Grandmaster Flash: Revolve Around Science
The deejay pioneer explains evolving to production and expounds on his strained relationship with Kool Herc.
Grandmaster Flash, the name speaks volumes. As part of the Holy Trinity of Hip Hop's founders, along with Kool DJ Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, the man born Joseph Saddler's innovations with turntablism have literally scratched him into history books. When considering the music element of his lore; platinum selling records like "The Message" or the indelible "Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" sparked a career that culminated with a 2007 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and that still thrives today.
Considering his group, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, made their respective Sugar Hill Record labels millions in '80s, Flash was surely financially taken care of, right? "I got a check from Sugar Hill maybe a year ago for about $6,000," says Flash. "So all the work and all the know-how that I gave them on how to record my group...nah, I didn't get compensated."
Blame shady biz tactics and naivety, but Flash isn't bitter. He has his name, which he had to sue for to keep (one of the many stories detailed in his memoir The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash), tours the world deejaying, hosts a satellite radio and most recently dropped his album, The Bridge: Concept of a Culture featuring Q-Tip, KRS-One and Busta Rhymes, amongst others, via Strut Records. See, rather than gather dust on the shelf, Flash is an icon with a PhD's wealth of Hip Hop that he's willingly and actively sharing. All while keeping the beat.
HipHopDX: It's been 20 years since your last project, why do The Bridge now instead of a year ago or even five years ago, or next year?
Grandmaster Flash: First things first was, I'm a scientist. The producer in me - I probably was just enjoying listening to productions from people like The Neptunes [click to read], and [Dr.] Dre and Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz [click to read], DJ Premier. I was watching this for quite some time before I decided to come in and produce. When I got my fill of what these great producers were doing - the Timbalands and them, I just said it's time for me to do this.
I like records for the artistry of it, but then I'm technical so I listen to why this record is a hit, why it works the way that it words, why does this beat do what it does? Once I did all the studying that I needed to do I had to go out and find the right deal. I had to find a company that understood that I wanted to make this record like a deejay does a set. Once that happened then it was all good. Once I found K7 and Strut they were able to allow Adrenaline, which is my label, to let us do what we needed to do in the fashion we wanted to do it.
DX: When you say you sat back and observed, was it you trying to figure out what you were going to bring differently to the game?
Grandmaster Flash: Yeah differently, but at the same time I wanted to bring something that the now audience that I have can understand but at the same the vintage audience who understands me for what I've always done. It was a matter of me bringing the two worlds together, if you know what I mean. I do have a huge vintage following, but I've also acquired a huge worldwide new following as well. So I had to make this record in a way that hopefully it will be able to please both these audiences.
DX: It seems like to often artist try to not do that. Music is music, so there is no reason why a "old school" lover can't appreciate "new school" stuff.
Grandmaster Flash: Oh, it's important. I said to myself a very long time ago I got this wonderful gift from God, and I'm a servant. Other than the producing ability that I have, other than the deejay and entertainment ability that I have, when you break Grandmaster Flash down I'm a servant. And I've been blessed to have gone to almost every free country in the world and I was able to look at different ways of life and different cultural aspects and how people hear things and how people groove to things. And how people don't groove to this and why they groove to that. So with me watching some of the top producers in the world - and then at the same time, being able to travel around the world and hear different musical cultures and lifestyles, that is the only way I can live; and on top of that I serve.
So when I'm making up my tracks, I'm saying to myself, I gotta makes something that's going to work here, that will hopefully work here and will hopefully work here. Because when I walk into a room that's what the plan is, to go in there and to rock that shit. That's just the way that I think. Whether I'm in Russia or Manhattan, I have to go in this room and bring as much joy to this room as possible, as long as I'm on the turntables.
