They were the first rap lyrics to be featured on a Number One song. And while they played a part in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ topping the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1981, it was actually a DJ from the South Bronx who would benefit from them the most. “Who is Flash?” people all over the world would ask. And it wasn’t long before they would find out.
While Debbie Harry’s endorsement of Grandmaster Flash was welcome, it didn’t really play much of a role in his success – it was just a great bit of promotion. An musical and technical innovator (aside from perfecting the skill of scratching on record following its introduction by Grand Wizzard Theodore and discovering many of the iconic beats still sampled today by contemporary rap artists) Flash is also credited with enhancing the art of using two pieces of vinyl to extend the break on a record, and introducing it to a wider audience.
Oh yeah, and let’s not forget he had this minor hit, ‘The Message’, with his group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. You might have heard of it.
Fast forward to now and Flash is an icon. The first hip-hop act ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he took two turntables and a mixer turned them into an instrument – transforming popular music forever. Woven into the very fabric of hip-hop culture as one of its forefathers, it’s fair to say that if you looked up ‘hip-hop’ in a dictionary you’d probably find a picture of Flash’s face.
Like New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, Flash isn’t letting age dictate when he should hang it up. He might be in his ’60s, but he’s undoubtedly still at the top of his game. He continues to tour the world with his new live show, ‘Hip Hop: People, Places & Things’, he had his story shared as part of Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, and this year he was named as one of the recipients of the Polar Music Prize, which will be presented to him by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in June.
Speaking to NME, the legendary DJ discusses how the role of the DJ has changed, the advancements in musical technology and he explains why it’s necessary to educate the masses through music.
If we’re to use the flyer for DJ Kool Herc’s ‘Back To School Jam’ as a reference point, hip-hop turns 46 years old in August of this year. Does it feel like it’s that old to you?
Grandmaster Flash: “It’s been 40 plus years for me, and I can say that I’m blessed to be one of the builders of the culture. I’ve seen almost every allowable country on the planet more than 10 times so I’m really good.”
You’re currently touring a new live show that sets out to educate as well as entertain. Can you tell us about it?
“It’s a visual show that shows the mecca of where hip-hop started, because a lot of times I have to talk to people, talk to journalists, and I try to verbally explain it to them and they’re staring at me and I can slowly feel their eyes going up in their head as if they don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. So I had to put together a visual presentation. It’s called ‘Hip Hop: People, Places & Things’. It’s pretty cool, man.
Where did the initial inspiration for the show come from?
“It was something born out of my frustration of trying to explain the history. That’s why I sought out my team and some outside consultants to help put it together. We took like a year and a half to shoot the Five Boroughs, shoot places that are monumental, like where Jay-Z comes from, where Flash comes from, where Biggie comes from. So I got some of the key people from their humble beginnings and we shot all five boroughs of New York. And I sort of found a way – with the help of technology – to integrate old school into technology and then cutting and scratching so a city, a place and the music could match, so to speak.
“I think it’s critically important that we talk about where things come from because journalists now are stating critically that this is the biggest music on the planet. So it had to have a beginning. The kids don’t know that though.”
And that’s important. A lot of kids today don’t understand that hip-hop is a culture and that there are multiple elements that make it up. Rap might be the music but there’s more to it than that.
“Yes, rap is the music. But it’s also the DJing, the breakdancing, the graffiti artists and the MC’ing. There’s four parts to the whole culture that built this. But if they’re a business they take what they need. But the fact of the matter is there are four pillars that hold this whole thing up, ever since the 70s.
“I find it critically necessary to show people where this thing comes from because if you grew up on pop, or rock, or jazz, or blues, or funk, or disco, R&B, alternative or Caribbean, your parents would instil that in you. Like, who’s Bob Marley? Who’s Miles Davis? Who are the Rolling Stones? You would know that. But hip-hop has always had somewhat of a misunderstood beginning. So there’s actually not enough of me out here so I’m just pretty much doing the best that I can.”
Who else do you think is doing what you’re doing by educating, if any?
“I think [Jazzy] Jeff is, musically. But I’d like to see a Herc out here. Or [Afrika] Bambaataa. Herc and Bam should be out here more because everything else is a story of a story. The story begins with Flash, Bam and Herc, so the three of us need to be out here.”
We saw a lot of your story in The Get Down but is there ever going to be a Grandmaster Flash movie?
“I’ve been asked. So we’ll see, it’s early. We’ll see. I’ll leave it right there.”
What about a follow-up to your 2006 book, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats?
“Yeah, there’s one that’s been offered to me but I got my lawyers, my management and my team looking at that. We’ll see. I’m working on a new record too.”
Oh, there’s a new record coming?
“Yeah, I’m working on that. That right there I am working on. We’ll see.”
Let’s talk abut sampling. Sampling became an integral part of hip-hop in the ’80s but you were doing it live before that, right?
“I was human sampling by looping a part over and over again. Sampling didn’t come into play until 10 years later, when production came into play. So in the ’70s I was picking a part and using duplicates copies of the same record and manually looping that part. So that 10 second part would seamlessly become 10 minutes. Sampling had not come into our culture until around the late ’70s/early ’80s. You had to know how to DJ to elongate that part for the breakdancers. And lastly, when the rappers showed up in the culture, they needed a clean bed of music to speak on and that’s when I invented this thing.”
So there’s been a heavy focus on sampling over the last few years with a lot of lawsuits coming into play, namely the case involving Mavin Gaye, Robin Thicke and Pharrell. Where do you think the line should be drawn in regards to being inspired and directly ripping a piece of music?
“I don’t wanna answer that question because I don’t know, I can’t say. All I do know is if you use the music, you pay for it. But I know there’s been somewhat of a battle between what is what. You know what I mean? I love Pharrell, I love everything that he does but I also love Marvin Gaye. I just couldn’t tell you.”
Technology has obviously played a big part in the advancement of music. What are some of the things you like and don’t like about the advancements of technology when it comes to DJing?
“I’m a scientist, I like it all. I just think, quite frankly, if you’re gonna learn how to drive then you should know how to drive stick first, just like with records. Then the modern version of it would be easier. But then there are those that never DJ’d with vinyl. You know? I think when you DJ with vinyl you have to know who Jay-Z is. You have to know who Queen are. You have to know who the Incredible Bongo Band are. You have to know all these things because you have to competitively put together a set from different genres of music to please the people that are in front of you. So if you come from that time there you become more knowledgeable, I think.”
During hip-hop’s infancy, the DJ used to be the star, but then once MCs came onto the scene the DJ, in most cases, took a backseat. Do you think the role of the DJ has changed?
“That’s fine. But I never had that problem because I’m one of the inventors. I didn’t have that trouble. But anything that is loved will go through changes. It will go metaphorically through changes, things will happen, things will split off, things will join. It is what it is. I know right now you see very few DJs with a rapper today. It is what it is. And vice versa. A lot of these new kids don’t bring a DJ with them.”
So if we’re saying hip-hop turns 46 later this year, how far do you see it going, because we’re guessing you’re going to be doing it until the day you die?
“Maybe. This is how I live, man. Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery. All we have is right now. So I ain’t gonna dare try and play God and think I know tomorrow. I don’t have a clue. I do the best with whatever I do whenever I walk into a room. I try and please all of the people in front of me and that’s why I play the way that I play. I play all of the genres of music, depending on who is in front of me. That’s pretty much how I think. Other than that I can’t judge how another person plays or why they play this way, or why they play that way.”
And you still love it, right?
“I do it because I love it. I love pleasing people. This is my gift from God. That’s it.”