We’re so used now to the sound that Grandmaster Flash created in the early ’80s that it’s hard to remember how different – and innovative – it was when he and his music first appeared.
Like other black music innovators – Gil Scott-Heron comes to mind, and Charlie Parker, come to that – he’s had his problems with drugs. He’s touring again, with a new record, and so was interviewed by Andrew Purcell in the Guardian, to whom he explained how he evolved his sound, in an age before ubiquitous personal computers or digital sound. As the article reminds us, he was the first person to mix two records without losing the beat; the first DJ to use drum machine loops live; the first to scratch; and the first to make a record entirely of samples.
His method required technology that didn’t exist. “I needed a way to have the platter continuously spinning while I’m moving the record back and forth,” he says. “I went to a fabric store. When I touched this hairy stuff – felt – I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sides and ironed it until it became a stiff wafer. After that, I was able to stop time.” DJs have taken slipmats for granted ever since.
When he tried out his technique in public, the crowd stared as if he was mad. Flash, only a teenager, ran off stage, threw up, went home and cried for days. But he couldn’t stay away from his turntables for long. Soon he began searching for a bigger, louder system. “I went to junkyards, abandoned car lots. I asked supermarkets for the big jugs they put pig guts in, to make cabinets for my bass speakers.” He worked out that traffic light sensors made good tweeters.
At home he dismantled domestic electronics like hairdryers and radios in search of the perfect sound. There’s also a great line about wearing out records as you scratch them:
I ask him how many copies of the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache he has worn out, in half a lifetime of playing it for its drumbeat, since the earliest parties at the Black Door club in the South Bronx. “About 30,” he reckons. Really? That’s fewer than one a year. “Oh yeah, but I play it until it’s disgusting, because the deeper the cavern is, the more you can do with it. I play it until it sounds like eggs frying on a Sunday morning.”