Interview with pioneering hip hop DJ / turntablist Grandmaster Flash

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2002
Grandmaster Flash

In the worlds of hip hop and dance music, the innovation and influence of Grandmaster Flash in undeniable. His pioneering mixing skills transformed the turntable into true ‘instrument,’ and his ability to get a crowd moving has made his DJ sets legendary. Flash is back with ‘Essential Mix: Classic Edition,’ a superb mix CD that brings together key tracks from his early days as a club DJ. We recently met up with him to talk about the new release, his DJ technique, and other topics.

What is the process like when you put together a mix CD?

Grandmaster Flash: “I had to take an era and squeeze it into 70 minutes, I was like ‘aargh!! This is horrible!’ My process of elimination came down to flow, because as we all now there were so many songs I could have added to this. It came down to flow. I must have done 10 or 15 different mixes, and I’d listen to them for a couple of days. This one had the most comfortable flow, and the tracks were key. They meant something to me when I was coming out of my sort of internship as a DJ in the early 70’s into this dance market. These songs served a very important purpose, and it just felt good! That was it!”

Were you thinking at all about how the CD would be listened to? For example, did the fact that there would be people listening to it at home and in their cars, rather than at a club, influence the tracks you selected, sequence, etc?

Grandmaster Flash:  “I imagined a party, and then it was a mater of follow-through, how one record went into another. How I began it and how I ended it was really important. It was kind of like a feel thing, because if I’d come up with some sort of format, I’d have pulled my hair out. And I ain’t got no hair! I wanted it to just come across with a feel, nothing technical, no format.”

What tracks did you think HAD to make it onto this cd?

Grandmaster Flash:  “Nu Shooz had to go on there, James Brown ‘Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’ had to go on there, Denroy Morgan “I’ll Do Anything For You” had to go on there. ‘Love Is The Message’ had to go on there. All the other songs sort of fit with those, as far as the groove and the feel was concerned. Maybe five or six songs were must haves. And that’s kind of how I build a set. The only difference is my set is usually longer than 72 minutes when I DJ! So I had to squeeze it down. This mixture is a great first step. As we all know, there’s so many that I could have added. But for a first set, coming out of the classic box, I’m pretty happy with it.”

Ideally, how long would you have made this CD?

Grandmaster Flash:  “3 hours.”

Do you see this as being part of a series?

Grandmaster Flash:  “Yeah, I need to. I know people are going be happy with this, but I know they will be like ‘oh, if only you had this on there.’ Like I said, this is a first step. I’m pretty happy with the mix, and we’ll see what happens.”

Were people making suggestions as you were selecting the tracks?

Grandmaster Flash:  “Yeah, that made it even worse. I made phone calls asking people what they thought. Some of it was influential, some of it was ‘ok, maybe – we’ll see.'”

Were they any songs that you wouldn’t have thought to include if it hadn’t been for suggestions?

Grandmaster Flash:  “Cymande ‘Bra,’ I might not have put that on there, because it’s not a super popular song, but it meant so much to the dance era when it first came out. Fatback Band ‘I Found Lovin.’ It’s not their most popular song, but it’s their most grooviest. Jimmy Castor Bunch ‘It’s Only Just Began,’ it was more like a break-beat song but then again it’s got a nice groove to it. So I said ‘alright, I’m putting it on there!'”

What type of actual production, beyond your DJing, goes into a CD like this?

Grandmaster Flash:  “The only thing that happens is that it’s recorded into a computer and any extra record noise, like popping, is removed. Other than that, I mixed it. There was no gluing or pasting, it’s what I do live.”

Were there any songs you wanted to include that you were not able to get clearance for?

Grandmaster Flash:  “Yeah, that was a big nightmare. There was one song by Earth, Wind, and Fire that I really wanted on here. But they said no.”

Did anyone have issues with the concept of a mix CD? Since unlike a tradition compilation, you weren’t including complete tracks, the way that they were originally recorded? How would you feel if someone used your tracks on their mix cd?

Grandmaster Flash:  “That’s a good question, but I didn’t deal with the administrative side of it. I’d be cool with it, because I’m a DJ. Because even hot records, you can’t play it all beginning to end in the club. I don’t care if it’s the hottest thing happening, you can’t play the whole record. After the second verse, you get out and go into the next hot record, you try to keep it moving. That’s what a mixer does basically.”

As someone known manipulating vinyl, how do you feel about digital technology?

Grandmaster Flash:  “I’m very happy with it from a production standpoint. If you go in to a studio and say take a sample of a Flash record, take a sample of a D Train record, you make it all work, and you make it a record then you put it out. After you’ve gotten clearances, of course. That’s fine. To use modern technology in a live performance setting, I have a problem with that. If a DJ is needed, let a DJ do it. I haven’t fully accepted CD machines, I guess that I’m a vinyl purist. I want to be able to touch the vinyl, it’s part of the artistry of what I do. Whereas with the cd machine, you pop it in and a computer does it for you. I don’t know if I’m with that too much, not yet, but I guess I’m coming along.”

Suppose that the current digital technology existed when you were first starting. Do you think you would embrace it? Were you initially attracted to the idea of mixing, or vinyl specifically?

Grandmaster Flash:  “That’s a good question. I know I was unhappy with the way DJs were doing things. I guess if all the DJs were using digital technology, I probably would have said ‘wait a minute, I’m going to go in there and do something else with it.’ But if digital technology had existed then, but DJs were still doing things with vinyl, I wouldn’t have touched digital technology, I probably still would have done it with the vinyl. Technology has its pluses, though. But I think in a live arena it doesn’t. If it can be done live by a human being, then let it be done live. Consumers should see that, because that’s the idea of them buying a ticket for 25 bucks, to see how you did it. As opposed to taking a DAT tape and putting it in and sort of live lip synching over the vocals. I hate that, it’s so, so horrible. When someone can just stay home with their $18.99 CD and hear that. But technology does have its place.”

Have you been doing any work lately with the development of DJing gear?

Grandmaster Flash:  “I did a deal with Rane , which is a mixer company, they allowed me to design a mixer in my image. It’s called the Empath. We’re going to unveil it in August at the audio show in Atlantic City. I’m hoping that this mixer will aid the DJ, because it’s always a problem with the type of jacks or the way it sounds or where the cueing is or where the LEDs are. I’m hoping with the mixer, people are going to be able to do their thing without looking. Because once you don’t have to think about it and you just fluidly do it, and that goes for anything, it makes it so much easier. And that’s where I’m trying to go with this mixer that I just developed. Eventually, I want to deal with the turntable, then with the needle. We’ll see what happens, though.”

Can you describe some of the features it has?

Grandmaster Flash:  “I can’t legally, because it’s too early. My company told me ‘don’t do it’!”

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