As living legends of hip hop go, it’d be hard to come up with names that have contributed more to the art form than Grandmaster Flash. Being one of the first ever DJ’s to emerge from New York playing a completely new form of music that is now a global powerhouse, as well as being widely attributed as the progenitor of the backspin, the Grandmaster pioneered techniques of mixing, cutting and scratching that still form the basis of hip hop DJing to this day. Thanks to Nozstock: The Hidden Valley, UKHH was lucky enough and genuinely honoured to speak to him about the history of the art, his part in the making of The Get Down and what to expect from his new live show Hip Hop, People, Places and Things. Tickets to catch his headline slot on the Garden Stage at Nozstock are still available here.
As one of hip hop’s founding fathers, there are elements of the artform which you pioneered that are still being copied and mastered to this day. Did you ever imagine at the point that you and other DJs started cutting and scratching in the Bronx that Hip Hop would reach over 40 years old and be such a massive phenomenon?
You know even every day that I wake up, I still say, this is quite amazing because we as human beings, I think the biggest thing in the world to do is to serve. Right? And when you serve… whether its machines, or medicine, or science, or technology, a lot of times we as human beings we come up with things and then we give it to the public and a lot of the time they can say.. ‘I don’t like that shit’. When I did this thing here, it wasn’t ‘I don’t like this shit’ but like ‘How is he doing that?’
Like the mystery of it to start with?
Yeah. The mystery of it was the deal maker that made it like.. ‘Hmm we need to look at this a little deeper and see how he’s doing that!’ How is it, that he’s taking mum or dad’s records that are constructed in one way, printed on vinyl, and he’s reconstructing and taking the area where the drummer’s playing alone? On mum’s records it only plays for 10 seconds but he’s figured out a way to make it play for 10 minutes and this is allowing these dancers to dance and for human beings to speak on it.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen. Absolutely not.
Yeah, it must be amazing having started something that to begin with was so small in one pocket of the world, to see it go completely global.
Yeah man it’s pretty cool. And what I’ve done is I’ve come up with a show, it’s called ‘Hip Hop, People, Places and Things’. You know a lot of times, speaking to journalists or speaking to people, I try to explain to people what I was thinking when I did this, and sometimes people get it, but a lot of times people don’t get it. So, I’ve come up with a visual presentation.
So is part of that (as you’re credited as being kind of like a historian of hip hop now as well as one of the founding fathers), is part of that to educate people past and present about the history of it?
Where it came from. Yeah. Pretty much. And a lot of times when we explain it to… What’s your name sir? Sorry I didn’t get your name…
(Longish pause) I’m gonna call you K. How’s that?
K is good man.
Good cus I won’t remember that other shit. (Laughs)
OK, so K, listen… Sometimes when you sit down and try and explain things to people, sometimes it’s received and sometimes it’s not. So, what I did was, I took a two and a half year period and I shot some of the most iconic areas of New York and I put this into a visual story. So while I’m playing music, whether its pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, rap, RnB, alternative, disco… while I’m playing it, I’m playing the city where it came from. So you’re seeing the projects and you’re seeing the park and you’re seeing all these things while this is happening. Because sometimes when people show you visually how things happen, sometimes it goes ‘Aha! So that’s how it was!’
So your live experience now is partly a hip hop show, but also cinematic and also documentary at the same time?
Yes it is and I think that’s really important because when we grew up, if mum or dad were into any other genres of music, whether it was pop, rock, jazz, blues, funk, disco, RnB, alternative, Caribbean, they would implore, like.. ‘This is what this is!’ And ‘This is what you should know! And you should know the people that did this!’ But hip hop has always been somewhat of a blur. Where did it come from? And who did it? And how old is it really? And I feel it important to visually demonstrate that now.
So, you wanna know about cutting and scratching? You know, 100% of the time when you’re watching the DJ, you only see the flat turntable on the table. You see a device in the middle and then you see another table, but you don’t really see what he’s doing. So, what I did was, I put cameras on the turntables and you actually see me dismantle a beat in front of you that you know was constructed one way, like I pick a very famous record that everybody should know, and I say you know how this record really goes but this is how I was thinking when I was 17. And it’s kind of important because the looping of this particular, this drum track, this is the beginning of where rap comes in. Because the rappers couldn’t speak on the chorus, or the intro or when the full band is playing. You needed a clean bit of music. And we didn’t have studios, or if they were around we couldn’t afford them. We didn’t have technology, we didn’t have nothing. Nothing but duplicate copies of a record. This is what I was thinking. That’s pretty much it.
