One of hip-hop's most important musical innovators, Grandmaster Flash laid the groundwork for a generation of cut-crazy DJs to mimic. A maestro of the quick cut, as well as the scratch, he took the funkiest fragments of '60s and '70s soul records and interwove them into fluid jams that got audiences pleading for the downbeat.
Grandmaster Flash (aka Joseph Saddler) began his experimentation with the decks in the late '70s while studying electronics at a New York City technical school. Around the time he began toying with techniques such as cutting, backspinning and phasing, he hooked up with a group of MCs that became known as the Furious Five — Cowboy, Kid Creole, Melle Mel, Mr. Ness and Rahiem — and began rocking parties across the Bronx. Between 1981 and 1983, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five recorded classics such as “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” “The Message” and “White Lines,” which, in addition to showcasing Flash's ground-breaking turntable skills, preached against inner-city ills such as drugs and poverty.
Although he was out of the public eye during the late '80s and much of the '90s, Flash returned to the studio, the radio and the road thanks to a steadily growing appreciation of rap history. His most recent album, Essential Mix: Classic Edition (FFRR/Essential, 2002), is a nonstop lesson on hip-hop's roots, flowing through standards including Blondie's “Rapture,” James Brown's “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” and Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock.” In addition to holding DJ spots on New York City's KISS 98.7 and Sirius satellite radio, Flash is helping Rane develop a new DJ mixer called the Empath, which Rane and Flash hope to unveil at the DJ Expo in Atlantic City, N.J., this August.
Always a technology buff, Flash has kept a close eye on computer-related advances in music-making. “From a hip-hop perspective, I hope that people will only use modern technology for producing a record and keep it away from the stage,” says Flash. “I love modern technology, but let's not use a DAT, let's use a DJ. I've got a real big problem with an MC that's just lip-synching to an instrumental track from a DAT.”
Fresh from a 19-city, sold-out European tour, Flash is a testament that a stripped-down performance can still rock a crowd. “Two turntables and a mixer, that's it,” says Flash of his onstage equipment. “If the record skips, if I slip a cut and it comes out a little fucked up for a couple of seconds, that's how it is. It's real.”
Remix caught up with Flash on his first day back in the country at Fat Beats, a renowned hip-hop vinyl shop in Manhattan's West Village. His library already stocked with thousands of old-school records that he has collected throughout the years and new records compliments of record companies trying to get play on his radio shows, Flash flies through the aisles, pointing and saying things like, “Got that,” “That's hot” or “Need an extra copy of that.” “I have money to buy records, but I get so much love,” says Flash. “I'm walking down the street, and somebody is shoving a record under my arm, like ‘Flash, listen to this.’ ‘Flash, take this.’ ‘Flash, I want you to hear this.’ Record companies call me, ‘Flash, what you need?’ It's just basic love.
“I still do my shopping for the niche records, the party breaks,” he continues. “But here is the sad thing: There are so few of these record shops around any more. I run into lots of problems where [stores] will say, ‘We got it, Flash, but it's only on CD.’ I ain't got no problem with a CD DJ, but I can't be that. I need to touch the wax. Sometimes I'm calling around, begging, screaming, ‘Somebody get me this goddamn record!’ Sometimes I find it on vinyl; sometimes I can't.”
When Flash arrives at the Fat Beats cash register, the clerk gives him a homeboy handshake and offers up a “legend's discount.” Here are a few records he purchased, along with some others he just had to shout out:
“Give It Up or Turn It Loose” (Polydor)
He is almost rapping on this song; to me, he's not really singing. The combination of the track and what he is saying is really, really incredible.
“Pass the Courvoisier” (Elektra)
Busta just continues to be extremely clever with the way he handles the track. Although it's a vocal composition, the song almost feels like a breakbeat. When I play it, I approach it like a breakbeat. It's a joy to play, as well as a joy for the audience in the club.
“Tear Da Roof Off” (Elektra)
Flow. He's not saying a whole lot of anything, but it's just the way he's saying it. The beat is the bomb. He locks right into the whole rhythm of the track. And what it does to the human body when it's heard — the crowd just goes into this bunny-hop thing, which is really cool. When I play it, I play it as a transition from one record to the next: “Bounce baby, bounce baby, bounce baby, bounce …”
“Oh Boy” (Roc-a-Fella)
I'm appreciative of the production. They sort of reinvented the Rose Royce sample [from “Ooh Boy”] and put it to a call-and-response, sort of rapper versus the track thing. It's real clever, and I like the lyrical content. Cam'ron has been off the scene for a while, and for him to re-emerge with this clever style, I'm really happy about that.
“We Ain't Going out Like That” (Ruffhouse)
It's just bang, bang, bang, bangin'. I've been looking for this joint for the last five or six years. I just love Muggs' production style — nobody does what he does. Their rhyme style and hooks are so catchy. The audience loves singing all their songs. I bring the volume down, and boom, the crowd's coming back at me with the vocals. I'm with that, 'cause I'm the type of DJ that loves to connect with the audience. I don't wanna play at them. I wanna play with them.
“Gangstas Don't Cry” (Memnoch Records)
It's good to hear Just-Ice on a record. It's been a long time coming. He's a good, close friend of mine, and to hear him flow like this is kinda interesting. The beat, which was done by DJ Premier, who produced this, is incredible.
“It's All About the Benjamins” (BMG)
This is probably one of my favorites of newer music. The guitar is just so powerfully hypnotic. I like the sparse bass line. It was a reintroduction to me to another style of lyrical delivery.
A Tribe Called Quest
“Check the Rhime,” “Award Tour” (Jive)
My “Check the Rhime” got cracked during the transportation over to the UK, and “Award Tour” was kinda worn out a little bit. Wherever you go around the world, people feel Tribe. There are certain records for a DJ that are called floor-savers. A floor-saver is like a Biggie, a Jay-Z, a DMX, a Mary J. Blige or A Tribe Called Quest. Trying to play new records is risky, because what it took you two hours to build on the dancefloor, you can lose in two seconds. You gotta quickly get the floor back. What separates the boys from the men is how you use your floor-savers.
The Whole Darn Family
“Seven Minutes of Funk” (Alpha Omega)
I enjoy this song because it's survived the test of time. I've been playing it for almost 20 years. Everywhere that I play it, it still gets an incredible reaction. It's got a funk feel to it, but also a jazz feel. It doesn't have a vocal, which I like.
Check outwww.grandmasterflash.comfor more info about Grandmaster Flash.