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DJ and Hip-Hop Pioneer Grandmaster Flash

At the dawn of hip hop, Grandmaster Flash recorded hits like "The Message" and "White Lines (Don't Do it)" with the Furious Five. He also is credited with creating the "Quick Mix Theory" — blending one music break with another.

19:23

Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2005: Interview with DJ Cool Herc; Interview with Melle Mel; Interview with Grandmaster Flash.

Transcript

DATE August 29, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
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Interview: Deejay and hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash
GRANDMASTER FLASH and THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) A child was born with no
state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind. God is smilin' on you, but he's
frownin' too, 'cause only God knows what you go through. You grow in the
ghetto, livin' second rate, and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate. The
places you play and where you stay looks like one great big alleyway. You'll
admire all the number book takers, thugs, pimps and pushers and the big
moneymakers, driving big cars, spending twenties and tens, and you want to
grow to be just like them. Huh. Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers,
pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers. You say, `I'm cool. Huh. I'm no
fool,' but then you wind up dropping outta high school.

Now you're unemployed, all null and void, walkin' round like your Pretty Boy
Floyd. Turned stick-up, kid, but look what you done did, got send up for an
eight-year bid. Now you're man is took and you're a may tag, spend the next
two years as an undercover fag being used and abused and served like hell,
till one day you were found hung dead in the cell. It was plain to see that
your life was lost. You was cold and your body swung back and forth, but now
your eyes sing the sad, sad song of how you lived so fast and died so young.
So don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my
head. Ha, ha, ha, ha. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how
I keep from going under. Huh, uh-huh, huh, huh, huh. It's like a jungle
sometimes.

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. Last night, Grandmaster Flash
was behind the turntables at MTV's "Video Music Awards." Flash was one of the
pioneer hip-hop deejays. In the '70s, he developed mixing and scratching
techniques that became part of the basics of hip-hop. He started off
deejaying records at parties in the South Bronx. Grandmaster Flash and The
Furious Five was one of the first hip-hop groups to break out of the local
scene and become an international success. When I spoke with Flash in 2002,
we started with a track from a CD that had just been released called
"Essential Mix: Classic Edition," featuring his mix of dance hits of the '70s
and '80s.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH and THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) Huh. Huh-huh. Huh-huh.
Ooh! Huh. Gone! Ha! Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Ha! He's acting
like a ...(unintelligible) nothing. Baby, give it up. Turn it loose, like a
sex machine. Hit me. Ha, ha. Ha!

GROSS: Music from the new Grandmaster Flash CD, the "Essential Mix: Classic
Edition." Grandmaster Flash, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: I'm interested in how you started mixing music, how you started using
two turntables or maybe even more than two. Was this something you started
doing at home or in clubs as a deejay?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: My love for vinyl and for the turntables probably came
about when I was old enough to sort of start looking into turntables and stuff
of that nature, and that's probably, you know--although it was a negative
experience, and when I say negative, meaning like I used to just sort of take
apart electrical items in my mother's house, including turntables, just to
figure out how they work and why they work, and my intention was to put it
back together properly, but I just could not do it, but I just had this thing
where I just had to know how the inside of a turntable worked, how the inside
of a radio worked and my father's stereo. And that's probably where it really
started. I just, like, had this undying interest of...

GROSS: Well, you basically started using turntables as if they were
instruments. What...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you start using turntables to change the music that you were
listening to as opposed to just playing the music?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, I think coming up, I watched a lot of deejays in my
early teens, and watching the deejays of that particular time, they were
playing the music. Like my influences, although they were great, positive
influences--I'm talking about DJ Kool Herc and DJ Jones--these two deejays
inspired me to do what I did. And they would play the music, and I just sort
of felt like I can take the most exciting part of a record, which we call the
break, and sort of extend that, because a lot of these songs that I was
listening to were like obscure funk tunes where the break section was like
maybe 10 seconds long, and from a frustrated point of view, I had this thought
that if I can just come up with a system, a way of just taking duplicate
copies of the record with two turntables and a mixer, I can extend that five
or 10-second part seamlessly and make it 10 minutes if I wanted to.

And, you know, my thoughts manifested into creating an art form called the
Quick Mix Theory, which is actually taking a passage of music or two duplicate
copies of vinyl and sort of moving the disc back and forth and repeating a
section of the passage, you know, between duplicate copies of the record.
That's where it started.

GROSS: So you'd let like the 10 seconds play on one record and then switch to
the other turntable and, meanwhile, back up the first turntable to the
beginning of that part of the record.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Exactly. And that was called the Clock Theory, yeah.

