w/DJ Jam, Livio
Wed Aug 28, Showbox, $13/$15.
Sleeve notes are usually short and concise. In the case of hiphop innovator Grandmaster Flash's new CD, The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, however, the sleeve-note form is extended to such a point that it's a booklet (it's nearly 40 pages long) rather than notes. The booklet even has a title, "The True Life Adventures of Flash," written by two critics, Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster, who co-authored the acclaimed Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey.
Their booklet on Barbados-born Flash details the life of a saint. We learn that Flash renounced sex and spent hours, days, years in his bedroom building the basic components of hiphop in the mid-'70s in New York City. If he did date, it was not for sex but for the "records in [the girl's] house." We also learn about how, like all saints, Flash was betrayed by the one closest to him, rapper Melle Mel, who sold the soul of hiphop for fame and gold.
When I asked Grandmaster Flash over the phone if this biography was correct--if it told, without exaggeration, the true story of Flash and the birth of hiphop--he said, without hesitation, "Yes, it's accurate." I wanted to ask Flash more questions about his past, about Broughton and Brewster's claim that he had been betrayed by Melle Mel and MCs in general, but before talking to Flash, I was warned by his publicist not to ask him about his days with Sugar Hill Records, a label that was run by the "Black Mafia" and was responsible for the first hit rap song, "Rapper's Delight" (1979).
The publicist's warning was disappointing because the booklet stakes Flash's apotheosis, his deification, on his bitter relationship with Melle Mel and Sugar Hill, which distributed his most popular songs, "The Message" and "White Lines." According to Broughton and Brewster, Melle Mel is Judas, and the co-owner of Sugar Hill, Sylvia Robinson, is the temptress, the serpent in the hiphop Garden of Eden. Robinson "lured" young and innocent Flash and Melle Mel into her glittering mansion to sign the devil's contract. Later, she drove a permanent wedge between "the DJ" (messiah) and his "MCs" (disciples) by encouraging Melle Mel to embark on a solo career.
"Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five," Flash says in the booklet with a fury that recalls Christ's rampage in the temple that was turned into a market, "was my thing, period. It's something I took from a thought, and staying in my room all them years and coming up with the musical formula and then hiring these five talented people to complement it. The whole thing was mine."
Indeed, how pompous of Melle Mel to imagine that he could be anything more than an MC in the service of the DJ. As for the serpent who gave him the knowledge that he could be more important than the DJ, to hell with her and all record-label executives who have profited from Flash's demise--the demise of the DJ.
I couldn't help myself, though. I asked Flash about the intriguing Sugar Hill days. "Let me be clear now," he said with great exasperation. "We can't just stay old. I don't want to do an old interview. I just don't want to do that. So we're not going to stick here, we're gonna move on, we're gonna do something new. Okay?" I agreed, and reluctantly asked about the future of Flash. "I have a record label that I'm forming right now--it's almost ready to go. I've also just finished designing a mixer for a company that's very popular with DJ and electronic equipment...." This was no fun.
I asked him what he thought about DJs in general, hoping this would lead back to the moment of original hiphop sin. "I personally think that DJs work harder than any vocalist," he answered promisingly. "I think we work harder, and we have more of a mission to complete. Nightly, we have to make people we don't know move without touching them, by the use of our hands as opposed to our voices. There's more work to be done, I think. The super turntablists--that's what I call them--I think they need more notoriety. It's building slowly and I'm very happy about that." I didn't get what I wanted; we were still moving forward instead of backward.
The fact is, Flash is not about the future, he is about the past, about the birth of hiphop. This is why I and others will watch his show: He invented scratching with Grandwizard Theodore, he hung out with young beautiful Debbie Harry, and he was the first to release a record entirely composed of other records, "The Amazing Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" (1981). Ultimately, it is his past (the sacrifices, the hours, the fortitude) not his future that makes him what he is today: a living saint.