Grandmaster Flash Says He’s Still Relevant In Hip-Hop Because Of Social Media
Few rappers did more for the advancement of hip-hop in its earliest days than Grandmaster Flash. As the leader of The Furious Five, Flash was one of the original DJs who helped define the craft, particularly in the art of scratching and quick mixing, and left a deep impression on the culture with his 1982 megasmash "The Message," which was eventually named the greatest hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone. Need more accolades? He also made a cameo in the seminal documentary film Wild Style, and Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five became the first hip-hop artists to ever be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
In recent years, Flash has turned to other ventures, releasing a memoir in 2008, moving into the clothing business that same year and crafting mixes for the DJ Hero video game. He's also, humorously, popped up again recently via a Facebook-related mistake, as a slew of grandparents attempting to sign off on their posts kept accidentally tagging Grandmaster Flash's official Facebook page, bringing the OG into myriad hilarious family interactions.
This weekend, Grandmaster Flash is turning his attentions to philanthropy. Tomorrow, Oct. 11, he'll be DJ'ing The Dance SF dance marathon in San Francisco, benefiting both At The Crossroads, a non-profit that aims to help homeless kids and teenagers who face issues of education and abuse, and Project AMPLIFI, which supports community issues through music. Ahead of the event, XXL caught up with Grandmaster Flash to talk about his illustrious career, the changes in the music industry and that Facebook mixup that landed him back in the headlines. —Interview By Peter Heyneman
XXL: You're DJ'ing The Dance SF event this weekend to benefit homeless kids and young adults. What were some of the challenges you faced as you began your career?
Grandmaster Flash: I grew up as a foster child and know how [the kids] feel. I’ve spoken to kids all around the country and have even done a circuit speaking at foster care homes and shelters. But these types of challenges have nothing to do with whether or not you’re a success. If you have the belief, drive and determination you can be successful. I had all of these same challenges and was able to make a little something of myself.
What new favorite artists or tracks should fans listen for in your DJ sets?
Many years ago, decades ago, I used to have favorite artists, but not anymore. When you’ve been blessed to travel to all of these different countries—London, Germany, Paris, Australia—and hear all this new music that I’ve never heard before, I can’t say that any one is my favorite. It all depends on what will be my favorite in that moment. What works in the U.S. doesn’t work in Europe and I never play the same set more than once.
What’s great though is when I hear French music or Russian music and don’t understand a word they are saying but know exactly what they are saying. That’s what makes it so wonderful; it already grabs you. Yeah, so no such thing as a favorite. I just keep trying to figure it out. That’s what keeps me young with this. Once I get complacent, that’s when I need to stop.
How do you think the message behind hip-hop has changed over the years?
Hip-hop is just bigger. It’s wonderful. A bigger platform to do what I love. There are so many different brands of hip-hop. This person talks about this, that person talks about that. But I love it all. It gives me options.
What was the most important help you received in building your career?
Where I grew up at, my mother was sick and couldn’t take care of me and my sister. I was put into foster care when I was very young but was raised and taught to strive to become something, to become somebody. When I was finally let out of the system, I immediately started tearing shit apart, studying it, and learning how things work. Foster care nurtured me to do that. Without realizing it, I created a turntable technique that DJs around the world started using.
Have you seen your music impacting the community?
My thought isn’t, "How am I impacting people?” I do this because I enjoy doing this. I’m not trying to say I’m a preacher or a professor, I’m just a human being with a gift, and we all have gifts. I’m a servant. How may I serve you? I just want people to forget their problems. Have a couple of hours of joy through music. That’s what I give.
What advice would you give to musicians about giving back to their communities?
You either want to contribute or you don’t. If I’m asked to do certain events and it fits to who I am, I’ll be a part of it.
You kept getting tagged in some hilarious Facebook posts by unwitting grandparents. How does social media impact the way you engage with fans in real life when you perform?
It was so hilarious. I told granddaughters and grandsons to send me their best picture with their grandparents to win a pair of my headphones, and it’s been great. Social media auto-populates so you can easily make an “oops.” I’ve got 5 million “oops” in the past week. Social media is totally important. I can easily be forgotten for what I’ve done but social media will keep people from forgetting what I do. If you come from the early beginning, people can easily forget what you’ve done.
Do you have any new projects coming up soon?
I can’t say, but it has to do with Google.