That's how I did this record. I said to myself I'm going to make this particular record in a fashion that a deejay would think. So that's why some of the tracks on the album are uptempo; I call them Pop-Hop, like "Here Comes My DJ." Then I have some songs that are down-tempo and dark like "What If There Was No Hip-Hop." Then I have some tracks that are musical and sexy like "When I Get There," with Big Daddy Kane [click to read]. Then I have songs that are aggressive, and now, like Busta [Rhymes] [click to read] "Bounce Back." Then I have songs that are smooth and groove like "Swagger" [click to view] with Snoop [Dogg] [click to read]. Then I have song that have and international and an American flavor like "Shine All Day." Then "Here Comes My DJ" is a representation of what I am, my talent.
We talk about Hip Hop being global, but in my opinion, the missing factor in it all is there aren't enough people who are recording that's doing Hip Hop. Music has become a fusion with Hip Hop, which is wonderful. It's my template, it's what I created since 1972. But then I would love to be able to fly into a country and hear a song on the radio with an overseas rapper and an American rapper on the same record. That's what I was trying to do when I did "We Speak Hip Hop;" I put an emcee from Sweden, Japan, Senegal and Spain, then I topped it off with KRS-One [click to read] on the top of it. Those kind of thing is what Hip Hop allows us to do. We can do that in Hip Hop where other musical genres have to be more careful. We can do that, so why not?
DX: A lot of people get caught up in the definition of Hip Hop: this is Hip Hop and this isn't Hip Hop. Correct me if I'm wrong, I've always understood that as long as you have an emcee syncopating over a beat you can call it Hip Hop, right?
Grandmaster Flash: Yes. Also to expound on that is, from a deejay's perspective, we can intertwine any other genres of music that came before and if you string it together properly - For example, if I'm playing 25 records in a set, five of them joints might be labeled as Jazz, two might be considered Rock, six of them might be considered Disco, four of them might be considered Pop. But all of them have one thing common, they have a hot beat. So if I go from a Pop joint to a Rock joint to an R&B joint to a Jazz joint to a Funk joint to a Blues joint and I'm ripping the crowd down, that is how Hip Hop was originally created. What's happening is once you start putting labels and titles on this thing here, I think that hurts the experimental side of Hip Hop.
I have big fear of the [phrase] "keep it real." My it can't be your it. How you get up in the morning is not how I get up in the morning. How you see life is not how I see life. So if we look at that like that and say keeping mines real, that's what I would like to say. Everybody has their own reality. Once you look at it as one reality now everybody is just trying to do the same thing. And that's when Hip Hop, in my opinion, becomes really dangerous.
This is what we do, we mix and match. This is what Hip Hop always has been. Never mind staying to one particular structure. Always mixing and matching, musically or vocally. That's what makes Hip Hop great and that's why it's a worldwide phenomenon.
DX: You said you always considered yourself a scientist. Scientists are constantly trying to make new discoveries in technology. With that in mind, where hesitant in making the transition from analog vinyl to digital deejaying?
Grandmaster Flash: I wasn't. I never forget my son, he's 18 now, maybe five or six years ago he was telling me about this thing called an MP3. I come from the era of the Walkman so when my son said to me, "Dad, I need an MP3 player, and this thing is the size of a cigar." For me I was like this is really wonderful. Like how do they possible put so much music into this tiny little box.
Then four or five years ago I was headlining this tour overseas, I think I was in Spain. I did my sound-check so as I was leaving the stage, making sure everything was technically, the next deejay that was going up, my support act, came on stage with a laptop and a hard drive. I just went to ask him, "Where are your records?" 'Cause my boys just hauled off six, seven crates of records off the stage. He said, "Grandmaster, the records is in the laptop." I'm looking down on him like, "What are you trying to play a game with me?" He set up; it took me about an hour to set up, it took him about 10 minutes. Turns on the laptop and here's all the titles of all these songs. So I think about what my son told me about the MP3 and the Wav from and he brought up this very special piece of vinyl, which I [now] know as [Sim-P] time-code because I use it in the studio. He moved it back and forth the Wav was moving back and forth in the monitor of the laptop. It blew me away.
