Grandmaster Flash: still learning

Ahead of his appearance at the Nokia Sound of Live event, hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash tells James Wilkinson why he’s still learning

The Futureheads
The Futureheads
Zane Lowe
Zane Lowe

Grandmaster Flash has something of a reputation. Actually, more like two reputations. There’s the public one, of course: the man who turned the DJ decks into a musical instrument by creating punch-phrasing (the art of playing short samples of music over another record), developing a way to extend drum breaks from seconds to minutes for the benefit of dancers, and refining the scratch method that Grand Wizard Theodore had created.

And there’s the other reputation, the one that passes around from journo to journo: Grandmaster Flash is a difficult character. He doesn’t like interviews. He once shouted at a journalist for hanging up on him after a faulty line caused her to be cut off. Even cheery Miguel from The Cuban Brothers, who played at Nasimi in February, told us that Grandmaster Flash ‘is a nice guy, but he is too grumpy, man. He needs to lighten up.’
So it’s a surprise to discover that, when we call him, Flash is thoughtful, quietly-spoken and even charming. Maybe it’s because he just had a relaxing shower in his Berlin hotel room – at 52, he shows no signs of slowing down his globe-trotting DJ commitments – but after 15 minutes in his presence it’s hard to imagine him flying off the rails.

He’s even down to earth about his status as a living legend of hip-hop. ‘I’m just a servant of the people,’ he explains. ‘I’m considered a major international DJ, but the fact is I’m there for the people on the dancefloor. I’ve got to keep learning, hearing new music, working out what they want. ‘I still get nervous 10-15 minutes before I go onstage, but it’s a good nervousness. I don’t take it for granted that I can go out there and slay the dragon with a whim. It doesn’t work that way.’

That’s a lesson he learned long ago, when he showed off for the first time the DJ techniques he’d spent two years developing. ‘Nobody understood what I was doing,’ he recalls. ‘People just stood there. It was quiet. I’d taken the best parts, the drum breaks, from all these records, whether they were rock, soul, jazz or whatever, and mixed them all together and nobody got it.’ Thankfully, that’s not a problem these days – Flash is confident that between his decks, his mic and his considerable experience, he can find a crowd’s vibe within five minutes (or 10, if they don’t speak English).

He even played for the British royalty in 2002. ‘I was shocked when they asked me, a foreigner, to close the Commonwealth Games. I didn’t take it seriously until I was flying there. Then they put me in the stadium in front of about 40,000 people and they said that 20 to 30 million people would be watching at home. It was interesting to have 30,000 people throwing their hands in the air and singing the vocals. Even the prime minister, Tony Blair, he put his hand up a little bit. But the queen, of course – you can’t get her to do that. It would’ve been cool though.’

The rest of the fest

Grandmaster Flash isn’t going alone: here are the other acts on the night

Headlining Chi Garden (Grandmaster Flash is leading the party in Chi Club) is this award-winning, four-piece indie-rock act. You’ll probably know them from the moody, piano-led single ‘Wires’, but they’ve also clocked in four albums, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and an Ivor Novello Award.

The Futureheads
‘Ah-eh-oh-oh,’ go The Futureheads on their cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’. ‘Ah-eh-oh-oh’ go crowds worldwide, including the Dubai fans who saw them twice last year: once at Alpha and again at Dubai SoundCity. With tight performances and some great tracks, they should be great fun.

Zane Lowe
Star of MTV Two and BBC Radio 1, the New Zealand-born, UK-living DJ has become one of Britain’s go-to guys for new music. He was the first DJ to play Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ in the UK, and continues to champion new indie and hip-hop music as well as the classics.

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