Along 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.
You've probably been asked this thousands of times, but can you clear up the issue of scratching. Grand Wizard Theodore is often credited with inventing scratching and it is often said that you refined scratching. But it's a little foggy for a lot of people, let's be clear
[Laughs] You want me to clear it up?
If you could, clear it up.
Ok, I watched a lot of DJs picking up the tone arm in finding the desired section of the record. But if you've ever looked at a [piece of] vinyl you will see that it's millions of tunnels , millions of areas and the chances of you being able to drop it right back on that same part that you really want to hear, is slim to none. So for me that was the best part of the record and it was unjustifiably too short. So for me I watched many DJs. I watched, I watched, I watched and I noticed how DJs handled their records. They had velvet cloths and brushes, and [took] really good care of it and put it into the jacket carefully, that kind of intrigued me. Why are they doing that? For me, for the type of record I was playing I had to figure out a way to control time. That was the thesis: control time. So watching all the many DJs, I [knew] that it was taboo to play the way that I was thinking, because the DJs never touched the vinyl of the record. It wasn't until that I said to myself I need to take this particular passage, which is extremely too short and make this the body of the whole and make this the sound thesis. It wasn't until I put a record on and left the tone arm down and put I put my fingertips down and then I stopped it. [imitates the sound of a vinyl record stopping abrubtly] and then I moved it [makes sound again] back [makes the sound again]. From that point on, taking my two fingertips, my forefingers and touching the vinyl while it was spinning and having control of it was like, the biggest light bulb ever. Second problem was, when you buy a turntable you get that big heavy piece of rubber - I noticed that when I stopped the record and then when I tried to let it go, [makes sound of record starting up again slowly], it would take a while to pick up, so I said I have a problem here. So what I did was, I had to think about something that would make the record move all fluid. So what I did was, I took the record and went to a fabric store in my neighbourhood and I just looked at countless fibres, polyester, silk and then I touched this material that I used to use in arts and crafts and it was called felt. So what I did, I asked the lady to cut me two pieces of this felt to the size of the disc. I took this home and I tried it again I had more fluidity but I still had a problem because it would bunch up when I moved the record back and forth so what I had to do was when my mother wasn't looking I would use her starch. I turned the iron all the way up to hot and take these two pieces of felt and iron them on both sides until they turn into a wafer. Now when I move the record back and forth, I would have the fluidity that I needed, but at the same time the platter would continue to spin in a forward direction. Once I was able to do this, then I came up with the clock theory.
The clock theory is being able to take a crayon or a pencil and mark the neighbourhood where the break lives and that was the circular break. But then at the intro of the circular break I would make a mark, cutting across the circular break and this is where the arrival of the break started. So now what I was able to do is look at the line and you gotta imagine in your head now I have a circle on the break and then a mark going through it, and I would watch how many times it passed the tone arm. One, two, three, four and then it would go into the wack part. So I have to be able to wind this record in a counter-clockwise direction four times. One, two, three, four and if I rub I should be back at the top of the break. Now that I did this, I was able to take drumbeats that were real short like "Ain't it Funky Now" by James Brown with a drum break at the end and it's only two bars. Now I can take Clyde Stubblefield from James Brown's band and [imitates the "Funky Drummer" loop]. I could just go for days if I want, now that if figured out a way to manually edit it, but I had to break the rules and the laws of DJing, which is physically taking my hands and putting it on the record. That's why I tell people I'm the first DJ to make the record dirty.
