by Bob LaBrasca and Larry "Ratso" Sloman
Grandmaster Flash is undisputedly one of the founding fathers of hip-hop. Flash was possibly the first DJ to remix songs by seamlessly repeating the climatic part (the "break") with two turntables and a mixer. He also pioneered a method of rubbing the turntable's needle back and forth across a record, known as "cutting" or "scratching." Flash's group, The Furious Five, was formed in the mid-'70s; their 1982 hit, "The Message," was the first socially-conscious rap record. A year later Flash brought his crew together for an interview with HIGH TIMES.
Grandmaster Flash released a new solo album in 2002 titled, "The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash." Flash is also currently a "stream jockey" for the Sirius satellite radio service.
"Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five" sounds like the name of a group with a lead vocalist and five backup singers, but it’s not that way at all. Flash himself does next to nothing vocally; he pilots the turntables onstage to provide the musical backdrop for the raps and songs laid down by the rest of the group. And there are not six members as the name implies, but seven when you count E-Z Mike, Flash’s assistant, who throws down with everyone else when the stage lights come up.
Almost everything about Flash and the Five is Bronx-ghetto to the bone, from their individual names to their outrageous leather, metal, and fur costuming to their lyrics to their decision-making process. Flash (Joseph Saddler), Melly Mel (Melvin Glover), Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover, Melvin’s brother), Raheim (Guy Williams), Mr. Ness (Edward Morris), Cowboy (Keith Wiggins) and E-Z Mike (Michael Ware) operate with the natural democracy of a street gang. Flash’s titular leadership is more a matter of bearing and style than genuine authority. In performance, wearing slit-lensed shades and a steely stare, he comes on like a Star Wars descendant of the Duke of Earl. Striding broadly up the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, head erect, Western boot heels clacking the pavement, he looks like he owns the street.
But Melly Mel, despite a lot of leather-and-stud gear from the S&M shops, has a much more convivial presence and is the most loquacious spokesman for the group.
They’re all young -- at 26, Flash is the oldest -- and the image they strive for fulfills the dream of ghetto kids. The stage-dress aesthetic of Flash and the Five owes a whole lot to the comic-book "Fantastic Four." Their material melds the experience of the old neighborhood with the great American tradition of the boast and brag. The inflated role playing, the fanciful costumes and the astrological jive in their raps are all an exercise in transcendence.
Question is: As deeply rooted in lower-class black, urban life as everything about this group seems to be, how did they ever emerge as an international box-office attraction for both black and white audiences? There are at least two answers to that:
One is Sylvia Robinson, who started Sugar Hill Records as an independent company back in 1979. Ms. Robinson, who was half of the great rock duo Mickey and Sylvia ("Love Is Strange") back in the ‘50s, and who has written a number of hits ("Shame, Shame, Shame," "Love on a Two-way Street," etc.), works from her guts. Her last independent label had gone bankrupt when she opened Sugar Hill on a shoestring and put out "Rapper’s Delight," using three New Jersey rappers she met through her children. Her sixth sense told her that if her kids were that turned on by this oral underground that received no airplay, a national audience would go for it. She was right -- "Rapper’s Delight" sold millions and put Sugar Hill on the map.
She soon signed Flash and the Five and recorded a few tunes that sold well, mainly to black urban audiences. In 1982 she pressed the group into recording "The Message," with the promise that it would make them bigger than they’d ever hoped to be. She was right again, of course.
"The Message" is the second reason for the broad appeal of this aggregation. A test pressing of it was first played on WBLS in New York at the end of the first week of July 1982. The listener response was overwhelming, and on July 21 it was released on a 12-inch single. Twenty-one days later it went gold and was crossing over to top-40 stations all over the country. Though the song -- if it is a song -- was mainly a tale of ghetto life, the chorus resonated across class and color lines.
"Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge;
"I’m tryin’ not to lose my head."
Defiance. Heavy pressure. Responsible, but tenuous selfcontrol. And then:
"It’s like a jungle sometimes;
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under."
