By Del F. CowieAlong with DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash is one of the the three founding pioneers of hip-hop culture. His trailblazing style and techniques on turntables have laid the foundation for DJs across the world. With his group the Furious Five, highly influential and game-changing singles such as "The Message" and "White Lines" were recorded, earning the group the first slot allotted for a hip-hop group in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Flash is far from done. After releasing an autobiography last year, he's back with The Bridge, his first album in 20 years, featuring a mix of newcomers alongside veterans such as Q-Tip and Snoop Dogg. Grandmaster Flash took some time out to speak to Exclaim! after returning from a tour of Australia.
You've just come back from an Australian tour. Does it still surprise you that you were one of the primary people responsible for spreading hip-hop culture around the world? [Laughs] It is a blessing it is quite surprising. It is a blessing, Sometimes I sit back and think about it and then I stop thinking about it because it makes me nervous. I'll tell you something, it's worldwide and thinking of the possibilities of that are pretty big.
With the title of your album The Bridge it seems like there is a double meaning going on there? My bridge is international. I've walked across many lands and I look at the bridge figuratively as a connection between the two. That was my connection, from where I come from, to where I went.
Is this what you were trying to achieve on a song like "We Speak Hip-hop"? [ a song where each of the featured MCs rhymes in a different language]. "We Speak Hip-hop" is like my statement of the mirror of what I've seen in my travels and for those that don't know, I'm saying well, here's an example of what I've seen on my travels. I would never have completed this album if I was never able to make a song of that nature, because I've been able to go to different countries and play and some of the opening acts that have opened for me are doing things. And I don't know what he's talking about, but the whole room is going crazy. I'm like "OK, he means something." And I've been blessed to see that quite a bit. I had to put that on this record.
Was it challenging to figure out how to come out with a new record after 20 years? Yeah, it was challenging, but I did this record strictly on vibe 'cos as I was writing the tracks, the tracks were kind of telling me "OK, this feels like Q-Tip" and I would get on the phone and make my staff miserable, like "Find Q-Tip! I need to talk to him, I need to see him!" I always wanted to go to the artists and just say, "hear the track. What do you think? Is this something you would do?" So I had to make the track, find the MC and go from there.
You decided go back to the essence of hip-hop and the breaks on "A tribute to the Breakdancer." [I did that ] to educate people... A lot of you journalist people, when I talk to you, whether it be on a TV show or doing radio, doing an interview as you and I are doing... the first thing you guys always say is "Let's talk about the '80s" and that saddens me because hip-hop started in the '70s. Y'know, so a tribute to the breakdancer is a representation of an idea of what the '70s was. The beat, y'know and the things that took place. The '80s is a good reference point but it's sorta like the middle. I look at the '70s as the head if you're looking at a human. And the '80s, and '90s became the body and the 2000s became the legs, because it's so big and strong now. But if it doesn't have the head, this body's walking around headless. And that's what the '70s are. They're the head of this whole thing. They're the brains of the whole thing.
Touching on your autobiography, being a DJ seems to mean something more to you than just playing records. It's almost something that's spiritual. Can you speak on that? Yeah it's spiritual and social science. When I was introduced to vinyl I was a toddler and my father used to beat my ass over and over again for touching it. In a reverse sort of way I learned to respect what the vinyl was, so when I became a teenager and I was doing my electronics thing, because I was a scientist first, y'know, and then I was able to look at these people, these very special people that handled two turntables and a mixer and I watched them and I'm sayin', "Oh this is something that I would like to do." Because the way they used to do it, was based on just lifting the tone arm but you got to remember the break at that time was within a pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, R&B song and a lot of times the drummer got two bars and then it would go back into the rock part. That right there is probably the most frustrating part of it all and it's why I came up with the science. And when I decided to literally take my fingers and touch the vinyl and move it in a backward and forward motion or to repeat the break and move the record in a counter-clockwise direction to re-arrive to the top of the break, this was so important in the whole thing. So, to make the bed so the MC could rap. All of this is a science. It's not thrown together, this is no mistake.