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Grandmaster Flash speaking at a Hip Hop history event at the Smithsonian

DJ and Hip Hop forefather Grandmaster Flash

DJ and hip hop forefather Grandmaster Flash. At the dawn of hip hop, he recorded with the Furious Five. Their hits included "The Message" and "White Lines (Don't Do it)". Nearly 3 decades ago, Flash created the 'Quick Mix Theory,' the process of blending one music break with another. His chose the songs for the new CD, Essential Mix: Classic Edition. It includes a collection of 70s and 80s dance songs.


Other segments from the episode on July 8, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 8, 2002: Obituary for John Frankenheimer; Obituary for Kenneth Koch; Interview with Grandmaster Flash.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Grandmaster Flash discusses his music and career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Grandmaster Flash, is one of
the pioneer hip-hop deejays. In the '70s, he developed mixing and scratching
turntable techniques that became part of the basics of hip-hop. He started
off deejaying records at parties in the South Bronx. His group, Grandmaster
Flash and The Furious Five, were once of the first hip-hop groups to break out
of the local scene and become an international success. We'll hear some of
his classic recordings a little later, but let's start with a track from his
new CD, Grandmaster Flash, "Essential Mix: Classic Edition," featuring his
mix of dance hits from the '70s and '80s.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ooh! Ha, ha! Gone! Ha!
Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Ha, ha! Acting like a ...(unintelligible)
nothing. Baby, give it up. Turn it loose, like a sex machine. Hit me. Ha,
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 started
off when I was a toddler, you know. Growing up at home, I was pretty
fortunate to be around a montage of different types of music. Like my
sisters, my bigger sisters, were into like Tito Puente, Joe Bataan. Like my
father was into like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Cab Calloway. My mother
was like into Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, stuff of that nature. And I had a
sister that was like into the Michael Jackson sound.

So I was pretty fortunate to grow up listening to a quite a bit of vinyl, and
my love for it 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...


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 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

(Soundbite of music)

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

Now was 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.


GROSS: So did you practice that a lot at home so you could just like really
play these turntables as instruments and do exactly what you wanted on them?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Yeah. I was looking for something, because at this time,
when I wanted to come up with this science, there was no point of reference,
no blueprints around, so I was constantly at it, yes, but I was looking for
something. And as I was looking for something, you know, I would run into
obstacles, so that's when, you know, I had to start considering coming up with
different techniques, which is like torque vs. inertia for turntables, you
know, because a lot of the turntables--like you can buy a turntable now that's
suited for whatever; you want it to do this, you can buy a turntable for that
or a mixer or a needle.

But at this particular time, in the '70s, this stuff didn't exist. So I had
to like actually come up with science and the terms and terminologies, you
know. And now with turntables, I came up with this thing called the torque
factor, and the torque factor is based on, from the state of inertia and you
press that power switch, and if that platter takes more than a turn to be up
to speed, then the torque of that motor wasn't very good, you know. So in my
search, you know, I went through a countless amount of turntables. So I had
to like actually create the electrical items first before even coming up with
the Quick Mix Theory.

And then I had to go look at needles, and then I learned that needles, you
know, were in two classifications, which one is the elliptical and the other
is the conical, you know. And conical, although it doesn't sound as good, it
stood in the grooves better because it was shaped like a nail vs. like an
elliptical stylus that was built like a backwards J. But as soon as you would
bring the disc back, it would fall out of the groove, so, you know, all of
these things had to come into play before I even was able to even start doing
any cuttings, scratching, whatever the case may be.

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, I 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: 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

(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 if 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

PUNAJI MONSTER JAM: (Singing) 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) Grand master. Cut faster.

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

FREEDOM: (Singing) Grand master.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...from Freedom...

FREEDOM: (Singing) Cut faster. Grand master, cut, cut, cut faster.


FREEDOM: (Singing) Grand master, grand master, cut faster.

(Soundbite of music)

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

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to "Good Times."

GROSS: That's Grandmaster Flash walking us through his recording "The
Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" recorded in 1981.

You know, the way "Good Times" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust"--the
way the rhythm of the two are together is really good. What made you think
about putting those two together?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, probably, first, they were two pretty big songs at
that particular time and they're almost in the same key. They're almost
identical in the way that the bass is being played. And they roached really
well in the club back in the days. So I felt, you know, putting it in the mix
was like a real good idea, you know.