From Wall Street to Racine, Wisconsin, they could dig that: a concise description of the America we know, followed by an internal reflection of wonder at one’s own survival.
We interviewed the bearers of that message at Sugar Hill headquarters in Englewood, New Jersey, just as "New York, New York," their latest depiction of the dark side of the city, was hitting the charts.
Grandmaster Flash: Any questions you want to ask us, throw ‘em down, throw ‘em down.
High Times: Where did you get your name?
Flash: They came on seperate occasions —
High Times: Your name, "Grandmaster Flash."
Flash: The places we used to play, the little clubs, the gymnasiums, a lot of my following used to say, "Flash, we have to add something more to your name." I was just plain Flash, because of the way that I play, the style that I spin wax. So somewhere near my birthday about ‘75 this guy named Joe King gave me the name Grandmaster and it stuck.
High Times: And the "Furious Five"?
Melly Mel: That just came because we was always mad at something or other.
High Times: Were the five together before you joined up with Flash?
Melly: No, at first Cowboy started with Flash, and then me and Creole, and then we got Ness and we was the Furious Four. Then after a while Raheim got down and that was five of us.
High Times: There’s really six.
Flash: I need an assistant to handle the records. He’s E-Z Mike.
High Times: Most people operate as a single, spinning records. How did you decide to gather all these guys, this small army?
Flash: The way I used to play, it was like vocal entertainment with media, because when you speak of Grandmaster Flash as an individual, I’m a mixologist, the spinner of the group, but the way that I was spinning, either I would capture a lot of attention and be too quiet or it needed somebody to mix it, so what I used to do, I’d take a microphone and put it on the other side of the table, like when we used to play in the park for free.
I used to have a little garbagey set because I grew up underprivileged, my family wasn’t born with no dollars; no real dollars for me to go out and buy a real nice set, so I used to just put together stuff and then go out in the parks and just play, and take the microphone and leave it out in the open for anybody that wanted to say something, whatever came to their mind.
High Times:You weren’t a rapper yourself?
Flash: No. I fell in love with spinning, trying new things on the turntable. For me to play in front of a mass of people out in the park with no vocal entertainment, that was like half filled or half empty.
High Times: How many turntables did you work with?
Flash: I work with three now, but at that time I was working with two, just getting into three. I’ve mastered three now.
High Times:What year were the free gigs in the park?
Flash: This was ‘74.
High Times:How old were you then?
Flash: Well, I’m twenty-six now.
High Times:This was before the Sugarhill Gang came out with their stuff?
Flash: This rap stuff has been out for years. It’s sad that it took so long to get the notoriety that it’s getting.
High Times:Early on, wouldn’t deejays circulate tapes that they made themselves?
Flash: After you gain a certain amount of popularity, you give a few parties, you save up for a set. The disc jockeys had tape decks and they would sell the tapes at the parties ‘cause everyone was asking for them, especially if the party was a jumping party you’d want to get a tape, but they’re so rare now. I haven’t seen one for a long time — a real lowdown party tape.
High Times: So there are two separate phenomena going down here, the disc jockey and the rapper --
Flash: Yeah, but it was a simultaneous development.
High Times: I still don’t understand what you do. When we saw you at the Red Parrot, I was trying to figure out what you do with the records. It’s hard to pick up on exactly what’s happening because everything is so continuous and the movements are so subtle. I
can’t tell what you’re controlling and what’s going on where.
Flash: You must have been pretty far back
High Times: I was pretty close.
Flash: I think it’s pretty boring just mixing a record over, and waiting for it to end. To make a long story short, I had to do something with my hands. The Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash, we work as a family; either we’re throwing down together or the Furious Five is throwing down or I’m throwing down -- everybody has a position in the group, a job -- we’re all individuals but we work as one.