GROSS: Because you were putting the needle down on exactly the right part of
the record with the rhythm that you wanted to hear, could you actually--you
know, some people say that you were able to look at the grooves of a vinyl
record and know exactly where the rhythm was that you wanted, that you could
actually see it in the grooves.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, actually, you know, I was pretty decent at it, but
it was my first student that I taught this Quick Mix Theory to. Grand Wizard
Theodore was probably the best at that, and it was called needle drops. But
what I came up with is what I call the Clock Theory, and the Clock Theory was
where you would place the needles down on both copies of the vinyl, and when
the ending of one was over, you could push in the next fader, but while the
other one was playing, you would sort of spin the record back one or two
revolutions to the top of that break, and then when the other one was over,
you would push in the other, so it was like push, spin back, push, spin back.

So I actually never--you know, this here, this made it an assured way of being
able to get back to the beginning of the break section without actually having
to pull the needle up. And what I would do is I would mark like on the label,
if it was like a 12-inch from Atlantic Records and if the break began, let's
just say, at the top of the A, I would sort of put like a Magic Marker right
there, so that would be my clock of where I had to bring the record back to
one or two revolutions back to re-arrive at the top of the break, and I would
just sort of do this with two copies of records, back and forth, back and
forth. So picking up the needle, you know, was no longer an issue, because
that there wasn't definite. Because once you picked it up, you know, I could
always get close to it, but it was never really, like, exact, and creating the
Clock Theory, which all deejays use today now, where the mark the album at a
certain point, is one of my contributions to the art of the deejay mix.

GROSS: My guest is Grandmaster Flash. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop's turntable pioneers.
He developed some of the mixing and scratching techniques that became basics
of hip-hop.

So is scratching something that you invented, or was that invented by one of
the people who influenced you?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, actually, it was called cutting, and the whole
thing, like I said earlier in the interview, it was called the Quick Mix
Theory. And we called it cutting because it was actually taking a section of
the rhythm and rearranging it. And this is something that I've created over
27 years ago. It's now called scratching, which is sort of just like one
part. It's almost like, you know, saying to a boxer, he's boxing, but now
we're going to call it right hook. You know, the right hook is only one area
of a boxer's skill, and like the scratching is like one area of what this
thing, you know, entails, you know, when you look at it.

GROSS: Scratching--just for any of our listeners who don't know what
scratching is, it's when you're moving the record back and forth with the
needle on it, and the sound of the needle scratching the record creates part
of the rhythm track that you're going for.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Right, a percussive sort of sound.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: You must have been pretty obsessive at that time, taking apart
turntables and shopping for just the right needle and, you know, designing all
these variations on the technology that you were using, so it could do what
you needed it to do. You must have really been intense.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, it probably was more frustrated than anything,
because, I mean, there's so much stuff I had to buy. Like a lot of it was
trial and error, you know. You know, trying to get my hands on the right
needle, you know, I had to go through countless needles, you know. Trying to
find the right turntable, I had to go through countless turntables. And then
finding the right mixer, and then finding the right mixer, but then it didn't
have a system where I can pre-hear the music in my head, so I had to create
something called the Peekaboo System, so I had to like actually jury-rig these
things, you know.

And my frustration kept me more--it fueled the fire to me just staying at
this--just staying at this and, you know, throwing away my teen-age years
where, you know, your teen-age years is when, you know, you're feeling your
oats and you want to go hang out with the girls and you want to go to the
parties and stuff. I think I probably lived either in, like, the junk yards
going through, like, abandoned stereo equipment or, you know, going through
abandoned cars and taking out the speakers and the radios and stuff of that
nature. I probably lived in my room more so, you know, just looking for
something, you know...

GROSS: Did you have the money...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...in my frustration.

GROSS: Did you have the money to buy a lot of stereo equipment?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: No. That's why I had to go into back yards and look for
stuff, and sort of like go through abandoned cars or ask people, you know,
that might have been throwing away stuff. Just, you know, sort of like so I
can just basically have these things. But at this point in time, I still
didn't know what these internal parts was, so while I was tearing up all this
stuff inside my mother's house and became like public enemy number one with my
sisters and stuff, my mother decided to send me to school.

GROSS: What kind of school?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Samuel Carper's Vocational and Technical High School(ph)
and that's where I started to understand, like, what is a resistor, what is a
capacitor, what is AC vs. DC, what is a transformer, what's a push-pull
circuit, what's a dial rectifier, what's a transistor rise vs. tubes, and
what's an ohm meter and what's an oscilloscope and what's a wave? And, you
know, I started actually like understanding as I was not--so now when I tore
into something I sort of had somewhat of an idea of what it is or what it did.
So all these things helped me to jury-rig and put together, you know, this
Peekaboo System to a mix that I didn't have it and to figure out, you know,
how turntables work and how that works. So it kind of helped me to put
together the system so that I can start on getting this concept out of my head
that just kept--you know, it just kept staying in my head, so to speak.

GROSS: Why don't we listen to one of your classic recordings? And this is
"The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel."

(Soundbite of "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel")

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM (Band): You say, you say, you say, you say, you say
(singing) one for the trouble, two for the time, come on, girls, let's rock
that...

