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Grandmaster Flash invented hip-hop and DJ culture in America. He was the first to . . . ah, hell, let him tell you about it in this interview, just like I did. After founding Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and then struggling to hang on to his original creation, Flash (born Joseph Saddler) dropped out of sight for a long time-but now he’s back, and more iconic than ever. The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, his amazing mix CD on Strut Records, dropped earlier this year, and it’s now followed up by another crucial disc. Grandmaster Flash: Essential Mix Classic Edition (Essential/FFrr) is 57 minutes of straight-up Flash mix, the way he would have done it back in the early ‘80s; it veers from Maze and James Brown to Afrika Bambaata and Blondie (yes, he put the Flash in “Flash is fast / Flash is cool” in “Rapture”). He’s still got it-and he still talks really really fast. We did a phoner with him in late May.



PopMatters:

I just want to get the hero-worship thing out of the way. I first read about “The Message” in Rolling Stone when I was going to high school in rural Oregon. The only rap I’d ever heard was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, and I just thought it was disco with people talking on it—



Grandmanster Flash:

[Laughs]



PM:

But when I heard about “The Message”, I got interested in hip-hop for the first time, and then when I heard it, I was hooked forever. It was amazing.



GF:

Thanks.



PM:

Now, I don’t want to spend the whole time here on the past—



GF:

Good!



PM:

But let’s do some history work for our readers who might not know the whole real story. It’s New York in the ‘70s. Kool Herc had the great records, Pete DJ Jones had the flow, and in walks Joseph Saddler.



GF:

That’s right. Kool Herc had the music and the system, but I noticed that what would happen was that he’d play and everyone would be out there dancing, and then when that was done he’d just put on another record, and then another—there was no transition, no smoothness. And then you had Pete DJ Jones. He was more from the disco crowd, but he had a smoother flow, records would blend into each other. I studied him and noticed something: during the instrumental rhythm sections, people would go crazy! It was like he’d play the whole sandwich, but what people really wanted was the meat of the sandwich—which was usually very short, maybe just five seconds even. So I had to figure out a way to play just the meat of the sandwich.



PM:

Hence, the Quick Mix Theory.



GF:

Yeah. The Quick Mix Theory was a system for taking two records and manipulating them back and forth so that I could just keep that instrumental break going for maybe 45 seconds, and then more.



PM:

And that’s hip-hop, right there. You’ve come up with a lot of technical innovations that people might not even know about.



GF:

Well, the thing is that I’ve done some things in my time that have overwhelmed all that. It was like founding Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: Joseph Saddler decided to sit in the back. But I’m coming back now! See, before this DJ thing I was hopelessly taking things apart to try to figure out how they worked. I’d go mess around with burned-out cars, with my mom’s stereo—I was public enemy #1 in my house for that. So my mom noticed that I was interested in this and decided to send me to school so I’d know what I was doing. So suddenly I’m learning Ohm’s Law, what a capacitor was, what a resistor is, calculating numerical factors. And it all started coming into being.



PM:

Wow.



GF:

Now, you can walk into a music store and say, “I want a system that does this and has these kinds of specifications” and they’ll just give it to you. But this didn’t exist back then. I knew there was a way to blend records together, but I didn’t know how to. This was haunting me when I was in my teens. In my frustration, I decided to start experimenting with electronics. I tested the torque factor on different turntables. I had to figure needles out. See, there are two kinds, elliptical and conical. Ellipticals sound better, but they jump out of the groove really easily. Conical needles didn’t sound anywhere near as good, but they stay in there without bouncing. As I was getting all the specs down, jury-rigging things and getting cursed out by people, I was also spending three or four years hanging out with the boys on the basketball court, with the girls at parties, finding out what people like.



PM:

People generally give credit to Grand Wizard Theodore for inventing scratching, but you were actually the first to do that, right?



GF:

Well, yeah, more or less. See, Theodore and I come from a generation of cutters, not “scratchers.” I would go zuk zuk on a record, just as part of the act and because I was cueing up records, but he was the first to actually time it with the beat of the record and turn it into something else.



PM:

He actually used it as a rhythmic element.



GF:

That’s exactly it. See, here’s the deal with Theodore. He was the little brother of Gene Livingston, who was the tough guy on our block, and who happened to be my DJ partner. Theodore was always trying to sneak in, but if Gene caught him near the turntables, it was trouble. But I’d sneak him into the room when Gene wasn’t there and put him up on a milk crate and teach him things. But here’s the thing about Theodore. I developed the Clock Theory to help me time records; you know, spin the record back two revolutions or whatever and then play the break, spin the other one back two, play, like that. But the Livingstons only had one turntable, and that’s how Theodore practiced. So he developed this amazing talent of being able to put the needle down right where the break started, without needing to time it or anything, just bam! So when we were playing, we’d get him up there on a milk crate doing all that, and he started cutting—or scratching—from there, on the beat. It was a little controversial, having him up there, kind of a gimmick. I came up with the formula, and he went somewhere with it. Later, Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff came up with new stuff, called it the transformer scratch.