Like some of the parties we used to give back in the days in the neighborhood gyms, we opened the doors like about ten o’clock and we’d end the party about three. It would be virtually impossible for me to be spinning all night or them to be talking all night, so we’d pick a certain outlook where as a unit I’d throw down and then I’d cool out,
and the Furious would throw down or they’d cool out and I’d throw down, so there’s always something happening.
High Times: Were you hip to Jamaican music, dub music?
Flash: My parents are West Indians, I’d be hearing that music for a long time -- it’s called "toasting."
High Times: Is rapping broken up regionally? Is there regional pride?
Melly: Rappers are in every borough, but it started with the Bronx. Every block got their own guy coming up.
High Times: Are there any legendary rappers?
High Times: That haven’t surfaced yet?
Melly: As far as street people, they’re just out there but they just came behind us. There can’t be but one legend in a certain field.
High Times: There are more groups than individuals?
Melly: Yeah, but okay, so one legend, Hollywood. D.J. Hollywood, but he’s not a group.
Flash: He didn’t want to go into the record business commercially.
Melly: He did. He was on Epic Records as a matter of fact, but it didn’t work. His record was a flop but he was very good.
Flash: He’s powerful, I’ll give it to him.
High Times:What was powerful, his delivery or his material?
Flash: His delivery, his material, and you could say that his style was sharp. He’d go for hours, but it was good.
Melly: His style was really like more a mature level, he reached out to an older crowd. He’d ask the crowd something, it was a real calland-response thing. That’s what made him rear powerful, the response he got from the audience, how they answered him back when he said things.
Flash: He’d say things like, "It’s up my back, it’s around my neck, whoopa." That’s where Hank from the Sugarhill Gang got that from -- his style is like a Hollywood imitation.
High Times: When did the social consciousness start coming into the music?
Melly: That’s our style, "The Message." The record itself is like two years old, but like nobody ever did it, the lyrics was on one of our previous songs and that was like two years ago, but the lyrics from "The Message" itself was made up by a percussionist from the Sugarhill Gang, Ed Fletcher -- Duke Bootie -- on the album. When we first came to this company we heard it and we used to joke about it.
Raheim: But Melly wrote the section about the child is born into the world —
High Times: That’s the best section.
Melly: Nobody was really looking for social significance, we was just looking to make the record, but now everyone’s pressurized into coming up with something like that again, but you can’t really come up with nothing like that because you can’t really come up with nothing that already was there in the first place. It wasn’t like nobody made it up from that point in time just to do it, it was just laying around.
High Times:How many records did you have out before that?
Melly: "Freedom," "Flash to the Beat," "Party," "Nasty," "Showdown." All singles.
High Times: What’s all the media attention like?
Melly: It’s cool because the media. They see us as prophets, they helping gettin’ us to another league. Rapping and deejaying has been more or less like a contest. When you become a rapper you don’t want to become a rapper just to rap; you want to be number one.
That’s the whole philosophy behind rapping. There ain’t no real number two about it. Like, when you asked for a legend, I’d never tell you about another group, even if there was, because that’s what we’re shooting for, for us to be it. We hardly even acknowledge their presence, and the media has put us into a whole ‘nother league.
High Times: You’re unchallenged now. People mag, Life —
Raheim: Time, Billboard, Rolling Stone, the "Pat Collins Show," "Nightwatch"–
Melly: We did "Soul Train," but I like the news programs better because they help build us up to another level. The whole thing to our career as rappers is to try to have the step up. When we move, all the other rappers are going to move according to our move. Anything we do we gonna help them in the long run and vice versa. The media making us like prophets, making the whole thing social when it wasn’t really in the beginning. To us it wasn’t social but it got to be social now -- it’s there now, there ain’t no turning back.
High Times: Does it worry you, moving out into national society now, that you’ll lose the roots that gave you the energy in the first place?
Raheim: No, because we still live in the South Bronx. That’s the source, that’s where the roots are. Like when we accumulate a certain financial security, are we going to move away from the Bronx? Eventually, yes, we’ll move, but we’ll always have to go back. Matter of fact, I even have an apartment there, just so that when I’m in that state of mind and want to come up with a hit record, I can be there.