GROSS: Now when we left off in your development as a deejay, you were still
working at home and scavenging audio equipment from junked cars and things
like that. Once you perfected your technique and you started working parties
and then working in 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, Disko B, Easy Mike and--actually as I was creating it,
they were the only ones that I would allow to really 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 an outdoor dance--a block party we
called it--you can 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 climatic part of duplicate copies of a record, so there'd be
like maybe 10 or 15 duplicates back to back, seamlessly, on time, you know, I
should have the neighborhood park in an uproar. And when I got the exact
opposite, you know, it was kind of painful that, you know, it didn't work
according to what I thought it would. People just sort of just stood there
and just stood there quiet--you know, I'm talking about hundreds of people.
And they didn't get loud and they didn't party. They didn't do what I
thought, you know. So it's...

GROSS: Why not?

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

GROSS: Sure.

GRANDMASTER FLASH:'s constantly--you know, it's a constant, you know,
taking records on, taking them off, putting them on, you know. So I was
horrible at it. Then what I would do is basically put a microphone out on the
other side of the table and anyone that thought that they can verbalize to
this newfound science of mixing, please feel free, you know. Everybody failed
except for this one person who probably was like the savior 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
ho, 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 another seamlessly to the beat.

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

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Ladies and gentlemen, it's now the time for the
Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five ...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) We're coming. We're coming. We're coming.
We're coming. We're coming. We're coming. We're coming. We're coming.
We're coming. We're here. Oh. Ha, ha. Whoo!

Unidentified Man #2: Aye, Mommy. I want to get next to you, baby. Ha, ha,
ha. (Singing in Spanish)

(Soundbite of music)

THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) We want to rock you!

Unidentified Man #3: We're the kings of swing.

GROSS: My guest is Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop's pioneer deejays. He
developed some of the turntable mixing and scratching techniques that became
basics of hip-hop. His group Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five had
several hits on the hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records.

Let's hear one of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's big hits. This is
"The Message." And it's probably the first big rap record that has a social
message to it; that's about social commentary as opposed to just being a party


(Soundbite of "The Message")

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me
wonder how I keep from going under. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes
me wonder how I keep from going under.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Broken glass everywhere. People pissing on
the fridge. You know they just don't care. I can't take the smell. I can't
take the noise. Got no money to move out. I guess I got no choice. The rats
in the front room, vultures in the back. Junkies in the alley with the
baseball bat. I try to get away but I couldn't get far because the man with a
tow truck repossessed my car. 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.

GROSS: That's "The Message," and the rappers are Melle Mel and Dick Booty.
My guest is Grandmaster Flash.

Let's go back to your new CD, Grandmaster Flash, "Essential Mix: Classic
Edition." One of the things on here is Blondie's "Rapture," and that's one of
the songs that you sample in the "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the
Wheels of Steel," because she mentions you in the song.


GROSS: How did you find out about each other, do you know?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, actually how it happened was when I was--maybe 10
years before I recorded--making records, there was a gentleman by the name of
Fab Five Freddie who used to come to my parties, but he also had this
incredible connection with, like, the whites and different races of people
downtown near the Village. So back in the days he was like hanging downtown
in the Village, but he would come up to the Bronx and party with Flash, Herc
and Bam. And he was sort of like our town crier also. He would go downtown
and say, `Listen, there's this guy. He's uptown. You guys--you know, there's
a guy named Flash. You got to come, you know, check him,' you know. And he
would say to me, `I'm going to bring one of my good friends up Deborah Harry.'
And everybody at that time knew that name, and I was basically going, `Yeah,
right. Whatever.' And then, surprisingly enough, a couple of weeks later, he
brought this woman to my party. And she watched me play and she was extremely
happy with the way that I played and said that she was going to write a song
about me. I took it as a grain of salt--didn't really believe it until maybe
two or three months later, and she did it. And she opened up so many doors
for hip-hop by doing that.

GROSS: Well, why don't we close with "Rapture," which is on your new mix CD.
And, Grandmaster Flash, thanks so much for talking with us.


(Soundbite of "Rapture")

BLONDIE: (Singing) Back to back. Sacrailiac. Spineless movement and a wild
attack. Face to face, sadly solitude. And it's finger popping, 24-hour
shopping in rapture. Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's high. Deejay's
spinnin' are savin' my mind. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash is fast.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Music from the new CD Grandmaster Flash, "Essential Mix: Classic

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Freeze, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock. Aah,
aah, aah, aah, aah.

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) Face.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Ooh, white. White. Ooh, white. White. Ooh,
white. Black. Ooh, white.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) White lies...

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) Visions, dreams of passion.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...flowing through my mind.

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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