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A Quietus Interview

Flash Bang Wallop: The Grandmaster Interviewed
John Doran , February 18th, 2009 04:21

Grandmaster Flash may have a rep as an unstoppable egotist (who wouldn't be under the circumstances?) but John Doran found him to be good company

Rather than cut into the interview time, I'll just say that Grandmaster Flash doesn't or shouldn't need any introduction. Bedroom bound Bronx electronics whizzkid who kept on experimenting with various hi fi set-ups despite severe beatings from his father. Old school pioneer DJ who was associated with the smash hit recording Furious Five and Melle Mel. Responsible for the intensely forward looking '... Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel'. Now hip hop's grandmaster/grandfather is releasing an album of original material The Bridge along with Busta Rhymes, KRS1, Q Tip, Big Daddy Kane, Princess Superstar and countless other guests on Strut. It was our pleasure to talk to him in London recently.

Why did you decide that the time was right to go back to releasing original material with The Bridge?

GF: "When did I come to the realisation? Timing. I knew the timing was right and I had a couple of offers from various record labels that wanted me to keep doing the same thing. My first love is DJing but I thought that my next record had to be a presentation of one of my other gifts which is production. So I wanted to make this album in a different sort of way and I had to find a company [Strut] that understood that I had to do this album exactly the way I saw it in my head. And now that I had the company I had to find a team to help bring my ideas to fruition. And I wanted to make this album like a DJ would make an album that's why there's no one song that sounds like another song; all the songs sound totally different from the other songs. Some of them I would call pop-hop, some of them are underground, some of them have a R & B feeling, some of them have something fairly serious to say, some of them were just messing round saying something stupid. And these are the things that hip hop consists of. I also wanted to include MCs that didn't speak the English language, that was very important to me. So it all went into the pot to create a musical soup so to speak.

Talking of MCs from all over the world, is 'We Speak Hip Hop' a reflection of how hip hop (which started in your neighbourhood of the Bronx) has become an international language now?

GF: "During my travels I'd never come across a mix of MCs that didn't speak the language or at least a portion of the language. I knew I'd like to see that. And that's why I used KRS1 to close it. And finding the right non-English speaking MCs was difficult, I went through a ton of demos, all across MySpace. I was going here and there looking for the ones to put a smile on my face. And then it was a matter of lining up who goes where. First it was the Swedish MC, then the guy from Spain, then the chorus, then the Japanese guy and right behind him there was a French African guy and after that KRS1 closes it. I think I kind of put it in a nice little situation."

Bar Chuck D, KRS1/Kris, is my favourite MC, so I was pleased to see a lot of him on the album; do you and him go back a long way?

GF: "Kris? I would say we probably haven't hung out a whole lot but I do know he's from the Bronx. In fact I do know his whole life runs parallel to mine. It was very... [grimaces and shakes hands]. Lots of problems so when it comes to the prime, reality speaking hip hop he is the consummate master, just as Chuck is."

Did you have a long list of people you wanted to approach (because there are a lot of guests on this album) or did people come to you once they heard about it?

GF: "When I decided to do the record, I first of all expressed to my family: 'I'm not going to be coming to a lot of events a lot.' I told my girl 'I'm not going to be hanging out a whole lot.' And I had to assemble a team of musicians to write tons and tons and tons of tracks. And then out of those tracks I had to pick the ones. And as I listened to the tracks, the tracks spoke to me. 'This track here feels like... Q Tip. Find him.' And my staff would go to CBS and find out where he was on tour. I would find out where they were and go to them with the track. That is what this album was made from. Vibe and instinct. No pre-choosing of the vocalist at all."

You have already touched on this but I think that people will really be surprised at how many different styles you cover on this, there's early b-boy electro, party old school, cut-up scratching, smooth lovers' R & B. There are a lot of tributes to eras of hip hop going on and it made me smile when I heard 'Tribute To The B-Boys' when I heard you'd broken out the 'Apache' break, one of the earliest hip hop breaks...