(Soundbite of whistle)

BLONDIE (Singer): (Singing) Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's high.
Deejay's spinnin' are savin' my mind. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash
is fast. Flash is cool. Francois sez fas, Flashe' no do.

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: (Singing) You say one for the trouble, two for the time.
Come on, girls, let's rock that...

CHIC (Band): (Singing) Good times.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Grandmaster Flash from the early '80s--one of his classic
recordings--the "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." You
know what I'd like to do? I'd like to hear that again, but this time keep
your microphone on and have you describe what you're doing as we listen to it.
Here we go.

(Soundbite of the "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel")

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: You say, you say, you say, you say...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch face. This is Punaji Monster Jam(ph). I let it go
there.

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: (Singing) ...one for the trouble, two for the time. Come
on, girls, let's rock that...

(Soundbite of whistle)

BLONDIE: (Singing) Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's high...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Bits of Blondie here.

BLONDIE: (Singing) Deejay's spinnin' are saving my mind. Flash is fast,
flash is fast...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch face. Punch face.

BLONDIE: (Singing) ...flash is fast. Flash is cool. Francois sez fas,
flashe' no do.

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: (Singing) You say one for the trouble, two for the time.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to Spooley(ph) again.

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: (Singing) Come on, girls, let's rock that...

CHIC: (Singing) Good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Good Times," Chic.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Apache" on a rub.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up. Cutting it up. Back in again.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch face. Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust." In.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it to rhythm. One (singing) uh, uh, uh, uh.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I'm using "Good Times" to rub the rhythm against Queen.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIC: (Singing) Good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: "Good Times" by Chic.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Now that release is so nice the way it synchronizes there.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: That's the whole key to it, you know. That's what my
contribution is. Keeping it on time, that was like the key.

(Soundbite of music)

FREEDOM (Band): (Singing) Grandmaster, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: It's--I punch bass...

FREEDOM: (Singing) Grandmaster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...from Freedom...

FREEDOM: (Singing) Cut faster. Grandmaster, cut, cut, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up.

FREEDOM: (Singing) Grandmaster, grandmaster, cut faster.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I'm punch facing "Good Times."

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to "Good Times."

GROSS: My guest is Grandmaster Flash. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop's turntable pioneers.
He developed some of the turntable mixing and scratching techniques that
became basics of hip-hop.

Now when we left off in your development as a deejay, you were still working
at home and scavanging audio equipment from junked cars and things like that.
Once you perfected your technique and you started working parties and working
clubs, what was it like for you to see the reaction of the crowds to the thing
that you had been doing alone in your home?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, I think that probably the first time when I first--I
guess after maybe a three-year period when I finally came up with it, I showed
my partners, Disco B, Easy Mike and--actually as I was creating it, they were
the only ones I would allow to come into my room and sort of like watch me do
this. And I think the first time that I decided that I would show this to the
public, it was outdoor dance, a block party we called it. come into the park
for free and just, you know, come party. And I think the first time that I
showed this, I said to myself--my theory was if I play the climactic part of
duplicate copies of a record--so it would be like maybe 10 or 15 duplicates
back to back, seamlessly on time, you know, I should have the whole
neighorhood park in an uproar. But I got the exact opposite, you know. It's
kind of painful with that, you know. It went according to what I thought it
would. People just sort of just stood there and just stood there quiet, you
know, hundreds of people. And they didn't get loud and they didn't party.
They didn't do what I thought. It was all so...

GROSS: Why not?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I don't know. I'm not sure what it was at that time, you
know, 'cause I had all the equations, you know, sort of set. You know, I
watched the songs--the songs that I picked, I watched certain deejays play
them from the beginning, and I knew that at that particular part is where the
audience went wild. So I figured, let me just go to the part of these songs
and just do them one behind another, but it was extremely quiet. And it
turned out that the real fact of the matter is is this vocal entertainment was
sort of needed to accompany this new way of deejaying, and I made the first
attempt, and I was totally horrible trying to, like, rap with my mixing. And
it was really too much to do at one time...

GROSS: Sure.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...because it was constant, you know, taking records on,
taking them off, putting them on. And so I was horrible at it, and then what
I would do is basically put a microphone out on the other side of the table.
Anyone that thought that they could verbalize to this newfound science of
mixing, please feel free. You know, everybody failed except for this one
person who probably was, like, the saviour of my esteem. His name was Keith
Wiggins. He was my first emcee. He went by the name of Cowboy. And Cowboy
had a way of--he reminded me of, like, a ringmaster at the circus, you know.
And he had a very commanding voice, and he came up with a verbalization, like,
you know, `Throw your hands in the air, say this, say home, say party,' and
this and that. So that was the perfect diversionary tactic to get people off
of looking at me and to look at him and do what he says do, while I go through
a series of breaks, you know, just playing one behind the other seamlessly to
the beat.

GROSS: Grandmaster Flash recorded in 2002.

(Sounbdite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Fun baby. Rich baby.

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S hip-hop week continues tomorrow.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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