Photography by Lea Winkler
Fashion by Mac Huelster
As a born-and-raised New Yorker, the word “hip-hop” was synonymous for the culture of my city as I grew up; as a man from the Bronx, even more so. Every street I walked on as a kid had been graced by legends of the game, but none so great as Grandmaster Flash. His name speaks his majesty. Inventor of the Quick Mix Theory, Flash was key to the birth of the global phenomenon that is hip-hop. As a founder of the genre, he wasn’t carried away by the bright lights of stardom in the way that later legends would be, but it could also be argued that he did not receive his due until much later than he should. But now, over 40 years after he first touched a turntable, Flash plays DJ sets to massive crowds across the globe, with crowds flocking to witness his legendary skills in the flesh. With shows like The Get Down spotlighting his role in the creation of hip-hop culture, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and continued accolades from all over the world, Flash isn’t going anywhere soon. It was an honor to speak with this legend and to hear from his mouth what the city that I and my parents grew up in meant to him as a kid and today.
What was the first song you remember playing as a DJ?
I actually don't remember. I was really young when I first touched a record. Maybe Barry White? James Brown… Thin Lizzy? Might have been some Bob Haynes in there.
Was it common to play such a wide array of music like that in the Bronx at the time?
For me, it was common. I don't know about anyone else. I grew up in a house where everyone was playing different music. Someone was playing rock, someone was playing disco, someone was playing something else. It was a musical melting pot.
What songs do you like to play now? Contemporary and classic, what gets the biggest response?
It really depends on what country I'm in. What works in one place, might clear the floor in another. It's more important to me to pay attention to the audience.
I don't really have a favorite song. I see music like my kids. They're all my children. I don't play favorites.
You are incredibly successful on tour. Why do you think you’ve stayed successful and relevant in the 21st century?
It’s about the audience. That’s how I approach it. I get my joy from how they respond. It’s about being able to read them and get them to react. There’s a certain kind of empathy to it.
Do you always think you’ve had that empathy, or is it something that you’ve developed over time?
You know, it's something that I've developed over time, but I've always paid attention to the audience. That's just me.
The audiences you’ve performed for have probably been so diverse. Of all the countries you have performed in over your career, where has been your favorite?
That's a tough question to answer. I don't really have a favorite because there's been so many, and it's a new learning experience in each one. How I look at is that whatever you learned from afar, whatever is told on the television about a particular country, I got to go see for myself.
And each time that I do travel, it is a different learning experience; what I might learn from Japan, differs from Germany. How do you have a favorite, when you have a smorgasbord of everything in front of you? It's hard. I've seen more than most. Let’s just put it that way. There’s certain places I haven't been to that I really want to see. I'd like to go see the pyramids of Egypt. I haven't seen that yet.
That makes sense. Do you have any memory of a country that really surprised you with the response to hip-hop culture?
When I put out the Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, and I was probably most surprised that the record did extremely well in the UK. Getting off that plane from America to London, I got a huge welcome coming through the gate. Many people saying, “Thank you for doing what you did.” This is really, really early, when I was first touring, but some of these people knew things about me that I had totally forgot about. They knew more about me than I did!
That's awesome. Let’s take it a little bit closer to home. I'm from New York as well, so I really wanted to hear this from you. New York is very much a part of your identity. If you have friends in town visiting, what are three places, you recommend?
Let's see…Probably for food, I like seafood. So I would probably say Sammy's Fish Box, which is in City Island, which is at the top of the Bronx. I'm big on flowers and animals, so I would say the Bronx Zoo would be pretty cool to go to. And then for a third place, I'd probably say I'd like them to go to 63 Park, which is on 168th Street and Boston Road. That’s one of the most memorable places when I was on the come-up as a kid, one of the first places that I showed people the quick mix theory.
Man, City Island! I haven't been to City Island since I was a kid, but that's always a good memory. Lots of people view hip-hop, as a response to the struggles of black and brown youth in New York City, especially in the Bronx, especially in the South Bronx. I was wondering what do you see as hip-hop's role in modern society?