High Times: Is it something you can just go back and get a piece of?
Raheim: You have to be immersed.
High Times:What’s the reaction back in the old neighborhood now to the band?
Melly: We get mixed reviews. We can walk down the streets, and like a lot of people know us, saw us on the news, whatnot. But a lot of times there’s not actually jealousy, but what it is is like when people know you they don’t want to see you make it without them. Not they don’t want you to make it, but they don’t want to see you do it if they can’t do it too. They want to go too. It’s like a positive-negative vibe you get from some people. I can’t understand that, I get the same vibes from other artists’ records. Like other emcees I got to capitalize off their stuff, when I hear their stuff I get their feeling, then I try to strive for something higher than what they strive for.
High Times:So, a lot of guys now are gunning for you, ‘cause you’re on top.
Flash: It’s been that way for a long time.
Melly: We always had a way of changing the whole structure of what was going on.
High Times:How long have you reigned supreme?
Melly: Since we started.
High Times: Come on.
Flash: Not to be blowing our own horn, but it’s been eight years.
Melly: Since we started. We done been through a lot of bullshit just to try and stay in this position. We used to like battle other groups, buy clothes, put on the chains, change onstage, make up dances, nobody was doing this stuff before us.
High Times:At that time you must have had trouble keeping shoe leather under your feet, with that many, people in the group.
Melly: We wasn’t into leather then.
Flash: We couldn’t afford it then!
Melly: It was just, something that developed as time went on, just to keep the edge, keep going up, up, because if we don’t, then somebody in the background will go up, up. The only slack that we had was not thinking about coming out with the first rap record.
Melly: That’s the only thing that got passed up. Where somebody was over us. Sugarhill Gang did it first, that was the only time.
High Times: You were together then?
Melly: We was peaking then, that was one of our peaks, that knocked the roof off everything. Then we had to reassess things, we had to change up. It wasn’t about giving the parties anymore, it was about records.
Flash: New goals.
Melly: From then till now we always been in like the backlash of the Gang, being that we signed with their company or making rap records period. It was like you all are like them.
Melly: Now we trying to be like us now.
High Times: Who’d you look up to, coming up?
Flash: Inspirational credits? Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, the Jacksons.
Melly: A lot of people. The Beatles. The Bee Gees.
Flash: All the big powerful people.
Melly: Anybody that if they did their thing we dug it. I don’t think I enjoy opera music, but --
High Times:What about Jimi Hendrix?
Melly: I never really got into him, but I admired the impact he had on his followers.
Flash: The greatest guitarist in the world they called him. He was ahead of his time more or less.
High Times:What about Sly?
Flash: Heavy into Sly. George Clinton.
High Times:Have you been accused of selling out?
Flash: Commercial is the goal, that’s the goal you want to reach.
Melly: If you try to be too streety, ain’t nobody gonna understand what you talking about. If you use all slang words like, "This dude is going to my pad," this and that, ain’t nobody gonna understand you. What "The Message" has made us do is branch out to reach the people more or less on their level, not only on our level, ‘cause the vibe we give off is the street vibe anyway, regardless of whether it’s commercial or not. Being that we making it commercial is just something that they can get into.
High Times: Isn’t it ironic that "The Message," which is a song about the down ghetto conditions, is getting such attention from white middleclass America? Isn’t that mind-blowing?
Flash: We were kinda worried about doing it while we were recording it. We were worried about it, not making any kinda noise on any level. We figured maybe people didn’t want to hear that, but through convincing and talking we cut it, and boom, it’s like surprising that people want to know about that, the ghetto, the down part of life.
High Times:But it rings true, the lyrics, the rap...
