HIP-HOP WAS BORN IN THE BRONX IN the summer of 1973. To celebrate the music’s 50th anniversary, “Rolling Stone” will be publishing a series of features, historical pieces, op-eds, and lists throughout this year.
It’s the eve of hip-hop’s birthday, and Grandmaster Flash’s phone has been blowing up lately. As one of rap’s founding fathers, his itinerary is teeming with engagements. When I ask him what his plans are for this weekend, he gives an overwhelmed laugh and notes that he’ll probably be shuffling from spot to spot. It’s understandable that anyone throwing a Hip-Hop 50 event would want him there. His contribution to rap is as foundational as it gets, which is why New York City Mayor Eric Adams made August 4th Grandmaster Flash Day (on the same day as his Grandmaster Flash and Friends event in The Bronx’s Crotona Park).
The Bronx-raised DJ, rapper, and producer founded Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, one of rap’s most important groups, and he’s renowned for his Quick Mix technique, where he’d put his fingertips on vinyl and essentially loop portions of it, usually a drum break. The emcees at his parties would then rhyme over the loops; the technique is the genesis of hip-hop production and sampling. “[The Quick Mix] is the beginning of it all,” he tells me over Zoom. “It turned DJs into musicians and allowed the rapper to have a bed of music to speak on. Other than that, where would this music have come from? It had to come from the same duplicate copies of vinyl, and the breakdown drum section, we would repeat that over and over again, and then in front of the table would be a person that’s speaking. The first person that did that when I invented this was Cowboy, and this happened in the Bronx.”
Throughout our conversation, the 65-year-old Flash bigs up his home borough, expressing pride that the whole world is celebrating the Bronx as the home of hip-hop. Even though he doesn’t feel as resolute as others about August 11th, 1973 being hip-hop’s birthdate, he’s happy that people are using the festivities to celebrate the history of the genre. He tells me that he took a break from his international touring schedule to stay in the states and take part in the festivities, as well as do interviews where he can speak on the roots of hip-hop.
I was at the Rock the Bells show last Saturday, which featured rap legends like LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Jadakiss, and more. I saw you were there, too. What was your experience like?
It was pretty cool. I’ve watched LL as a shorty come up as an artist, and to see him going to this next stage of being the face of a festival and also being the curator and a promoter — I came and checked that out and it was pretty good. Me and L are close friends, so it’s cool. It’s really cool. I also did [my event] the day before. I’m an artist and a DJ, and was also the face of my event.
Can you tell me more about your event?
It was called Grandmaster Flash and Friends. My intentions was to re-emulate the Seventies and have a team of DJs with a team of graffiti artists, a team of emcees and DJs because you got to realize this hip-hop thing is a four-element culture. So I felt it critically important to go out and get some of the street kings, street queens, the ones who helped build this culture.
Do you anticipate that being an annual thing?
Oh, well, we’re talking about it now. We definitely are talking about doing this annually. That is the mission.
At Rock the Bells, there were so many, veteran acts. How often do y’all get to be together like that? What was it like seeing everybody?
I think the camaraderie was because of hip-hop overall, not just one particular festival. The Bronx is the beginning of all this. I come from a time there was no computers, no apps, no social media, no studios, no real technology, just two copies of the same record, and I came up with a DJ technique. Whenever you’re seeing DJs putting their fingertips on the record and taking one area of the beat and repeating it over and over again and creating a bed of music, this is what I invented. And this was done before the recording studios came into play, before the sampling came into play, because you got to look at it and understand there was no way to go into a studio to make the beat. So the beat had to come from where? From existing compositions.
There are artists from around the world coming in to see the birthplace of where this all started. Not just my festival, not just LL’s festival, not just Yankee Stadium. The seed was planted in the Bronx.
How do you feel about the state of the DJ in 2023?
I feel absolutely great. Me doing what I do, me allowing the rapper to have a bed to speak on, and then the creation of the beatbox and all these different elements…you got to realize we was doing this when we was children just in a park, playing around. So to take something that was recreation and now become a staple of the biggest music on planet earth, I take all this with me. So for example, before COVID, I traveled to 150 countries for 18 years, going around everywhere from Africa to Australia, to London, to Germany, to Belgium, to Holland, to…I can’t even remember all the countries. They wanted to see the people who helped invent this.
At what point did you realize that “I’m touring a lot, do I want to take a break or do I just want to keep this pace?” What did that look like?
I can just say to my agents, “I want to go out the whole year,” or “I want to go out half the year,” or “a quarter of the year.” Depends. But this year I had to stay back more because this was [Hip-Hop 50]. And I know that I have to talk to people like yourself, to explain how it was when it was nothing. So this year, I toured much less, but I’ll be going back out in October.