PM:

Were you the first to use headphones?



GF:

I called it the Peekaboo System. There was no way back then to pre-listen to music before pushing the fader up, so I figured out how to do it with a microphone mixer. I just changed the pre-amps for each turntable, tapped into one side of each one to give me just enough power to listen to it, and a toggle switch. When I clicked it to the left, the left turntable was playing, but only in my ear; when I clicked it to the right, boom! I could hear that one too.



PM:

Does it bother you when other people get credit for stuff you came up with?



GF:

Not really. I mean, if the Model T was the first car, and all the other cars we’ve had come from that . . . .



PM:

Last question about all that: there is a rumor out that you were the first to actually write a rhyme.



GF:

[Laughs] I might have been. If I was, it was probably just desperation, trying to move the crowd. See, when I finally came up with this way of mixing, I was sure that I was onto something. I was thinking, “If I put together duplicate copies of records and extend those breaks, I should have these people going crazy!” And then I played an outdoor showcase, three or four hundred people all out there . . . and nothing.



PM:

They weren’t feeling it?



GF:

Not at all. I cried for a week. I couldn’t figure out how to get everyone excited. That’s why I started putting together the Furious Five, to get people interested.



PM:

Cowboy was the first, right?



GF:

He was the one who probably saved me from giving up. He understood what I was doing, and he found a way to talk over it, to get the crowd involved. He was a good screener and helped take eyes off me, so people could react to the music, which is so critically important.



PM:

And then the rest of the guys, and suddenly you’re a group: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But what I find interesting is that that’s a live band playing behind you on “The Message” and a lot of those early singles, except of course for “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” Did that ever bug you?



GF:

Here’s the thing. I think Sylvia [Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records] wanted my group. She used to come to Disco Fever on Tuesday nights, which was a watering-hole type of scene; all the pros used to hang out and play. She had never seen five people break up a sentence before. See, the Furious Five was like a team. We had Cowboy, who had the strongest lungs; Creole, who had that nasal style; Raheim, who had a light voice—like that. Melle Mel’s voice was in-between. So she wanted to record us, and we said yeah! As far as the sound of the record, I wanted special instrumental vinyl to play when we went on the road, so that’s why the backing track is a band. I was a DJ, but I was willing to sacrifice that in order to be able to have a record that I could play behind the group.



PM:

Okay, that makes sense.



GF:

And then suddenly, we have an itinerary. We’re going down to North Carolina and out to L.A., and we’re opening for the Commodores one night and then Rick James and then Evelyn “Champagne” King—it was amazing.



PM:

Do you feel she drove the wedge between the guys in the group?



GF:

It was business. Sylvia’s gut feelings were always successful, and she wanted to have one MC on the record. So that’s when we recorded “The Message,” which was mostly Melle Mel. Ultimately, that was going to be the catalyst to our demise. It was the biggest record we ever did, but it was the beginning of the end. Because it changed the blueprint we created, the style we created. I was extremely threatened, and so were the other four—we fought, we cried, we begged. I kept saying, “The six of us have to keep our eyes on the prize.” But it didn’t work out like that. When we were all together, we were hard to beat.



PM:

And then things fell apart.



GF:

Yeah, we broke up, and then I ended up getting into cocaine and alcohol and walked away from the turntables. I was just so hurt, because this was something that I created, and I had no idea how to keep it together.



PM:

But now you’re back.



GF:

Yeah! I’m back. I’m getting back to what I love to do.



PM:

Your website is cool. (www.grandmasterflash.com)



GF:

Thanks. It’s a great way to get myself out there. I mean, not only do I have a story that I want to tell, but I don’t want to be folklore! I ain’t done yet! I’m touring, I’m working, I’m out there again.



PM:

How is that for you? Exciting?



GF:

Hmmmm. . . . It’s fun being in front of people, playing shows and all. But hotels? Being away from home? That’s different.



PM:

Yeah, and you have kids now and a family. I bet it’s hard to be away from them.



GF:

Yeah.



PM:

What do you think about turntablism? All these new guys making all your innovations basically the centerpiece of what they do?



GF:

Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen. I am so so happy. They’ve created a whole new thing. It’s exciting.



PM:

Which DJs do you hear or see and just go “Wow” about?



GF:

Roc Raida (of the X-ecutioners)! He’s incredible.


Here’s where my stupid cell phone started breaking up, and Flash had another interview on the line. I was going to try to ask him one more question, but I froze—what the hell kind of one more question do you ask Grandmaster Flash?

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