In honour of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, Ebro sits down with one of its originators, Grandmaster Flash. Flash walks Ebro through those early days, how he invented the art of turntablism, and his message that you can create something out of nothing. For his The Message playlist, Grandmaster Flash curated a selection of songs from artists like Blondie, Bob James, and Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band—sounds we’re more likely to recognise in their sampled incarnations than the original versions. For Flash himself, it’s a little simpler than that: “These are a few of the staples of Hip-Hop.”
Flash shares his message
You can come from nothing. You could make it from nowhere, and have everything. And when I say that, E, meaning, when I invented this DJ technology, I did this with nothing. I come from the projects, 2730 Dewey Avenue in the Bronx. And behind the projects was this junkyard, burned out cars, people threw away stereos, people threw away stuff, and I jury-rigged until I put my sound system together.
Grandmaster Flash on being inspired by his father to build his own DJ setup
And the first original person to inspire me to even do that was my dad, because he was constantly kicking my rear end for touching the brown box that lived in the living room. And these black circular discs that came out of this jacket, and this piece of paper that had pictures of trains and cars and flowers and people. I mean, I found out later on, it was an album cover, but as a toddler, I’m like, “Why is he pulling these things out of there and what’s he going to do with that?” And he would go over to this brown box living room, and he would do this process to make the record drop down, and the needle would come down and sound would come out of that brown box, E. I thought dad was the greatest magician of all time.
Grandmaster Flash on recording the entirety of ‘Wheels of Steel’ in one continuous take
How that record was made, there was this big recording machine, ladies and gentlemen, called the 2-inch, and it was a gigantic recorder that probably was shaped more like a washing machine with two reels on it. And I can remember being flown back in from the tour where we had a couple of days off after I picked the selections of records. And I would tell Steve Jerome, the engineer, “Hit record,” boom. And I would go through record one, record two, record three, record four, record five because I was using three turntables, record six, record seven. And as I started going through all the records, I made a mistake. I said, “Stop.” He says, “No, we could punch this.” I said “What’s a punch?” He says, “We could rewind the tape a little bit and we could pick up where you left off at and erase the mistake.” I said, “No, let’s go back and do it again.” I erased what he had, and pretty much the reel starts to go. I’m going through the records, I’m going through the records, going through the records, slipped again. I said, “We’re not punching.” Third time I went through the whole thing, because you got to realize if I’m going to do it on tape, I have to be able to do this live, so no studio magic allowed. So at this time, three turntables had to be used because some tracks overlaid others while I needed other turntable in waiting to throw the next record. So pretty much I did that three takes.
Grandmaster Flash reveals how he secretly ensured other DJs wouldn’t copy his drum breaks
The way I would look for a break on a record is I would buy one copy and I would put it up with a light. And the area where it was the most shiniest was where the least band members was playing. Now, if there wasn’t a turntable in a record shop, I would look at that, I’d go and I’d say, this is probably a drum break because this area of this composition is shiny. And I would buy two of these and I would take it home. And the shit might be someone on a violin. Them shits was called my stiffs. So I had crates and crates of stiffs. So what I would do is, for example, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” I would take two stiffs that I couldn’t return back because once you break the shrink wrap, you bought it. And I would soak the two copies of the stiffs in a bathtub and then sink and then put “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” in the bathtub until the labels came off. And what I would do is switch the labels on it, so if there was a person from another DJ crew that was trying to see what I was playing, the label was wrong. They would go home. And we had big laughs after this many years. They like, “Flash, we let the record play, we cleaned our house, and we just let the whole shit play from side A to side B, we never found it.” It’s because I switched the label. So I mean, it was somewhat of a secrecy. Now, I don’t mind letting the secrets out now. But that was part of the fun. If I didn’t want to scratch it out, I knew there were spies from other DJ crews that wanted to know what I was playing.
Grandmaster Flash reveals how Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ came to be, and that his label prevented him from appearing in the music video
So there was this guy that was a big fan of mine that used to come to my parties. His name was Fab 5 Freddy. But Freddy would say to me, “Yo, I’m going to bring somebody up here, man, to one of your parties, man, that’s really a fan of yours. So he said, I’m going to bring Blondie up. I’m like, “Get the f**k out of here, man. What you talking about?” So he got Blondie to come to a party up in the Bronx, and she made it clear to Freddy. She said, “He plays those turntables like a Toscanini. He plays these turntables like an orchestra, and I’m going to write a record in his honor.” So when I heard about it, I was like, “Ah, whatever.” And then maybe, I don’t know, six months later there’s this song that don’t sound like what we jam to, the person on it don’t do the rhymes like we are used to hearing and people are asking me, “Flash, you got this new record out?” I’m like, “No, we’re in the studio working on the record.” They said, “Well there’s this record out and she’s talking about Flash is fast or Flash is cool.” And I said, “Wait.” And then when I went to go listen to the record, E, I said, “Oh shit. She kept her word. She kept her word.” She was already out of here, so to even do that because she didn’t have to, that took my career into a whole new way into more Whites. And then so when I went overseas to DJ, it wasn’t just our people of color, it was people of all genres jamming with me… so now the video thing was another thing because I can remember they had asked the record label, E, “Could we get Flash for the video?” And they said, “No.” I was crispy. And that’s why [Basquiat] was in the video and I wasn’t. But that record, I mean, I already exploded, but me and that video and the video age was early at that particular point for us. I’d have been out of here, out of here, out of here.
Grandmaster Flash on why he wanted to keep admission for his Bronx ‘Hip-Hop 50’ party free
This is our jobs and we ain’t doing no heavy lifting. It’s some people that got to do heavy lifting to get a paycheck. We doing what we love. So this was my way of saying thank you. It cost me a good piece of money to put this thing together and to hire all these artists. And I want people to see what a break dancer looks like when a DJ’s playing music. What a graffiti artist looks like when he’s painting. What is a MC? What is a DJ? So I pretty much want to show people something that happened 50 years ago, August 4. That’s what I want to do. So it’s just my way of just saying thank you because once again I say to you, E, this shit could have missed. Thank God it didn’t.