Flash: Like you listening to music, let’s say throughout the week you’re nine-to-five, you had a hard week’s work, you’re tired, you want to go out and party. Why would a person want to hear this? We had a lot of trouble with this record, it was real touchy. It’s like there was no middle. The records that we create, if they don’t do excellent they’re gonna do pretty good, our track record has been pretty decent. But something like this, the risk factor was so high, either it was going be a big thing or it was gonna be a miss,
High Times: Whose decision was it to plow ahead with it?
Flash: What happened was, with our group we’re slightly egotistical because we got to go back to our neighborhood, and for us to put out a complete miss -- "You guys are slipping, man!" Matter of fact, in one point in time when we put "The Message" out I remember one person scared the daylights out of me. He said, "Flash, I’ve always been your devoted fan, I love you, but I don’t like that record." I remember I stayed in the house; I just stayed in the house, but Mrs. Robinson said, "Flash, this is gonna be a big thing." You gotta respect the woman for her intuition. All of a sudden she made one dub, boom, that was it, it blew up. "Like a jungle, like a jungle" on every station.
High Times: How come Sugarhill Gang didn’t record it if Fletcher wrote the song?
Melly: ‘Cause they didn’t want to do it either. They was probably asked to do it but they definitely wouldn’t do it because they come from out here and they ain’t got no feel for nothing that ever went on in the ghetto. Fletcher come from Connecticut or something.
High Times: The grittiest stuff is your segment of the song.
Melly: That’s the only real message to a young person; they can listen to that and get some insight on the stuff that they went through.
High Times: That segment on the guy who goes to jail, is that based on someone you know?
Melly: It could have been me, but it was based on a cross between me and someone that really got the bad end of it. Like I’ve been to jail, but I was only in jail for five days. I didn’t really have to stay there. It was just like me being there to see what it was all about, so I never did really know real time.
High Times: What did you get busted for?
Melly: I robbed a decoy cop, dressed like a bum. Just being stupid. Bums don’t even have money, so I wasn’t really using the head. A bum ain’t got shit and we tried to rob him.
High Times:Maybe you were practicing? How old were you?
Melly: I was fifteen then, I’m twenty-one now. Me going to jail gave me a lot of insight.
High Times: Do most members of the group come from poor welfare families?
Melly: Just about all of us I believe. Raheim’s mother was a teacher, even though they was in the neighborhood they weren’t part of what was going on. His mother held him back from it. Me and Creole is brothers. And Flash and Mike were raised around the same neighborhood, even though I never met them when I was young. When we got older, me, Creole and Mr. Ness lived around the same neighborhood and everybody was close, we’d meet at the parties.
High Times: All of you could very well be strung-out junkies now. What was it about you that you were able to get into music?
Melly: Basically, it’s that we have big dreams and there ain’t but so many ways to fulfill them if you growing up in a ghetto. Maybe you could play ball, or you could probably go to school and make somethin’ out of yourself, but that’s the full effect. Going through all the years of competition and the system more or less isolates you, you’ll be the token. They’ll take you because they have to take somebody black, so, wham, you got you a spot.
High Times:That’s a very middle-level dream.
Melly: Yeah, it’s not the high highest. So that’s the only ways you can come out of it unless you want to go through an illegal channel, and that’s not gonna get you where you want to go, it’s just gonna get you the money.
High Times: You must have some worries that five years down the line you might be back scrounging to get a janitor’s job in Manhattan.
Melly: That’s true, but even still right now that reality will always be there, but if life is a gamble anyway, we’d rather gamble it like this way here.
High Times: How did you first start in with turntables?
Flash: Back in the days when I was coming up, the deejays I was watching that were pretty big was guys like Mboya, Flowers, Pete D.J. Jones, Cool Herc, but I always notice that with a record, from start to finish, there’s always a climactic point, and I always noticed that when the jock played it and it got to that certain point the crowd would really get into it; but after it passed that certain point the crowd would calm down.
