Grandmaster Flash Is Still Rockin’ On the Wheels of Steel

The birth of hip-hop is said to have taken place at some point in the early ’70s, more specifically at a birthday party in the Bronx where a young Clive Campell (aka DJ Kool Herc) could be heard making magic happen on the 1s and 2s. Other pioneers of the movement include Afrika Bambaataa, The Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis Blow, but no one embraced this new style of music quite like Joseph Sadler, also known as Grandmaster Flash.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, he says, “The Bronx created it. We all played a part. Herc was first, the founder. Then Bam had the most selections. And I just came up with a way to deliver the music, technically speaking.” Coming from a background filled with ideas of math and science, Flash was able to look at the inner workings of hip-hop with a more critical eye, developing and/or perfecting three techniques that are, by many DJs, still considered relevant today: the backspin technique, punch phrasing and scratching.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, cementing the genre’s rightful place in music history. These days, so-called fans can be heard complaining that “hip-hop is dead,” but that is not the case. Maybe rap songs that can currently be heard on the radio aren’t what old school heads are interested in hearing these days, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists/DJs working to carry on the legacy, such as A-F-R-O and the nine-year old female phenomenon out of DC, DJ Kool Flash (whose name was inspired by the man himself).

And this past Friday night, hip-hop sounded alive and well when Grandmaster Flash dropped some current tracks inside his set at House of Yes in Brooklyn, along with classic hits like Michael Jackson’s “Blame It On The Boogie” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble was able to speak with the legend just before he took the stage about his role in the pages of hip-hop history and how he’s hoping “The Get Down” will enlighten future fans.

What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?

My earliest memory is perhaps being an architect and not realizing I was being an architect. I think – how do I say this? This lovely culture we call hip-hop has come a long, long, long, long way. And, as far as technology is concerned, you know, hindsight, what we did, we did with absolutely nothing: no computers, no studio, no equipment, no samplers, no nothing.

So, pretty much, my first memory is being a scientist probably because that’s when it was more…being one of the architects of this culture, I did it with math and science. So, that’s probably my biggest memory of it.

How did growing up in the Bronx influence your decision to pursue DJing full-time?

I don’t know if it influenced me, it’s just that what I was seeing in my landscape, as far as DJing was concerned, I was very unhappy with what I was seeing. And I noticed that with each particular composition, the most exciting part of the song was when the least band members was playing. So, when it was just the drummer, but unjustifiably, that particular part of the song was always too short.

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So, in my anger and in my frustration as a kid, is when I said to myself, “I’m going to come up with a system that’s going to allow that particular section, which is ten seconds, and make it seamlessly ten minutes.” Today they would call it “turntablism” or the beginnings of what we call “rap” by extending the bed. So, that’s pretty much it.

Do you recall the first record you ever purchased?

I think the majority of the records that were in my early collection…I used to go to people’s houses. Back then, hip-hop was more like a village. Everybody knew everybody. So, I became very popular with their parents. When I would go for dinner or whatever, hanging out, I would say, “Oh, by the way, Mrs. Williams” you know, their moms or whatever, “would you happen to have any records that you want to throw away?”

And that’s when my collection really started because I was too poor to buy records. At this particular time, I didn’t have a job. I was going to school. It wasn’t until later on that I started buying records. My first record that I bought, I can’t even remember.

What are your thoughts on the majority of DJs transitioning from analog to digital?

I have to say, I was last man standing being the inventor of the analog world. So, as a scientist, I was happy, but as the inventor, I was like, “Hell no. I’m not doing that. I’m not changing that.” But it became a blessing because now, I can carry 100,000 records inside this little box called a hard drive.

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So, that means I can serve many genres of people in as many countries that I go to where it would have been me having to hire ten to fifteen people to bring thirty or forty crates of albums to a particular country.

I probably still would have been doing it today, but the promoters are like, “Fuck that. We ain’t paying for that.” So, you know, I had to just change that pretty much.

Can you share with those unfamiliar with your techniques about your famous quick-mix theory?

I came up with a formula, and the formula is this: 4BF=6CCR, meaning that for every four bars of music that passes, in order to re-arrive to the top of the break, you must take the vinyl, you must spin it counterclockwise six times to re-arrive to the top of the break. And this theory made the tonearm useless. So, every DJ you see putting their hand on the record and repeating a part over and over and over again, this is my science that I did in ’71.

So, I prefer showing it because I try to explain it so much, and because I come from a math and science perspective, it’s really difficult to explain it. But I did do something with me, Melissa and Frank. We did something on Hot97 where I was able to kind of show how it works and how people can really understand why I say it’s the birth of turntablism and why I say that it’s birth of what we know today as rap. It’s because of these figures and these computations that I was coming up with when I was a kid.

How did you come to be involved with “The Get Down” series on Netflix?

I got a call from the office, and there was a gentleman with an Australian accent who left a message saying,“I would like Flash to assist me on putting together this TV series.” Now, mind you, I have been getting people asking me to do stuff like this and wanting to know about this 70s knowledge for a long time, but I always held it close to my chest.

But for some reason, when I met with this gentleman, Baz, you know, I looked him dead in his face and I said to him, “Why should I give you these secrets? Why should I give you this knowledge?” He looked at me and said, “Flash, you guys did something so big with so little. Please give me a chance to film this, so that people can really understand where this thing truly came from.” So, I looked him in his face, and we went out a couple of times, and we got cool together, did the deal, and then we took eighteen months to do that first half.

nieto_dickens_grandmaster_2016_30_webAnd right now, we’re just in the process of doing the second half, which is going to come out early ’17. So, what’s really good to know is, Netflix and Sony – they kind of were like, “What is this thing?” But as it was peaking, and as this thing was coming together, the final verdict was, “We’re going to distribute this program in 190 countries in 35 different languages.”

So, this science of the ‘70s now, the world knows what it is. It’s a sigh of relief. It’s [exhales] finally, you know, what we’ve done is recognized now, so it’s a pretty cool thing.