As a producer and DJ, I would say people have this misconception of what the Bronx was, like it was a struggle, and there was fires everywhere. This was sort of like our blackboard for testing new music. I would say that for me personally, if there was a struggle at the time, it was probably within my family. Growing up, I didn't see all these fires. It actually was the most incredible place for me to do what I did. I was in my own little world and in my own bedroom, coming up with a science that elongates the shortness of breath and makes one long breath.
But with this struggle, I totally respect the fact that a lot of the young people this time around stood up for this. And hopefully, this will make changes. It’s about time that things do get better. But connecting the music to it? We weren't talking about that. I'm not a rapper, but musically, we were pretty much talking about a little bit of everything. I can’t, as a DJ, connect the Incredible Bongo Band and Bob James to the struggle. But I do respect the fact that what I see now, I've seen also when it came to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The two paths interconnect there.
I was reading through an old interview that you had with Davey D from the late ‘90s. You were talking about hip-hop as a tree, and how you felt it wasn't being fully utilized, it was leaning heavily in a certain direction. Do you still have that feeling? What direction do you feel like hip hop has been leaning towards in general?
I remember that answer. When I say it reminds me of a big tree, a mighty oak tree, I’m speaking from a musical and lyrical perspective. I come from the inventive part of hip-hop, but now that it’s become big business, I think a lot of the music is beginning to sound the same - I'm talking about the musical track itself. It's beginning to sound like everybody's digging from the one pot, but the original way of doing things is always to try something different, to reinvent it. And lyrically, I think that there could be more things to talk about, whether it's bullshit, or whether it's extremely substantial, and people need to hear it. Whether it's about life, or it's about Black Lives Matter, or just let's go have some fun, fuck around. I miss that.
You created and mastered many of the pillars of DJing. I was wondering if there's any technique, as the art continued to develop throughout the ’80s and the ’90s and into now, that really impressed you?
People that added to the art? I like QBert. I like Jazzy Jeff. My first prodigy was Grand Wizard Theodore. I mean, the list can go on and on. DJ Scratch and Kid Capri. I can go on and on here.
What about now? Are there any new genres, sounds or artists within the hip-hop tradition right now that excite you?
I like Lil Baby. I'm going to always love Jay-Z, I can just go on and on. I always loved Lil Wayne.
I listened to The Bridge, and some of your collaborations on that were great. I loved that hearing you work with Busta. Is there anyone you want to do a collab with in the future?
That's just a few. I probably would with Eminem or Snoop. Jay-Z would be one. Lil Baby, DaBaby, and I'd like to work with H.E.R.
Any of those would be awesome. Speaking of H.E.R., who are some of your favorite women rappers?
I'm going to always love Cardi, because she's from the Bronx. But I also like Megan. I kind of watched her for quite a few years prior, and I always knew she was going to be great.
Megan is amazing - and congratulations to her for the Grammy win yesterday.
Speaking of the Grammys, what does receiving a lifetime achievement award mean to you? Do you feel like you’ve completed all the things you’d like to achieve? What else are you looking forward to for yourself musically?
I mean, I definitely do appreciate the fact of being in great company with other people that won the Grammys. But I also got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then there's the Polar Music Prize. It's an ultimate honor to have won all the awards I won, but the most important thing to me is fan appreciation. Pleasing the audience is probably more important. The awards are an incredible thing, but it starts with the fans first.
It sounds like you get so much energy from live shows. You're probably incredibly excited for lockdown to be over. And like all of us, you want to get back to normal. It's been hard for a lot of artists, and it sounds like you just got so much life from performing.
Yes, that’s probably true. So, when you ask what’s the most important part, it's looking at audiences and facing the challenge of getting them to positively lose their cool from good music. I miss that. So that's pretty much it.
I love that expression: “positively lose their cool.” That's dope. I love that. I wanted to talk a little about what’s next for you. What can you tell us about future plans?
I can't say too much, but a school is coming. Well, an academy is coming. There's a new album coming. And then there's going to be…let's just say I've been asked to be a talk show host and trade some stories. A new record, the school, talk show. Those are some of the things that are coming.
Wow. That's amazing. I just want to say what an honor it’s been to speak to you as a New Yorker and as a man from the Bronx. And really just congratulations. It’s amazing to continue to see you receive your recognition.
Thank you so much.