I always seen it as a pitfall in a disc jockey, to sit there and wait. The idea is to motivate that crowd as much as possible, whatever it takes, and with a lot of records that I had, the climactic points was forty-five seconds, thirty seconds, maybe seventy-five seconds at the most, sixteen bars, and if it took me playing that little part, took me bobbing and weaving, going crazy finding that little part, find it, keep that climactic part going for about five minutes, then I could make those people on that dance floor sweat till they dropped. That was my objective, to make them dance till they’re tired.
High Times:How do you keep it going?
Flash: The break may be, let’s say, thirty seconds. The idea is that with every break there’s an intro, certain instruments that key you it’s the break. Like it might be bam, or a vocal, "Hey!" So I call this the "clock theory," to be able to pick the needle up and drop it in the right spot. With one twelveinch there could be four thousand grooves, you got to know just where to drop it. As a table’s turning, if I drop it, in most instances I can drop it right on that groove or maybe one groove away.
The idea is to just bam, cue it, jump on the side, bam, cue it, but at the same time they’re not hearing me cue it up. All they know is that this break is going longer than it usually does. That’s where I started getting my following. A lot of the break records that used to be played, the beginning was probably shitty, the end of the record was probably shitty, but the middle was the highpowered shit, and the drummer might have gotten a solo for thirty seconds, so a lot of the jockeys tried to keep it going but they was so sloppy about it. It used to get me mad.
My objective was to be able to cue it up and keep it going, but the problem was I used to watch the disc jockeys, they had somethin’ on their head. Being that I went to electronics school, I knew it was some type of system where he was hearing the turntable before he was mixing it out, so after I had met Pete D.J. Jones and he let me play on his system a couple of times, I had to go out and buy a single-pole double throw switch connected to an external amplifier with a jack to go through headphones.
Once I built it, it was no problem then. So all the little breaks that I wasn’t about to pinpoint exactly ‘cause I couldn’t hear it, now I was able to hear it, and after I mastered it, that’s when the year 1975 came up and I needed vocal entertainment. ‘Cause sometimes the breaks would be short but the breaks would sound so good that it took strict concentration -- you couldn’t look up, not for a second to keep on time. That’s really where I got my fame, from cutting so fast.
High Times:What about when you play a phrase twice, or three times, on the turntable?
Flash: You know how I discovered that? When a deejay’s cuing, that’s exactly what he’s hearing, but nobody thought about pushing it out to the crowd, and being that I was always good with the beat, all it took was a handclap stopping it, or taking a guitar lick or a horn eeehh and just obliterating it and you had to manipulate it in such a way that it would complement what’s playing on the other turntable. You’d hear a strange noise and either it would attract you or it would scare you away, but in most cases attract. It attracted a pretty big following, and after a while nobody wanted to hear just the regular mix or whatever was elementary to that.
And from there our following got bigger and bigger and the ultimate goal then was the Audubon Ballroom, the ultimate in size, two blocks long, held two thousand people, 166th and Broadway. The shit could have held a small jet. Like Mel says, the pinnacle was to play the Audubon Ballroom, but recording just took the whole goal into another perspective, another distance. It was, who could make the best rap record?
High Times:You played the Audubon?
Flash: We were the first ones to ever pack it. Slam-packed it.
High Times: Where were you gigging, aside from parks?
Flash: A spot no bigger than a bathroom, called Black Door.
Melly: We used to pack that
Flash: Fifty people, it would be packed. Those were the good old days, I miss that. A nasty dance came out called the Freak...I miss the good old house parties. Then we
graduated from there, went to a place called Dixie Club, then we got notoriety from Dixie Club, then Mitchells Gym, then PAL, then all the major schools started asking us to play.
I broke about five hundred dollars’ worth of needles before I perfected my technique. All the ones they speak of that’s so high quality.
High Times: In the light of your newfound fame, has your E.T. potential gone up?
Flash: What’s "E.T."?
High Times:"Eligible tail" -- you guys getting lots more girls now?
Melly: Not more, but better. We was always taking on all comers, c’mere little girls.
High Times:Now you can have some standards.
Melly: Yeah, now they got to be at least twelve years old.