So now what I did was I ran into somebody who had equipment, his equipment is a little better than mine and I made it clear my sound system was extremely shitty and it was a guy by the name of Gene Livingston... His mom was a lot cooler than mine and she would allow him to play music until two in the morning. She was just so cool. So we joined our sound systems together. And I said Gene "I want you to watch me, 'cos I tried teaching my two DJs, E-Z Mike and Disco Bee this new science. They couldn't understand it." So I said "Gene, watch what I'm doing, watch the way I'm repeating it watch the way I am percussifying the break. We're gonna do this and we're gonna beat Kool Herc." Because Kool Herc was the man to beat. I said we're gonna do this and we're gonna become kings, we're gonna become kings like Kool Herc is, that was what my thinking was. And Mean Gene could not figure this out. His hands were sloppy, his hands were big, but every time I would go to Mean Gene's house there was this little kid in the living room. And how I would repeat a break by winding the disc backwards, he could pick the tone arm up and drop it off on the break! With one turntable, his mother's turntable in the living room. I'm saying Gene, Who's that right there. He's like, "Yeah that's my little brother." I'm like "Oh, can I show him?" And mind you Mean Gene was the bully of the block. Like if there was any fights going on, if you would push through the crowd. It would be his crazy ass in there beating somebody's ass, so you didn't really want to have any problems with Mean Gene. So he was like "If I catch my little brother on my fuckin' set, it's gonna be me and you." I'm like "Come on man." And he's like "I don't want my fuckin little brother touching my shit. He's not even allowed in my room."
So Gene had an afternoon job and when he would go to work, I would say to his baby brother [whispers] "Yo, come here" and I would get a milkcrate and I would ask him to stand on a milkcrate. I would do something first and I would ask him to emulate what I was doing. And we kept this shit quiet for a long time because I did not want any problems with his big brother. After a period of time I just decided to just face Gene and say "I'm not gonna fuckin lie to you, I've been teaching your brother this shit man. I know youre gonna be mad at me and the whole shit man, but watch what he do." And when he saw what his little brother could do, I said we needed to bring him out to the block parties with us. Because if motherfuckers can't understand what it is I'm doing then DJs have to be embarrassed enough to see this little kid do it. And that was a rep that we needed. I'm trying to beat Kool Herc, keep this in mind. So I go on do what I do, people get confused, but then I would bring up the milkcrate and let this little boy get on it and get busy. That shit brought so much attention because he was a baby. He was Theodore. so it was our secret formula all the time, so I ain't taking away anything that he said he did, but touching the vinyl with your hands, moving it in a backward and forward motion or moving it in a counter-clockwise direction, he had seen that from me. I was his mentor. Whether he decided to move the record and make the sound, sound different because there's so many ways in which you can make the sound sound different, you can rub it back and forth, you can transform it, you can crab scratch it, there are so many things you can do, but the basics of what you do here I had already created. Did he add to that? That's the question. Did Jazzy Jeff add to that? Did Q-Bert add to that? It goes on and on and on. All these DJs are super DJs, but the basics of what this is, nobody in the world was doing it. That's why I say that I'm the first DJ to make the turntable an instrument and that's why I say that and that's why I can stand behind it with anybody that says anything... Theo's my baby boy, so whatever he's done, he's done and I know what I've done and that's that.
Another historical thing you were a part of obviously was the Furious Five. I don't want to single out any particular MCs, but I believe it was Keith Cowboy in particular who made up a lot of phrases people use today. Like he came up with the phrase "Throw your hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care," right?
Right. Me and Cowboy. When I got Cowboy, like when I first came up with the science and I was playing in the parks. My thinking was if I just play a drum breakdown of this pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, punk, R&B. If I just played a drum breakdown one behind another, I'm gonna have the crowd into a frenzy. I've never thought that in my wildest dreams that I would just have a thousand people just staring at me. That was the most heartbreaking. People were like "what is it that he's doing and how is he doing it and why?" People started pushing past the barriers trying to see what I was doing. But my idea was you fuckin' guys should be rockin' right now! Why are you pushing past the barriers trying to watch what I do? And that's where Cowboy came in, 'cos I used to put people, I used to give people a microphone on the edge of the table and anybody that could vocalize to this newfound way of DJing and see what happens and many people failed. But when Keith got on the mic, he just would... a lot of his rhymes were fairy tale rhymes or I call them aerobicizing types of rhymes but for some reason he got the people's attention off of me, which is what I wanted and he used to have the crowd do things. I'm like "oh! shit" so now I got somebody who can get people stop looking at me and get the crowd moving and Cowboy was just so great at that. Even after I got the five MCs I would save all my best breaks at the end of the night for Cowboy because of what he would do. I wouldn't play "Apache" 'til late. I wouldn't play Bob James until late. I wouldn't play "Seven minutes of funk" until late. Because you know MCs take a break sometimes and go into the crowd for like a half an hour or an hour and it would just be me Disco Bee and E-Z Mike, which is cool, we take a break. But when Cowboy was coming back it was time to put the bullets in the gun because we were getting ready to go there. Cowboy was the best that ever did it when it came to getting a crowd going totally crazy. He was very, very special at that. And his rhymes were fairytale, "Throw your hands in the air, to the rock, rock, rock the rock rock rock." He used to say one word and the crowd would respond back. It was just this thing this magic that he had with an audience.
