To the best of my knowledge, Manhattan’s nightspot Spa is quite possibly the trendiest club in New York City. On a typical night, the entrance fee is $20, and there’s usually a line of earnestly dressed up people waiting to throw down their cash. Before I arrived at Spa on the night legendary hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash was to perform, I wondered if the crowd would be any different to a previous, non-hip hop evening at the club. Would the club be full of B-Boys in Timberlands? Would the businessmen in boring suits with ladies in sequined dresses be there as well? Would any hip hop stars come out to support Grandmaster Flash’s record release party? Would I be able to dance with an ironic ‘80s hipster? The possibilities seemed endless.
7 May 2002: Spa New York
When my friend and I entered Spa, we faced a multiracial crowd composed of representatives from most all NYC hip subcultures, save for the hip hop stars (maybe the celebs where kicking it in the secret Spa chamber I’d been hearing about?) Then, all of a sudden, Grandmaster Flash walked by wearing his staple Kangol hat and fancy jogging suit. I was immediately star struck (I mean, it’s not everyday that the average person gets to brush shoulders with a hip hop master).
Though hip-hop may be considered a relatively young art form, this man has proved himself to be one of the founding fathers of the genre, a living legend of our musical time. His groundbreaking work has mentored a generation of DJs such as Funkmaster Flex, Grand Wizard Theodore, Kid Capri, Jazzy Jeff, DJ Scribble, and a host of others. Without a doubt he is one of the most original performers we have today. His career, which began in the late 1970s, peaked in 1982 with the release of “The Message”. A commentary about the reality of life in New York City, this hit was a pivotal moment in music history, as it is now recognized as the entrance of rap and hip-hop into the mainstream. Not to mention that it was Cowboy (of the Furious Five) who pioneered phrases like, “Throw your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t care!,” and “Everybody say ho!,” which are now staple pop cultural utterances. These and many more are the reasons that led me to my awe-struck state as the man walked by me.
As more club goers filled the space, my friend and I kicked back on a bench nursing rather expensive cocktails from plastic cups. We were befriended by a gregarious flight attendant who was waiting for her peeps to show up. We made each other’s acquaintance and talk about top 40 hip hop and R&B. She was also complaining about how much she had to pay to get in. After we had secured club friendship bonds that would last through the rest of the night, we walked into the main dance space where Grandmaster Flash already had the floor filled to Fat Joe and Ashanti’s “What’s Luv?” I had heard this song so many times before, but hearing it thumping on the dance floor through a decent sound system made the song fresh and it seemed everyone else agreed. He continued to DJ more recent top 40 hits like Cam’Ron’s “Oh Boy” and other selections by Ja Rule and Nas. Grandmaster Flash continued his set by introducing a retrospective set list, including older hits such as Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E” (2001), Missy Elliot’s “One Minute Man” (2001), and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” (1993). This über-hip hop set was then pierced by the sharp club classic from 1990, Snap’s “The Power,” as well as a Jamaican dancehall track, which proved to be an interesting fusion rather than a dissonant mixture. The retrospection continued with the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” (1982) and the Sugar Hill Gang. The set was complimented by the DJ’s rousing toasts, such as “All the moneymakers, raise your hands in the air!”
The energy from the main space poured out into the adjacent White Room, where a group of break-dancers demonstrated a series of difficult spins and twirls that left us onlookers awestruck. The night at Spa proved to mimic what Grandmaster Flash represents to us today: it was a look back at the ways hip-hop has evolved throughout the years, but more importantly it also demonstrated how no one will forget where it came from any time soon.