From there is when I went searching - me and my partner DJ Demo - we were looking for every company that did it. So I went looking at Serato. I went looking at Torque. I went looking at Final Scratch. And then I went to the Winter Music Conference about three years ago, and there was company by the name of Native Instruments. They say, "Flash, can we bring you to a room, we want to show you something." I'm looking at these guys like, "Is this a stick up or something?" [Laughs] They brought me to this private room and they had this device that looked something like Serato; but then when I looked at it - I said, "Oh my God, this is like a recording studio." It had the same features as your Torq and Serato but the difference was it had reverbs, flanges, delays, all the things I use in my production you can do this to a record on the fly while you're deejaying.
They asked me to take it home and if I enjoyed it we could talk business. I took it home for about a month and compared it to the other three. I found Tractor to be the most powerful of the four, and it felt the most familiar to me. As a scientist I'm not always the one to create it first, but I'm definitely the one to jump on it if it's something that looks quite interesting. So that whole phenomenon of taking a Wav form, and deejaying a Wav form; it took my analog science to a digital realm.
It helps me now cause I still carry vinyl but there are some audiences I go to on a worldwide basis, they ask me for a certain record so many times I say, "Shit, I didn't bring it." Now I can go to a database, check for it and jam. The only disadvantage I say to that whole thing is if you was wack when it was an analog thing, you're going to be wack digitally. Don't think it's going to get easier. You still have to drive the vinyl. If you were a horrible driver during the analog years, you're going to be a horrible driver in the digital years as well. The steps are still the same.
DX: Is it true you have an entire home dedicated to your record collection?
Grandmaster Flash: Yes, next to my house I had to build a house. My record crates were becoming like furniture in the house, it was kind of ridiculous. I had to hire a builder to build me something like a house, like a barn like, with two levels. It's right next to my house so whenever I need to go look for something I can do in there and find stuff. It helps me with my production and the old school vinyl is big now. A lot of that stuff I haven't played in 30 years. What's incredible about the new crop of Hip Hoppers, they dig really deep. And some of them are quite surprising when they talk to me; they say, "Flash, we want to hear "Cracker Jacks." I'm like where did you get that from? Some of them were hidden titles of mine for like 25 years. But today's Hip-Hoppers want to know, they want to know yesterday. So I give them yesterday but I love giving them today as well.
DX: Since you alluded to sampling, you have always used plenty of session musicians in your production as well right?
Grandmaster Flash: I said this whole particular album I'm going to use no samples. It's going to feel like a Hip Hop album that's sample-based. I had to get certain horn players from England, I had to find certain keyboardist in New York, I had to find certain mix engineers to be able to get that essence. So when you listen to this album, The Bridge [click to read], it has vintage sounds - the bass, the snare drums, the claps, the bells, the violins - all those sounds are 20 and 30 years old. But what makes it now is the talent and the drum syncopation, the way it's played. It's an old school template, with a new school feel.
DX: Obviously you're in a great situation now with Strut distributing your label. But considering all the drama you went through with Sugar Hill Records, like having to take them to court to get the name Grandmaster Flash back, have you ever been fully compensated for all the work you put in with them?
Grandmaster Flash: Umm, I think I got a check from Sugar Hill maybe a year ago for about $6,000, that was it. So all the work and all the know-how that I gave them on how to record my group; and at that time I didn't realize I was producing. I was just telling them this what you gotta do here, this is what you gotta do here, I didn't realize what I was telling these people. All that work and all that nah, I didn't get compensated for that. But you know what the overall compensation for that is and I thank God; I'm still here. I just did it again It's okay. You live and you learn. Life is lessons and blessings. So no, I didn't get compensated for those records.
DX: Your book touched on ever aspect of your life from inventing cutting to being an absentee dad to your drugs use. Before writing the book had you ever openly discussed all those things with someone before?
Grandmaster Flash: Whenever a journalist would get really close to that area, I would always find a way to dance around it. I was either in fear of talking about it, maybe a little embarrassed to talk about. It got to a point where I had to say to myself, "Flash, if we're going to move on, you gotta face your past." Give it to the public so you can be in the present. So I gave you guys my past, I gave you my peaks and valleys. And that's what the book is. I gave you some of the things that I went through that I wasn't always proud of. But gave you me; Joe Saddler who becomes Grandmaster Flash. That's what the book is.