GF: "That's actually not the 'Apache' beat! It's original! I'm a scientist first, then a DJ and a producer, so when I did 'Tribute To The Breakdancers' I had to come up with a sound, a rhythm that a b-boy would truly dance to. I had to scientifically find out, how the drums would sound, how they would sit in the track. I'm glad that you said it sounds like 'Apache' but it's actually me and my production team programming. And it took maybe three weeks just to get the feel of it right. I had to use a drum machine which I've had for 23-years which is the SP12. I had to get the groove; that gritty analogue feel out of it. And then I went and looked for Supernatural – which was very hard to do because he was difficult to find – a guy I remembered from being on tour who would be the only MC who would be witty enough to come up with something that would work on the track. You thought it was 'Apache'? That's good!"

I suppose the main difference between the live funk band and therefore the break a DJ would use to create a beat and a drum machine is that, even on a subconscious level the former is going to feel 'looser' say.

GF: "Yeah, it's going to sound more 'human' but you can adjust a machine to get the sound flawed, so to speak. You tell it to play a particular bass beat three milliseconds late so that it 'feels' like a human playing it. On this I had to sample vintage drum beats and that is the most important part for me is the sound of the record. All the drums apart from one or two songs, all the toms, bass drums, snares, bells, they are all vintage sounds that I had to give a crisp, today sort of feel. But that's where you get the vintage feel from. It's got to be analogue. Digital is great but analogue it's like your girl, it's like your wife. She's warm, friendly. You can't get around that. "

So you're obviously still really in to your technology...

GF: "Heck yeah. I'm a fiend for that. My girl hates it because I'm always buying something. I'm always on the web looking for the latest plug in or the latest piece of gear."

Maybe then, people who didn't know this about you would be surprised to find out that you work with the Traktor people[MP3 DJ specialists] – whereas it makes sense when you think about it.

GF: "Absolutely, I'm a scientist first. I think for me, I discovered it by accident. I travel with my vinyl still. I don't travel with it as much but I still travel with it. I remember once doing a sound check and I finished, so I broke down, unwired and the next person was coming up. So I'm looking to see where this guy's boxes are and there's no boxes, no team of people, just him and this little square box and a lap top. So I say to him 'Excuse me son, my name's Grandmaster Flash. Can you tell me where your records are?' And he said: 'Grandmaster, the records are in the laptop.' Now I'm looking at him like he was trying to disrespect me and he said 'Grandmaster I'm going to show you.' He said 'Here are the songs and on the window are MP3 waves.' And then I remembered what my son had said a year earlier 'Dad, it's what's in an iPod, an MP3.' And I looked at my DJ partner and said 'Oh shit, something just happened... we need to figure this out.'"

Other than music we've heard from you recently because you've had a biography[The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats] come out. I think it's fair to say your life has had a lot of ups and downs. [He arches eyebrow and looks incredulous] Did you find it difficult to go through your life story in this manner?

GF: "The most painful thing I've ever done to date is to make the conscious decision to say that I'm going to do this. I remember when I did the deal with a woman called Janet Hill and she said 'There are two ways you can do this book. You can bare your soul and tell the truth or you can fluff it up but readers are far from stupid. They know what fluff is.' I took the deal and David Ritz who was responsible for BB King's story and Marvin Gaye – one of the bigger writers in the business - started extracting this story from me and I had to relive it. There was lots of crying. Lots of pain. But I think I had to do that book before I could do this album. I had to let go of yesterday in that sense. The painful things that I've been through with record company things and what my dad did kind of had me forced into a corner and once I did the book everything just fell into place. That pain, [thumps chest] it isn't in here anymore. It's not my pain now; it's yours."

Back at the beginning, how old were you when you were watching Herc and Pete Jones starting to realise that if they repeated the break of a funk record that people would go wild?"

GF: "Teens. Late teens. I had heard while I was doing my own scientific thing from my friends 'You need to go to the other side of the Bronx and see this guy, his name is DJ Kool Herc.' And many times I was like 'I'm busy' because I was doing my own scientific junk, so to speak. And after being harassed by my crew so many times, I decided to go to the park and there was this big 6ft figure and he was playing this amazing music which I'd heard on the radio; it was disco. But the manner he was playing it; lots of train wrecks, things weren't flowing or following on from another. Not that I saw what was happening because I couldn't but I would have liked to have heard one song coming out of another. And like with a train, the arrival and the departure was wrong. The timing was wrong. I went two more times to see him and then I stopped. Throughout all my teenage years I had been searching for something. I was searching for something and I had found it."

