Grandmaster Flash – his message, hip hop and why great DJing is like a martial art

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Grandmaster Flash

Grandmaster Flash is coming to Warrington, Getintohis’ Jono Podmore caught up with him but found there were a few stipulations first.

Before we could speak to Grandmaster Flash, we had to agree to a few “guidelines”:

  • No questions relating to The Furious 5, The Message or White Lines.
  • No questions relating to politics.
  • No questions relating to race/religion.

But what is Hip Hop without politics, race, religion or even The Message? As it turned out, when you’re talking to the originator of what’s been the dominant global style for decades, there’s plenty to talk about. As he pointed out, he’s been doing this since he’s 15 – and he’s 61 now…

Getintothis: There have been lots of historic arts movements with far-reaching effects (Surrealists or Merseybeat for example) that when you look into it was actually just a handful of people. How big in terms of numbers was the Hip Hop community at the beginning? Tens, hundreds, thousands?

Are talking about the professionals or the fans coming to see us?

Getintothis: The professionals

It was quite small – actually it started with 3 people. There was Herc [DJ Kool Herc], there was Bam [Afrika Bambaataa] and then there was Flash. Herc had his team of DJs; Bam had Islam, Jackie J; myself I had Easy Mike and Disco Pete. This thing started off as a DJ thing, if you want to go back to the beginning beginning beginning beginning…

Getintothis: You’re playing this show in Warrington, very close to Liverpool. My uncle is old enough to be have been around at the beginning of the Merseybeat scene with The Beatles in Liverpool…

Oooooo! Special…

Getintothis: And one of his stories he tells is of turning up for one of the famous gigs at the Cavern and booing The Beatles offstage….

WOW!!! Haha – well I guess all of us have our humble beginnings and you hope to get “yays”, but it’s always possible you get “boos”. But I’d have to undeniably say that The Beatles had a pretty good end result. When I was coming up with The Quick Mix Theory, which is putting your fingertips on the record and controlling the vinyl, that took me 2 years at my mom’s flat to figure it out because I hated playing the whole record. I always felt that particular area where the drummer got that solo for a couple of seconds was the most important part of the record, everything else meant nothing to me. I had to figure a way to put that together and when I did and I went out in the parks… It wasn’t “boo”, but it was like: “what the f…?” You could hear them say, “mom has this record at home but it don’t go like that”. You could almost see the look on people’s faces like, “how is he d-o-i-n-g – t-h-a-t…”

I had a rope so you couldn’t get too close to me and people were pushing back from the rope and saying, “what is that?”. It wasn’t like they booed, but it was like “Jeez, that’s a trick”, they didn’t understand. They didn’t necessarily say boo, but, put it this way, it didn’t come off like WUP! Y’know? If I played the drum break from Apache by the Incredible Bongo Band, then I played the break from The Big Beat [Billy Squier] one behind another, I was hoping to get like YAY, people losing their mind, but people just stood there, which is not the reaction I was looking for…

Eventually as I kept coming up in the block parties that’s when it started working, and then what I started to do was to take a microphone and put it on the other side of the table. Anyone that was able to do any sort of vocal accompaniment to this new style of Djing please feel free. Many failed – one passed. His name was Cowboy. [Keef Cowboy]

Getintothis: Caribbean music and culture has had a profound effect on UK music. Can you tell us more about the Caribbean component in the origins Hip Hop: the sound systems, the attitude, the cultural dynamic?

For me, my family came from Barbados; I grew up in the Bronx. I didn’t have just the Caribbean music to listen to. In my family there were some who listened to the Motown sound, some to the Caribbean sound there were some who listened to the Latin sound and Jazz, so I had a melting pot of music to listen to. And I had a pretty shitty sound system, put it that way. Really really horrible: put together with nails and wood, really nasty. I didn’t know what know what an incredible Jamaican sound system could sound like until I saw Kool Herc. You got to realise that all 3 of us are of Caribbean descent, Bam, Herc and Flash. To see what a professional incredible sound system looked and sounded like was my introduction. Oh my goodness that was huge, that’s my influence. But my influence as far as music is concerned was listening to everything, because if I didn’t listen to everything I wouldn’t know where a lot of things would be today.

