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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NASTY (GENIUS OF LOVE)")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: Ladies and gentlemen, it's now the time for the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five MCs. (Rapping) 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.

MOSLEY: While DJ Kool Herc is often credited as the father of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash was one of the first DJs to make successful rap records and become a pioneer in the genre. In the '70s, he developed mixing and scratching techniques that became part of the basics of hip-hop. He spoke to Terry Gross in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: 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 DJ?

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 and stuff of that nature. So - and I had a sister that was, like, into the Michael Jackson sound. So I was pretty fortunate to grow up listening to quite a bit of vinyl. And I probably - 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 how my father's stereo. And that's probably where it really started, 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 DJs in my early teens. And watching the DJs 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 Pete DJ Jones. These two DJs 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 that's, 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. 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, Grandwizzard 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 would 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 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 record from - if it was 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, 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 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 DJs use today now, where they mark the album at a certain point, is one of my contributions to the art of the DJ mix.

MOSLEY: We'll hear more of Terry's 2005 interview with Grandmaster Flash after a break and also an interview with Melle Mel, who rapped on the hits "The Message" and "White Lines." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Yeah. Young ladies in the place, feel the highs. Feel the bass. If you want to rock till the break of dawn, somebody say, come on. Come on. Melle Mel, right on time - Taurus the bull is my Zodiac sign. And I'm Mr. Ness, and I'm ready to go.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. This week we're celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary by listening back to interviews with some of the most influential rappers and DJs over the past five decades. Let's get back to the 2002 interview Terry Gross recorded with one of hip-hop's pioneers, Grandmaster Flash.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) You say, you say, you say, you say, you say, you say, you say, one for the treble, two for the time. Come on, girls. Let's rock that. Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's fly. DJs spinning are saving my mind. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash is cool. Francois sez fas, Flashe' no do. You say one for the trouble, two for the time. Come on, girls. Let's rock that (singing) good times.

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 SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) You say, you say...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) You say, you say, you say...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: This is Spoonie Gee, "Monster Jam."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) One for the trouble, two for the time...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I let it go there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Come on, girls. Let's rock that. Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's fly...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into Blondie here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) DJs spinning are saving my mind. Flash is fast...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Flash is fast...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Flash is fast. Flash is cool. Francois sez fas, Flashe' no do. You say one for the trouble.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to Spoonie again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Two for the time. Come on, girls. Let's rock that (singing) good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Good Times," Chic.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Apache" on the rub.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up. Cutting it up. Back in again. Punch phrase, Queen, "Another One Bites The Dust." In.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it to rhythm. (Vocalizing). I'm using "Good Times" to rub the rhythm against Queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) Good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: "Good Times" by Chic.

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

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Thank you. Thank you. 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 SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Grandmaster, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I punch phrase from "Freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Cut faster. Grandmaster, cut, cut, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Grandmaster. Grandmaster, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I punch phrase in "Good Times."

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

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 work together is really good. What made you think about putting those two together?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, probably - I mean, 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 was being played. And they worked 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, 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 was, like I said earlier in the interview, is 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 just 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, is 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. Right.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Exactly.

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 sort of - I was looking for something because at this time, what 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. And that's when, you know, I had to start considering coming up with different techniques with just, like, torque versus 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. 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 terms and terminologies, you know? And 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, 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 countless amount of turntables.

So I 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 is, 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, versus, 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 these things had to come into play before I even was able to even start doing any cutting, scratching or 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, so much stuff I had to buy. Like, a lot of it was trial and error, you know, trying to get my hands on the right needle. You know, I had to go through countless needles. You know, in trying to find the right turntable, I had to go through countless turntables. 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 Peek-A-Boo system. So I had to, like, actually jerry-rig these things, you know?

And my frustration kept me more - it fueled the fire to me just staying at this and staying at this and, you know, throwing away my teenage years, you know, where - you know, your teenage 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, like, in the junkyards, 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 was - 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 backyards 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, just so that 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 the stuff inside my mother's house and became, like, public enemy No. 1 with my sisters and stuff, my mother decided to send me to school.

GROSS: What kind of school?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School. And that's where I started to understand, like, what is a resistor, what is a capacitor, what is AC versus DC, what is a transformer, what's a push-pull circuit, what's a diode rectifier, what's transistorized versus tubes and what's an O meter and what's an oscilloscope and what's a wave. And, you know, I started, like, actually understanding as I was, you know, not - so now, when I tore into something, I sort of had somewhat of an idea of what it is and what it did. So all these things helped me to jerry-rig and put together, you know, this Peek-A-Boo system to a mixer that 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: Let's get back to your new CD, the 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" 'cause she mentions you in the song.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Yes.

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 5 Freddy who used to come to my parties. But he also had this incredible connection with, like, the whites and different races of people downtown in 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's uptown, you guys. You know, there's this guy named Flash. You got to come - you know, come 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 who - knew that name. And I was basically on some, 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.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPTURE")

BLONDIE: (Singing) Back to back, sacroiliac, spineless movement and a wild attack. Face to face sightless solitude, and it's finger-popping, twenty-four hour shopping in rapture. (Rapping) Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody's fly. DJ spinning - I said, my, my. Flash is back. Flash is back. Flash is back.

MOSLEY: Grandmaster Flash spoke to Terry Gross in 2002. After a break, we'll continue our celebration of hip-hop's early pioneers with Melle Mel, who rapped on the hip-hop classics "The Message" and "White Lines." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "ROLL (BURBANK FUNK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.