15 minutes with the Grandmaster

by Jason Jenkins

If you are a fan of hip-hop, then you have Grandmaster Flash to thank. He is one of the art form’s earliest exponents, and the first hip-hop artist in history to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

On the night of his performance at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, he couldn’t wait to get away from me. Bad luck, bad timing and the wrong questions made this an unfortunate interview, with the Grandmaster angry enough to harangue me on stage a few hours later. “The Japan Times says you don’t know who I am,” he bellowed to the crowd, “So let’s tell them: WHO AM I?”

We all knew who he is. Born Joseph Saddler, he, Afrika Bambaataa and a few others sowed the seeds of hip-hop in the Bronx borough of New York City in the late 1970s. Moreover, Grandmaster Flash single-handedly created most of hip-hop’s fundamental equipment and techniques. When DJs simply saw the turntable as a vehicle for playing records, he learned “to play the turntable as an instrument,” laying the foundation for one of the biggest music genres on the planet.

Hip-hop was the soundtrack to my youth. I listened to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at picnics and pool parties and my boombox blasted Whodini, Run DMC, Public Enemy and other artists he spawned. Now, 25 years later, I have dozens of questions for Grandmaster Flash — but fate wouldn’t allow it. What went wrong?

He was apparently in a foul mood long before we met. I had been in touch with his translator and he had warned me there had been confusion with his Japan schedule, with all his a.m. timings misunderstood as p.m. ones. On top of that, he had just stepped off the plane thinking he was playing in Tokyo, not in Naeba, a 5-hour bus ride from Narita airport into the Japanese Alps. There also seemed to be unresolved issues with his contract, and with hours to go before show time, the last thing he probably wanted was to meet a reporter.

Then there’s the reporter: me, decked out in overalls, gum boots and a leopard-print T-shirt that all festival staff were required to wear. Celebrating my brief freedom from cubicle life, I had also shaved my hair into a small Mohawk, a spiky rooster crest of a thing that certainly didn’t scream “serious journalist.”

Grandmaster Flash stormed out of the elevator in a huff. “I have to make a phone call in 15 minutes,” he said, looking me up and down. “Let’s do this quick.”

All artist interviews had to be conducted at the on-site Naeba Prince Hotel’s Hospitality Center, a neon-lit food-court converted into a lounge for artists. It’s a 5-minute walk — 5 precious minutes of the 15 I have been allowed — so as we shuffled down the hallway, I asked him about the Bronx (I had read he still lives there) and the tour (he was off to Bangkok the next morning).

“You want to ask me something, then ask it,” he barked. Enough with the small talk then.

As we reached the Hospitality Center, I brought up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Did recognition like that mean anything to him? Had he expected to be inducted?

“Who expects something like that?” he scoffed, visibly irritated. “No one expects that. Why would I expect that? Is that the best question you have? Ask something else.”

I panicked. This interview was getting worse by the minute, and minutes were in short supply. I should have asked him about his views on the rise of digital technology, or about his new autobiography, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.” I should have asked him about opening for The Clash in the early ’80s. Instead, for some reason, I asked him about multiples.

The concept of multiples states that ideas are in the air, and that at the right time and place, certain inventions are inevitable. For example, if Thomas Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb, then around the same time someone, somewhere, would have. The idea was ripe. If Grandmaster Flash had chosen a different life path, I asked, would someone else have invented scratching?

His face soured: “Don’t call it ‘scratching!’ ” he snapped. “I hate that word. It’s called ‘cutting.’ ”

Then he paused for a moment and continued, “I’ve never thought about if someone else would have come up with it. I don’t know. It took four years and a lot of experimentation, so I don’t know.”

In those days, he explained, turntables were built for one thing: playing records. They weren’t designed to be stopped with your fingers or to be spun backward, so he had to tinker with them to meet his needs. He ended up building many of the tools that would create the entire DJ industry: a cue system so that records could be heard in a pair of headphones without coming through the main soundsystem; turntables that could be manipulated by hand; even early forms of the mixer.

“I experimented with different kinds of needles,” he said. “I tested the torque of different turntables. I learned to put felt on the turntable so the record doesn’t get damaged. All of those are my inventions. I consider myself a scientist.”

Flash’s creations

The gear:

Not only did Grandmaster Flash build the first mixers and also turntables that could be stopped and spun backward by hand, he also invented the “Peek-a-Boo” system for cueing records by reconfiguring a microphone mixer and using a toggle switch to hear what the right- and left-hand turntables were playing through his headphones before it went through the amps.

The techniques:

The break: The climactic drum-beat breakdown on a record. These were usually short, so he extended them by alternately repeating the breakdown using two copies of the same record on different turntables.

Cutting: The predecessor to scratching. Used to isolate the break and repeat it indefinitely by moving the record back and forth.

Phasing: Manipulating turntable speeds to mix records of different BPM (beats per minute).

Back spinning: Repeating a beat or musical phrase by alternately spinning two copies of a record back to the same point and releasing them.

Punch-phrasing: Emphasizing a certain beat or phrase on one turntable by quick volume boosts.

Clock theory: Flash was the first to use a pencil to mark the record’s label in order to locate the grooves of the break, or any other desired passage of music.

MCs: When he started showing his new skills, people stopped dancing to watch. To keep the party going, he added rappers to divert attention.

Flash’s inventions gave birth not only to a new musical art form, but also helped redefine what music could be. As Grandmaster Flash, he took records by other musicians and manipulated them into completely new pieces of music — a precursor to the remixes, sampling and mashups of today.

I knew I was losing him as I explained my case, but I pressed on. “I think you’re more than just the inventor of hip-hop,” I proclaimed. “I think you are also a touchstone on the entire issue of fair-use and copyright battles. Do you think people recognize you for this?”

With this he snapped to attention. “Of course people recognize me! I don’t know what you’ve read, but I do more TV, radio and magazines now than ever.”

And with that he stood up to leave. I tried to rephrase the question, but it was too late.

“We can go see them now,” I heard the translator say, and then Grandmaster Flash was ushered into an office. Standing awkwardly outside the office door, waiting to take his picture, I traded nervous smiles with the translator until he said, “Maybe I should go and see if he needs help.”

Minutes later, he returned, brow furrowed. “Well . . . it’s not a language issue.”

When Grandmaster Flash emerged, everyone in the office followed him out, smiling and trying to shake his hand. Whatever the problem was, it was obviously settled.

He had fans waiting. Australian indie band and fellow Fuji Rock performers Midnight Juggernauts had recently asked him to do a remix for them, and now they wanted to pay their respects. His face suddenly softened and his mood brightened as he posed for pictures with them, shaking their hands and accepting their praise.

That’s when it hit me: Could all of this be about respect? Respect is as fundamental to hip-hop as any of Grandmaster Flash’s inventions, and what with jet lag, scheduling issues and contract confusion, did I and my interview somehow represent a lack of respect? Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to answer my questions. Maybe that’s why he called me out on stage — repeatedly — later that night. It was too late to change his first impression, but before I left I took his photo and thanked him as profusely as possible for his time and generosity. He shook my hand limply, staring out the window, but as I turned to leave, I heard him say, “It just took too long.”

“Pardon?” I said, wondering what else just went wrong.

“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said, looking me in the eye for the first time. “We should have been in there a long time ago.”