Getintothis: Here in the UK the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants have been very much in the news, and it was their kids, the 2nd generation, that played a central role in development of British dance music culture in the 90s. In 70s and 80s producers like Dennis Bovell….

Caribbean descent as well? Interesting!

Getintothis: There are stronger West African links in Caribbean culture than in the US – did you feel that at all?

No I wasn’t introduced to that influence but Caribbean music was played in my home when I was a tot. But also all the other genres of music styles – that was how I was able to come up with the turntable technique that every DJ in the world uses now, because I was introduced to everything – nothing was off the plate. Music had no colour to me and I say it all the time, music has no categories, no brackets, great music is just great music. That’s pretty much it.

Getintothis: Tell us a little about the upcoming show, firstly why Warrington?

If I were to have 2 homes in 2 parts of the world my 2nd home would be the UK – and Warrington is part of the UK! I think that the UK on a whole is so much more open minded to music on a whole – more than any place on the planet. I can play Apaches but I can also play Bob Marley. I can play Jay Z but I can also play Queen. I can do all these different things and it’s cool, it’s cool to do – where in a lot of places people are one-type of music minded.

Getintothis:  That’s great to hear, not least because I’m British!

Yeah but you don’t always think about British music – there has to be other music that you love. Especially if you’re a producer your influences have to come from other places. There have to be things from outside your country that you listen to. You have to have external influences in things, so you say “Mmm that sounds pretty cool. I can put that there and put that there.” I personally think there’s nothing original under the sun. Everything comes from somewhere, musically speaking.

Grandmaster Flash

Grandmaster Flash

Getintothis: Liverpool is know as a birthplace of a global cultural, but the city suffered terrible poverty in 70s and 80s

Oh Really!

Getintothis:  People left, the population is down over half a million since I was born in the 60s

I didn’t know that!

Getintothis: So there are parallels with the Bronx and also Detroit. Are you interested at all in the music from Detroit? Techno? Underground resistance?

I know for a fact that Detroit played a major part in that techno sound – and it was rough during that period and it was rough in the Bronx. But you know something, as a kid you don’t see that roughness – you just don’t see it. You go to school like you’re told, you come back, on the weekends you do things, you hang out. A lot of these things that were going on with the politics and all that stuff – we didn’t get into that. We just without realising it created a culture. You got to understand. We just went to our neighbourhood parks and created something that we didn’t know we were creating. We just decided to do things this way and not realising that it would become a world culture.

We were playing the B-sides, and C-sides and D-sides of records and maybe the damn town was falling apart around us but we were still putting our equipment in to a cart, walking it to the park, and I was still breaking in to the lampposts and running a [power]wire from the lampposts in to the cart and people were coming!

So if you’re asking me what did I think about [the poverty], well I didn’t even think of it. I was having fun! I mean, did I hear lots of cop cars going by? Woop woop woop! They were going somewhere, but I didn’t know where they were going, I was a kid! When you don’t know, you’re not in fear – you just continue with your life. Didn’t know we were building something now considered the richest musical culture on the planet.

Moving on: why Liverpool creatives need physical spaces

Getintothis:  Your pioneering work lead to turntablism in the 90s with artists like Kid Koala, Mixmaster Mike, Noisy Stylus, and that has now lead to artists like Shiva Feshareki who are using turntables with orchestras in a classical concert hall setting…

Groovy!

Getintothis:  In a way we could say that’s full circle because the first instances of manipulating turntables to use as a musical instrument come from classical music – John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer back as far as the 40s. Were you aware of any of this?

Absolutely not. You say manipulating turntables. Me placing my fingertips on the record and controlling the breaks using the vinyl as a groove sound source and also as a controller, I don’t know of anybody that was doing that. And if they were they haven’t made themselves present because I’d love to see how they did that.

Getintothis: They weren’t doing it in the same way at all – there was no aspect of rhythm at all

Well what exactly did they do?

Getintothis: Starting and finished records on a cue, using acetates to play material backwards and at different speeds…

So recorded in the studio before they did that?