Do you have any ambivalence to "The Message or "White Lines"? Because while you were a producer you were often frozen out by the label creatively when it came to making those songs.
The only problem with "[White] Lines" and "The Message" is that let's say me and you start something and it becomes a phenomenon in the streets. Then, the corporate world wants us. Right now, we getting ready to go to the top of the mountain. As the deal's getting ready to close, I tell you that I don't need you anymore. Um, it's okay. I'm going to the top of the mountain by myself. That there, it's been misprinted so much, that was the most hurtful thing for me because I know for a fact that "[White] Lines" and "The Message" could have been recorded by all five of my MCs. Because we had been heard as five MCs on so many records already. So it would have not been weird for us to break the story down into five people. So for the record company to ask for that and for Melvin to agree to that - it blew me away. What you got to understand is - this is my baby. Those were my friends and if they are killing them in the streets, "Oh, this is gonna be a piece of cake on record." So I couldn't handle one MC on a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five record, I couldn't handle it and I had seen my own template, my whole science fall apart in front of my eyes because of power and money. And the love for it, which it had initially came from was literally being torn apart in front of me in the name of business and that's what caused me to go into depression, fucking around with cocaine and things and buggin out like I did, because you gotta realize, like that was my everything. And I think for the mark that we made, it's sad that when you think about Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five today, for most people, all you know is Flash and [Melle] Mel. On some of our biggest songs, you don't know [Keith] Cowboy, you don't know Kid Creole, and you don't know Rahiem and you don't know Scorpio. But everybody else who made big songs in this game like Run-DMC, like you know all the members and that's how I would have wanted us to go down in history. Every one of us. That was my biggest problem with taking songs like that and putting one member on it. This is my child and I fought for it, and people called me all types of a crackhead and we don't need him because he doesn't rhyme and he doesn't need to come to the meetings he can stay home. After a while I wasn't going to the meetings but members of the group were saying "Flash! Why you didn't show up today?" "Show up for what?" "The meeting." "I wasn't called!" "Oh, wow!" and after a while it became divide and conquer.
So I was really in a situation that really had me fucked. Making history but realizing I was being fucked at the same time was kinda hard to deal with. Y'know, hero to the streets, hero to the world, but just realizing you're getting fucked at the same time. It wasn't easy, so that was probably the painful part of the whole thing. We were all supposed to go down in history equally and that's the way it should be... I'm a strong believer in faith, I'm a strong believer in what I do, I'm in love with what I do that's why I still do it. Strictly love. Strictly love and love has peaks and valleys. Some days are not good days, some days are incredible days, it's love. And that's why I was able to do what I did and I had to write that book just to let that pain go, so I could do The Bridge. Sometimes we keep our skeletons with us, but sometimes our skeletons don't allow us to go to the next steps. I had to let my skeletons go. So, my drug problems, my family problems and my business problems. All that ain't my problem anymore. You guys got the book - now it's your problem, not mine anymore. You wanna call me a crackhead, yeah I used to be that. You want to call me an asshole or say you got fucked on a record deal, I'll say yes, it's in my book. Yes I did so? I don't have any skeletons now. It's almost like a new lease on life and I can just do what I do. And here comes The Bridge and I'm talking to you, you're in Canada and I'm in New York. It's all good.