You’ve been here this year, because you’re busy doing a lot more interviews and documentaries?
Yeah, I have to be here. You wouldn’t be able to catch me if I was on my normal schedule. You would never catch me. Because I might be in Vietnam, I might be in Germany, I might be in Holland, I might be in Australia. I might be somewhere on this blue planet called Earth, but you wouldn’t catch me. I’m gone. People are calling on me all the time.
Have you always acknowledged August 11th, 1973 as the birthdate of hip hop?
Yes and no. I accept the fact that August 11th is a great date because at that time, [DJ Kool] Herc had the biggest platform and the biggest audience. But we all were DJing back at that time — myself, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Breakout. It’s just that he had the biggest platform and notably he had the best sound system. My sound system was probably the crappiest, because I hand-built it from nothing, from junk.
Were you at that particular party that night?
No, and I look forward to finding somebody that was. I’d love to meet them.
I also saw recently that you received a hip-hop degree from Lehman College following your honorary degree from Buffalo State. How do you feel about receiving those degrees?
It’s an honor to receive documentation outside of hip-hop. At my event I got a proclamation from the Mayor: August 4th is Grandmaster Flash Day. All these things here, it makes it seem like “wow, people outside of our community, which is quite large, are paying attention.” And I think it’s humbling.
How involved were you in the planning or production of any of the events that Mayor Adams has had going on?
I’m always informed, [like,] “this is getting ready to happen here and happen here.” I’m not a promoter or a planner, but I’m one of the people that they want to show up and speak to young people, or to hang out with some of the artists. Because myself, Herc, Bam, Breakout, we got 50 years in this here. So now, they look at us as elder statesmen. Whenever I can, I jump in the whip and I go. Like last night, Mayor Adams had a festival at Orchard Beach, I went by, had a ball seeing some of my old rapper friends and DJ friends. And it was [around] 8,000 people out there. It’s pretty cool.
Right now the Bronx is buzzing. And I think it’s for a wonderful reason. Because doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it — you wonder if people really care or know where this thing came from. And people from around the world came to my event. Some came from Venezuela, some came from Brazil, some came from Germany. I’ve seen people from different countries at my event. So, as one of the inventors, you want to know that people care. It’s pretty cool, man.
In what ways do you feel like Hip-Hop 50 can be the catalyst to continue beyond 2023, so that people will be more cognizant of hip-hop history?
The people who started this, when this was recreation, have to go out and shake hands with people and say thank you. I’ve gone to more festivals and events in the past couple of weeks than I’ve done in years. The Bronx is buzzing so much. Every day there’s something new to go look at, and hopefully after this weekend is gone, people will take home the importance of the Bronx because some of these people had never been here. They heard about it, there’s been press about it. But to be able to say that you were at an event in the Bronx, now that takes it to another level. And that’s why I try to make it a point to go to as many festivals as possible. Go shake hands with people, hug the fans. It’s truly important.
How busy will you be this weekend? What are your plans?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] I’ve got to get an itinerary together today to say, “All right, this is happening here. This is happening here. You could squeeze in here for a little while, then jump in the car and go over here and jump in the car and go over there.” I’m not sure. I got to be honest with you, I’m not sure.
How do you feel about the state of hip-hop music? I’ve seen different veteran acts say different things about where rap is now.
How do I feel about where rap music is? My perspective is, this thing came from nothing. So when something that is as loved by so many people from so many different sides of the planet, it has to grow. It has to change. The perspectives on how we do things in America might change versus those in Germany. And the ones in Germany it may change for those in Australia or Africa or England. In order for this thing to keep on growing, it has to go to other places and everybody’s got to put their point of view on it musically and lyrically.
So for me, I just hope before I leave here permanently, that it just continues to keep growing. This thing could have been dismissed totally in the Seventies. The world could have just said, “Ew, I don’t like that.” But instead they said, “Whoa, what’s that thing you all kids is doing?” And then 10 years later they started making it the record business. So I’m quite happy that it has grown. And then also I’m quite humbled because I’m doing something that I love and I’m making a living at it. That’s incredibly special, incredibly special.
I’ve heard veteran acts be less receptive to some of the new sounds and styles that are coming from hip-hop. But it seems like you’re saying that you feel like it’s all innovation and showing the ways that hip hop is expanding culturally.
Different perspectives to different points of the world. Before [I’m a DJ], I’m a scientist and I took something from nothing. I took parts from this and parts from that and I figured out a way to put my fingertips on the vinyl and repeat a certain part, which allows the rapper to have a bed to speak on. So for me, innovation is critically important. It’s the only way this thing is going to grow.