Getintothis: Yes

Well where I came from in the 70s there were no studios, no drum machines, no keyboards, no technology, no mp3’s. I thought of this simply. The particularly areas of these songs whether it was pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, RnB, alternative, Caribbean or Latin, I only wanted the area where the drummer had the solo, and that solo was always too short. So I had to figure out a way and take duplicate copies of this and extend it and put my fingertips on the record.

When we talk about the turntablists of today, that’s because of something I did when I was 15 – and I’m 61. I don’t know of anybody else and don’t know about you were talking about but that sounds like something that was in the studio using technology. Where I come from we didn’t have that. I did it by hand.

Getintothis:  I’m thinking of American composer John Cage’s piece Imaginary Landscapes. There’s a part in the score for prepared sounds played back on records…

In Hip Hop we call that cheating! If you’re going to use Walk This Way, you gotta use Walk This Way, just the way it is with that 2 bar drum break, and you’ve got to take those 10 seconds and make it 10 minutes, by hand. No pre-recorded going to the studio and cheating. That’s where I come from – no cheating.

Getintothis: I’ve got a question from my friend Michael Rappe who wrote the entry about you in Germany’s most important encyclopaedia of music, the MGG. He wants to know about the TV show The Get Down. How deeply were you involved in the production side?

I came on as a consultant. Then I became one of the producers, one of many. And then I was asked to become a character. It wasn’t a documentary. It was not put together to be absolute truth because that’s not what Baz [Luhrmann] does. Baz takes a concept and he expounds on it with the genius technical way that he does things. So there was a degree of anchoring truth around the children that lived through us. If you’re thinking it was a documentary well there’s millions of them on the Internet. It wasn’t a documentary.

Getintothis:  Was there any discussion between you and the director concerning the representation of Hip Hop, presenting it in the right light?

The guy that played me, played me. A lot of the areas with me were shot in the Bronx. People should know Baz Luhrmann’s work – how he does things

Getintothis:  In Europe a lot of DJs, dancers and MCs describe their first experience as an “infection“. Hip Hop as a phenomenon was absolutely contagious. Do you see any parallels in US history, maybe from the beginning?

It started off in the Bronx in the 70’s – that’s the only way I can answer that. It’s gone through its technical changes. Right now it’s the biggest musical culture on the planet. So you can call it a positive musical infection that’s spread all over the world.

Getintothis: I’ve listened to 2 new productions of yours: Dreams, No One Defeats Us and Silence. Amazing energy on the tracks, can you tell me a little about the lyrics?

I did the production – didn’t write the lyrics

Getintothis: As the producer did you build up the track from vinyl using your original technique, or was it programmed?

I did a little bit of both, and that’s what Hip Hop is, it’s joining of different genres of things to come up with some thing. That’s why it feels the way that it feels.

Getintothis: Lastly, there are lots of references to Martial Arts in Hip Hop. Wu Tang Clan etc. Were martial arts a big influence in the scene from the beginning?

Absolutely. Bruce Lee, not martial arts Bruce Lee. He was our super hero. How he moved was how I invented this thing. And that’s how I moved; at least I tried to move like him. DJing – how I go from one turntable to the other without freezing. Moving like Bruce. If you watch a great DJ or turntablist whatever, they move like it’s a martial art.

Look forward to coming to your city man….

With that the Grandmaster was off to the next interview.

Initially we felt after speaking to him that we’d been enlightened from the original source – he’d given us a real picture of the world and motivations that spawned the “richest musical culture on the planet”. But on reflection what he didn’t know is equally revealing: the role of Caribbean culture, new developments in turntablism, John Cage and his use of turntables.

And perhaps most important of all was his attitude to new ideas – we could hear how hungry he was to know more, how enthusiastic he was about the music and new ideas. He’s clearly never lost the importance of “joining of different genres of things to come up with some thing.” We’lllooking forward to the show in Warrington – and have a CD of Imaginary Landscapes for him. May be he can drop it in the mix.

Grandmaster Flash: Hip Hop People, places and things: 26 July, Parr Hall, Warrington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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