Mind you, it was the most fearful thing, even till today, that I could have ever done. While I was doing it never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would've been the best therapy that I could have ever done. Now that I did it, and I unloaded it, it's like a monkey off my back. All the things that happened, good and bad, you guys know now. If someone wants to call me an ex-drug addict. Yeah, I was; it's in my book. I used to be an ex-crackhead. If you want to say that I got jerked from the record. Yeah, I did! I wrote it in the book. It was my story and I held for a long time, it's yours now.
DX: In 2006 I was at the press conference when the Smithsonian exhibit on Hip Hop was announced, and you were there to present your donations. You got ever emotional when speaking about how you were at a loss for why Kool DJ Herc would always disrespect, you but you still held him in the highest regard. Have you two spoken or come to a resolution since then?
Grandmaster Flash: No. But I'll still say that he is the first, I'll still say it. We haven't come to a resolution but the real fact of the matter is. Like Herc may not be the easiest person to get along with, but regardless of that, he is still the reason why this thing is here. I did a song called "What If" on the album. "What if there's no Hip Hop, no Herc, no Bams, no Flash, no jams." He influenced so many of us. I think that it's sad that we don't know more, or the world don't know more about this great man and what he did in 1969. So much of the journalist world is caught in the '80s, but the reason why the '80s exist is because of the '70s. But journalists don't care to talk about that. Kind of sad, but it's true.
DX: You were there when Hip Hop started and saw the deejay fall back and the emcee come to prominence. What makes a great emcee worthy enough of rolling with Grandmaster Flash?
Grandmaster Flash: Cowboy reminded me of a circus ringleader. "Ladies and gentleman, girls and boys!" He had that powerful voice. He wasn't into a politics and science, he wouldn't say that in a rhyme. He was would say sort of nursery rhymes but his flow complemented this new style of deejaying that I created.
After that, Kid Creole who was probably the long winded one. If I said, "Say a rhyme now," he would rhyme from now until tomorrow and still by rhyming. Then he had a baby brother by the name of Melvin, and Melvin came in as being the more literal one, the more political one. He had a best friend named Scorpio. Scorpio wasn't really heavy literal, but he was the sex symbol of the group. And then the last member was from a group we used to battle, so when that group broke up, Rahiem became the fifth.
What makes a great emcee? I think the five that joined me all had their own greatness and then collectively is what made us so untouchable in our early years. There was very few groups that could stand up to us.
DX: Okay, let's say you wanted to start a new group. What would an emcee have to show you to make them a contender?
Grandmaster Flash: Oh. Whew. Today's audience demand so much. Shit! I'll know it when I hear it, 'cause I've heard the best. I don't know. That's really hard to say because Hip Hop demands so much. I can't even answer that question.
DX: I've always understood the Holy Trinity of Hip-Hop to be you, Herc and Bambaataa. Yet and still there are always going to be words spoken or written about well this deejay was doing this before or at the same time. In your words, what makes you an originator?
Grandmaster Flash: I'm the first person that put my fingertips on the record, which allowed me to control time. Meaning, a turntable and a piece of vinyl - you were strictly supposed to pick up the tone arm, put it down and let the record play. My contribution is taking that particular passage of that particular song and expounding on that by way of touching the vinyl and moving it in a backward and forward motion in concert with the fader being cut off and on. Both of these things happening at the same time so it's almost like controlling time, is what my contribution is. You gotta realize the part where the drummer broke down on the records where I come from, which is the '70s, that break was always maybe 10 seconds, 20 seconds. If I didn't figure out a was to take that particular part and make that the song, the rapper would have nothing to rhyme on to the beat. So my contribution is extracting what I call the best part of the song and percussively expanding that part.
DX: You always had certain records that where you're trademark party records. Anyone in particular special to you?
Grandmaster Flash: All of my records are my children. But one of my trademarks was "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" by Bob James, which is a Jazz record. That is one of my trademarks.