For me, as a scientist, I’m quite happy. I can’t lie. Do I like all the songs? No, but you don’t like all the songs either. You like what you like, certain songs you do, certain songs you don’t. Whether it is pop or it’s rock, or it’s jazz, or it’s blues or it’s funk, rap, disco, R&B. You pick what you like. But just think if this thing missed and this would’ve never happened, now that is scary. So here we are.
What do you think are some of the major questions that the hip-hop community should be asking itself as it looks ahead to the next 50 years of hip-hop?
I watch too many documentaries that do not go back to the beginning, which is the DJ. They start on the second floor if you want to use the building as a metaphor. A lot of the documentaries don’t go into the basement and say, “Well, all right.” A lot of times when a person is asked who made the best hip-hop record the first thing they talk about is a lyric, but let’s imagine if there was no music, what would they rhyme on?
I came up with this DJ technique that created the bed for Cowboy to speak on — he’s the first rapper ever. What if he and I didn’t do that? There might not be no rapper. So for me, that’s how I feel about that.
Can you speak to how all the hip-hop 50 events, shows, and festivals are offering financial opportunities for veteran acts that haven’t had as much recently?
That’s wonderful because there’s some acts I hadn’t seen in 15, 20 years. I must have hugged more people in the last three weeks than I’ve hugged in years. Like “where you been?” This is pretty cool. So for me, this is a blessing and it’s about time that people come to the Mecca as opposed to the Mecca just being the beginning. Now we’ve opened our doors to the Mecca, come see it, come walk on our soil, come see our buildings, come see how we live. Because that’s the best way for a human to capture something is to come to it.
I could tell you stories over Zoom but it’s nothing like just sitting in a room and saying, “This is where that happened.” Or taking you to a block and saying, “This is where that happened 52 years ago.” You’d get a different perspective as a human to feel and touch something or just walk on the grass where the grass wasn’t there. Or this building that’s there now wasn’t there 50 years ago. You know what I mean? So now people are flying in from around the world. Some are performers and some are just fans, and they’re getting ready to touch our soil. It’s really wonderful.
How do you feel about the perception that hip-hop isn’t as “political” as it once was musically?
Like I told you earlier, as time changes, there’s certain lyrical subject matters that have importance, and then the importance swings and changes. This is hip-hop, this is what it is. I mean, next year the next thing could be whatever, but that’s the beauty of this because it’s ever changing and it’s revolutionizing and it’s always going someplace. It’s not stagnant. So I can’t explain it any other way. It has to change, and the next young rapper may have a different way to do their “Message” because the timeframe when that record was made versus the timeframe where things are, it’s night and day.
The problems that I hear today aren’t the same problems that were here 40 years ago. Life has changed. You probably weren’t even born yet. So your perspective on problems is going to be much different than mine’s. You’re going to hear things and feel things and see things a little different than how I see thing, and that’s why things have to change. Change, it’s essential.
I saw the other day that your Furious Five partner Rahiem released a letter apologizing to Melle Mel and Scorpio. Did you know that was coming? How do you feel about that?
I didn’t know. Quite frankly, I’ve been running around all day today and I hadn’t seen it yet. All I know is, some of the groups that have come up have been together for decades. Some started off as children and then they become grown men, and then when you become grown men, your perspective on life changes. So the same crew you’ve been with, things change. There’s misunderstandings. The majority of groups have broken up and come back together. It’s just life. So there were misunderstandings within the group and Rahiem felt man enough to apologize. Sometimes some people with egos won’t do that, even though it’s appropriate that they do, because it can fix something.
I’m going to call him later and say, “What’s up Rah? How you feeling?” I ain’t going to ask him why he did it. He did it because he felt he needed to do it. I’m going to ask him, is he okay? Because to go on the internet to apologize to someone, it takes more than a man to do that. We need more of that with a lot of the groups in hip-hop.
I know you said you didn’t see the whole letter, but there was one line in it that I wanted to ask you about. He said it was his hope that, “Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Scorpio, and myself can once again take the stage and unify.” What do you think are the chances of that happening?
I would never say never. I do know that when I schedule my business, I schedule it a year in advance. So a lot of what I’m doing now was planned last year. Also, I want to do a lot more lecturing. I’m speaking to you as an interviewee right now, but I’ve sat down in various universities and various very powerful people that want to know about the history of hip-hop. So I want to do more lecturing. My life is ever changing. Will I tour as heavily as I used to? Probably not. I want to teach now and I want to talk about the history. So is it possible that we touch the stage? It’s possible.
Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that you want to have expressed in the piece?
Lecturing. I’m leaving for London late September. I’m considering writing another book. I’ve got offered. There’s a couple of things on the table that I cannot talk about because they’re too early as far as contractual things is concerned, but I’m going to be all over the damn place. That’s all I can tell you, and that’s wonderful.