Do you think it was the fact that you were already so into building electronic gear that attracted you more to DJing than say one of the other three cornerstones of hip hop?

GF: "I don't know. I did do a bit of break-dancing but I wasn't good; I was terrible. But I was driven to do things with electronics and I would break down a turntable and if I didn't put it back properly and my Dad realised, I was going to get my ass kicked. But then as soon as he went out I would do the same thing again. If I couldn't put it back the way it was, he'd realise and I'd get beat again. I got beat again and again and again and again and again. So when I became a teen, and when I came of age and I saw Herc I said 'I'm done. I need to go and do something about this.' I wouldn't say what he was doing was wrong because he was still right. The party was packed and people were enjoying themselves but maybe it was just me. Something was just... I just knew I had to go and do something and that's where I was."

But when you eventually got your first set together after weeks and months of practising and you decided to show your friends, they didn't react the way you'd hoped. In fact, didn't they think what you were doing was awful?"

GF: "It was a disaster. [Flash then gives a demonstration of what his first set was like using teapots, milk jugs and salt and pepper pots to demonstrate hand movements and vinyl positions.]

I guess at the birth of a genre there are few rules that you have to follow. What prompted you to move on to getting a group together?

GF: "Well, when I used to watch Herc, he used to talk over the records but the flaw with what he was doing was that he wasn't talking to the beat. He was DJing to any sort of beat at all. My key thing was timing. I tried to DJ in time, and talk in time. And when I learned how to do it, I wasn't great. I'm really good at it now, but at that time I couldn't do both. So slowly but surely I was going to other areas in the Bronx, going to other block parties. I had a table set up and I would point to people and I would say 'Come and vocalize to what I'm doing.' And if you could do something to what I was doing with confidence then you could be part of my crew. Many people failed and the first person to pass was Cowboy."

There's one thing I have to ask you about before we wrap this up. One of my favourite early hip hop tracks ever – and historically it's so important – is 'The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel'. And it's so rare that one 12", not even an album is responsible for helping to spawn entire genres of music and it still sounds futuristic now. When people first heard that record, did they understand what you were doing?

GF: "No. The only country that understood that record was the UK. At that time, 'The Message' was out, which was a great big record. Whenever we did interviews over here, the interviewers kept on asking about '... Wheels of Steel'. It kept on popping up and the record company didn't understand why. I didn't understand! But the United Kingdom caught on to it more than America did. And from the United Kingdom Europe got it. And from Europe, Japan got it. And everywhere I go people were just saying 'Thank you.' And people were comparing me to all these great people; comparing me to Toscanini. Which is a little bit scary, I was just having fun making a record. I didn't know what I was doing."

Just one more: what do you think of the shift of emphasis away from the four cornerstones of hip hop to the focus being solely on the rapper?

GF: "Journalists. You guys started talking about the vocalists too much. And the other three elements – I won't say fell by the way side but they started getting less focus. The past that it was, the wonderful beautiful time that it was: it's never coming back. Somewhere along the line this thing became internationally appreciated and then corporations came in and instead of equally talking about all of the elements, you guys started talking about the raps and the words and the good rhymes and the bad rhymes and the gangstas and it just stayed on lyrics. The journalists just care about the vocalists, so let me ask you why is that?"

I can see why some journalists are interested in the gossip of a person, their status as a celebrity, rather than their status as a musician. So I can see why an entertainment journalist as opposed to a music writer would be interested in 50 Cent. Personally speaking I'm not that interested in 50 Cent because I don't think he could rap his way out of a damp paper bag but a mainstream journalist would say 'Ah but he's been shot eight times and I find that a very interesting story and that gives me something to write about.' That's what I think the difference is. I'm a fan of DJing, not always first and foremost – not in the case of Public Enemy for example. Chuck D's delivery is paramount with PE and his message a close second. But for the main part whether it's Premier, the RZA, Timbaland, The Neptunes, early Shadow, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, Dan The Automator or Grandmaster Flash, it's the people who are making the music, the DJs, the production team. That's who I'm interested in.

GF: "Well, good to talk to you man."