecutioners (formerly the X-Men) were ennobled with titles from their forebears. They’re now Grandmixer Q-Bert and Grandmaster Roc Raida. Turntablism loves its history. Without a sense of the past it’s a cryptic cult of wrist-flicking Jedis; but seen as a continuation of the old school it’s the bearer of the torch, the keeper of the flame of real hip hop. Turntablism looks back to the days when the DJ ruled the roost; when the DJ hired and fired his MCs, when rocking a party took precedent over shipping platinum.
On the other hand, commercial hip hop has no time for history. Just stick beats under some grunts from the latest street-corner icon and watch the dollars roll in. Yet there are huge debts to be paid to the pioneers. As Puff Daddy designs fur coats and coughs his karaoke way to millions, the generation of DJs and MCs who built his world are mostly living very ordinary lives. Many are back in the Bronx neighbourhoods from which their music let them briefly escape, living in apartments decorated like teenage-boys’ bedrooms, full of records, clothes, framed flyers and fading magazine cuttings. Many are still DJing, still cranking, still playing local bars and rocking the house, a tiny few – Jazzy Jay, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmixer DXT make it to Europe as turntablism’s founding fathers. Bambaataa’s eclecticism fits him happily into the international rave circuit. But until he reminded the world he was alive and jumped briefly on some overseas DJing, Kool Herc was weathercoating boats off in Long Island Sound.
Flash himself is more than a survivor. He’s not rich but he’s got a house in the suburbs, with a neatly labelled office and a sheaf of ideas to develop. He’s a regular on radio and TV, cooking up the sounds for the Chris Rock show, and he’s travelling more and more to DJ again.
He rarely has time to dwell on the past – short of thanking God for his talents and pointing out that he’s still got the skills to pay the bills. It’s not that he’s unaware of his legacy. He loves to see the new blades cut it up on the decks, shaving seconds off his four-minute mile: “Just to see them break it down, in between the beat, in between the fly’s ass.” You can see he’s quietly proud that these guys are stretching out skills he patented a quarter of a century ago.
With a smile, he reminds himself:
“You know, I can still do what I could do when I was 21.”
Still fast, still cool.
© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster, 2002
(Originally published as sleevenotes to The True Life Adventures of Flash, on Strut; sections also appear in the book ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’.)
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