So, I took my young Flash ideas and I said I’m going to turn this into a cinematic show for people to see in the UK. It’s undisputedly my second home. You guys have been seeing me doing it with the turntables horizontal. Now I’ve flipped the table up in your face! And now you’re gonna see how it works. It’s really important that also in the show we talk about people who’ve done some really major things that have passed away, and you see their picture and we talk about them and how important they were. And then the show goes into interaction. And this is what separates us from all other music genres. We need you to be involved. Physically! With your hands in the air with the screaming and the whole thing. You know so this show Hip Hop, People, Places and Things… it’s sort of like taking a small area of the makings of this and putting it on a huge visual LED so you can hear it, but also see it while I’m doing it.
In terms of the message that hip hop has overall in 2018… Are there elements you feel have changed for the worse and what parts of it do you think have stayed the purest to hip hop in its original form?
Put it this way. I’m a scientist first right? When I was coming up there were these things called charts. This chart, and black music, and the white music and the UK music and the American Music. I’m like, fuck that shit. I don’t care nothing about that. I’m going to listen to as many pieces of vinyl as possible and I’m going to try find this track that I think would be rhythmically amazing to play but also for people to enjoy. So, whenever I’m asked this question K, like if I started saying well this not good, and this is bad, and this is not that… this would make me a hypocrite. It would make me an absolute hypocrite, because some of the biggest hip hop songs on the planet, you know some of them are white bands. Some of them are foreign bands and some of them are American bands. I can’t go like this is not this, and this should not be musically this or lyrically that. I can’t fathom that because I’ve never thought that. I could put on Miles Davis and enjoy him still and then I could put on Future and I could enjoy him. I’m just in search of pleasing people. Constantly. I’m on a constant search. I’m going to add this in my set, I want to add this, I’m gonna take this away, I’ve played that too much, I’m going to put this in, I’m going to put that in… because I have limited time on stage, so I have limited time to get this point across. So, it’s a joyfully constant taking out and putting in of songs that affect people. And I do this in a non-judgmental way. Because I’m a servant. I don’t know if I could get into the hoopla of I love this, and I hate that, and I think this and I think that. I’m saying how can I serve? I’m so above the whatever you want to call it. I can’t do that.
And great hip hop has always included different styles and genres…
Right?? (laughing) Where would I be if I didn’t have two copies of Apache?! It’s a white band! Where the fuck would I be today? If I didn’t say wait a minute, let me go in the Jazz section and let me see if I can’t find a piece of a composition that I can cut up and scratch. What if I didn’t go into the Jazz section and find Take Me to the Mardi Gras by Bob James, who is strictly Jazz? Where would I be today? It’s scary to think. And I know you guys as Journalists want me to say, ‘This good. That bad.’ I’m one of many and I just think the way that I think. And I play it how I see it you know, most of the time I have incredible nights and some nights I play a song and I go ‘Oops that didn’t work, it cleared the floor’. But I can’t put myself in that other place. I can’t change my thinking. I apologise if I can’t answer your question properly.
I read that in the run up to the making of ‘The Getdown’ you hosted a workshop with Kurtis Blow and Nas to educate the young actors. What were some of the most challenging things about the time to recreate with people who were born after it happened?
When me and Baz where working on this, I started off as a consultant and then I became a producer. One time I was going to my section of the building to do whatever I had to do, Baz was going in another direction and he said ‘Hey Flash’. I said ‘Yeh what’s up Baz?’ He said ‘How you feeling?’ I said ‘I’m Good’. He says ‘I’ve been thinking. I would like to find someone to play you in this show.’ I was like ‘What?’ I’m like ‘Whatever Baz.’ He says ‘Give me some time. I’d like to find someone that at least looks like you, or close to it’. I’m like… ‘Whatever.’ So, me and him, we chuckle and joke and laugh all the time, so when he said it, I went on my way to go do my assignment of my day and I’m saying to myself this guy’s losing his mind.
So, three weeks later he says, ‘Come into my office, I need to talk to you.’ I think well maybe he’s plotting the day that he wants me to do and I walk in. I see this human being, and I freeze. I look down. I look up. I look in his face. And I says, ‘Baz what’s going on here?’ He says ‘This is what I was talking about a month ago. We’ve found somebody.’ And he walks up to me and he says, ‘I humbly appreciate everything that you’ve done, and I will do my very best to play even the smallest part of you if you please teach me.’ This fucking guy looks just like me! And I’m saying to myself, OK… Who’s his Mama? This guy looked TOO much like me.
And then going through it K, for me to teach someone the science of the quick mix theory… I have to admit I almost had him into tears quite a few times. Cus he were at it, I’m like ‘No. Like this.’ And he would do it wrong and I would say ‘No! Like this.’ And then he would do it wrong and I’d say ‘No! LIKE THIS!’
Did he have any DJ experience before you started showing him the ropes?
No. No, so two months went by and then all of a sudden I went in and I came on the set and as I’m approaching the house that Baz rented for us, I’m hearing Apache. It’s going back and forth and there’s no train wrecks. It’s smooth. I’m like who’s doing that? And I walked in. And it was Mamoudou! He said ‘Godfather, I ain’t even go home last night.’ He says ‘I had to get this right.’ And he got his part right. I think he pulled it off pretty good. To be somebody that never touched a set, never even knew what a turntable was because he was too young! He didn’t know what vinyl was. So, it was quite an adventure. And Baz being so patient and so detail oriented in everything he does he gave me all the time that I needed to really show Mamoudou, just you know, a small bit of the quick mix theory. It was quite amazing.
As you’ve said about him never fucking with vinyl before… With the massive changes that have happened in terms of technology for DJs since the early days, how much has your personal live set up changed in terms of equipment and what you use now on stage?
I’ve got to tell you I was the last man standing, when you know… the putting the songs into a hard drive and putting them into the laptop came in… I had my arms folded and I was pouting. I probably was the last person on earth like ‘No, I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it’. But then once I understood what it was and I understood the science of it and when I listened to the special vinyl that reads the mp3, so if you move it back and forth the mp3 sort of follows you. When I listened to the vinyl, it’s a syncing time code that is locked into the technology of the interface which tells the mp3 on the laptop to move back and forth and follow the DJ. I’m like, ‘Ohhh shit! This is incredible science!’ And also, it started becoming wonderful because I said I can put 100,000 songs onto a hard drive and carry it with me.
Yeh it makes carrying your collection easy.
Yeah it makes it totally easy and I never have to say I didn’t bring that with me… No, I don’t have that. Let’s just say 8 times out of 10, I probably have that song for most people for all the countries that I go to which is quite a few as you know. It’s pretty cool.
So obviously the way that people DJ has changed and continues to evolve, so in a way there’s a lot of progress that is part of that, but do you think that there is something about the art the classic cut and scratch DJing that has got a bit lost for new DJs now?
I think that the less people that do it, the more people want to see it. Because… It’s almost like watching sports. You’re watching your favourite team or you’re watching your favourite prize fighter… you almost kind of wanna see him get his ass kicked. But then you want him to win at the last possible minute. That’s what DJing is for me. Because you’re constantly touching the record and you gotta take this black beat and cut it into the white beat, then go into this foreign beat and come out of the foreign beat into this American beat. And while this is all happening, and all this that you’re doing with two pieces of vinyl on turntables and a mixer you’ve got to keep the floor moving at the same time. People get a joy out of seeing that. Like how is he doing that?
Are you saying that wow factor to seeing it when you were first doing it, because you were one of the only people in the world who knew how to, has almost come full circle because people are doing it less?
That is a great analogy. It’s become full circle. So, when I do it, and when I turn on the cameras on a certain record that I’m cutting up, let’s say I’m cutting up Apache. If I’m cutting up Apache and the cameras is off, the crowd is losing it. But if I’m cutting up Apache and the cameras is on… They’re not gonna throw their hands in the air. They’re not gonna scream. They’re gonna sit there and you can see their eyes like, ‘Oh shit, how the fuck is he doing that?’ To get that sort of reaction I have to do it in bits, but I really want people to understand, if this didn’t happen, then that bit of music that that human being, male or female needed to speak on… Rap may be in a different place today. If it wasn’t for this. And people need to see this. They need to see Jazzy Jeff. They need to see Kid Capri. They need to see a DJ scratch. They need to see people who take this art form of two pieces of vinyl, and rearrange it right in front of your eyes. People need to see this. Because it matters.
Have you got any advice, as a veteran of the game, for young aspiring DJs coming up and trying to make a name for themselves now?
To make a name for yourself now K, know all the genres because we as human beings, we think multi-genre now more than ever now, because of this wonderful thing called the internet. If you want any black information or white information or foreign information or American information. Now from a musical perspective, if you are going to play in front of people, be prepared to play multi-genre types of songs. It’s the only way you’ll go from the neighbourhood to the country.
I suppose that’s always been true in a way, or another thing that’s gone full circle?
Yes. Now you know, that black song, that white song, that foreign song, that American song… They all matter now. It all matters because music is a blur. And that’s what I said when I was first doing it. Fuck the charts. Great music is just dope music. And that’s it. I don’t care about race or genre. I didn’t care. And I still don’t.
Massive shout outs and thanks to Flash for taking the time to talk to us, as well as his agent Ashley Morales and Nozstock: The Hidden Valley for hooking it up. Join us this summer to catch the Godfather of the decks in full effect for his show Hip Hop, People, Places and Things!