The Songs and Technique of Famed DJ
An audio-visual guide
Netflix launched its latest original series, “The Get Down,” which touches on Grandmaster Flash’s role in the history of hip hop. Check out the show to witness the story of how MCing, break dancing and graffiti spun together to become the hip-hop culture we know today.
Grandmaster Flash is synonymous with the origin story of hip hop. His most famous works are quintessential old-school and appear on any best of hip hop list from the early ’80s. It’s not surprising that twenty-five years later, he’s best known for these songs.
Yet Flash’s rightful legacy should begin in 1975, four years before the first-ever hip-hop track was released. Grandmaster Flash was hip hop in the same way Velvet Underground was punk. Or King Tubby was dub. Or Wiley was grime. They were predecessors, making the music before it even had a name.
This is a story about Flash’s contribution to hip hop’s existence. Let’s dive into his perfect of beat looping, his invention of scratching, and how the songs in his set lists became the basis for sampling.
Grandmaster Flash’s Revolutionary Technique
Hip hop grew out of the 1970s in the burnt-out South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. The spot was gang-ridden, teaming with drugs, and bursting with creative energy. Hip hop was the voice of this environment. It was raw, and kids were dancing away hot summer nights embracing a secret culture that was just for them. They were spray-painting subways cars, writing rhymes, and throwing parties. Grandmaster Flash was one of these kids, and his passion was DJing.
His father had an immense vinyl collection and in his youth, Flash would throw on records when his dad was out of the house. In the mid ‘70s, he started going to the parties held by the legendary DJ Kool Herc. These parties were hosted in abandoned buildings and parks, with music from huge stereo systems hooked up to lampposts for electricity. Teenagers came from all over the Bronx, just for one night of liberating dancing. Break dancing circles would expand and contract with the ebb and flow of the party. Herc would spin hard funk records and was known for playing only the specific section of a song called the break: the part where most of the instruments cut out, leaving a stripped-down drum fill or bass line.
Grandmaster Flash plays only the breaks (scene dramatized from Netflix’s “The Get Down”)
Flash set himself apart from the other DJs by doing something no one had ever done before: touching the record. Herc threw great parties and always rocked the crowd, but Grandmaster Flash noticed that there was always a hiccup in time between songs. One would end, and the other would start slightly off the beat, translating into a misstep in dancing. Flash thought it deflated the party, and he wanted the energy to be continuous.
Flash made it his goal to play a whole set completely in time, and his solution changed DJing forever. By putting his finger on the record, Flash had complete control of when the breaks would come in, and he could string them together without a single missed beat. Finally, there was a seamless sonic backdrop for break dancers to move to and for MCs to spit their verses over. Word got around and the parties grew in size. Hip-hop was coming into its own.
The importance of the crayon (scene dramatized from Netflix’s “The Get Down”)
He also realized that when touching the record, the turntable made a sound, and rewinding the vinyl itself produced a noise now known as scratching. Grandmaster Flash harnessed this effect, turned it into another rhythmic element of the DJ set, and brought the party to a whole new level.
Scratching in Action
In 1981, the world heard his DJing skills on vinyl for the first time. Grandmaster Flash released “Wheels of Steel,” the first record featuring one person with only two turntables and a mixer as instruments. By breaking down the song to its individual samples, we can see how Grandmaster Flash stitched together segments from ten different songs into one piece of music.
Breakdown of Proto-Mashup “Wheels of Steel”
Grandmaster Flash redefined the turntable as an instrument. The various sound bites and audio clips became the building blocks for his masterpiece. Anyone who samples music or scratches on the turntables is indebted, in some way, to Flash.
Grandmaster Flash’s Ear
The songs he heard at Herc’s parties and as a small child became the basis for the set lists of Flash’s DJ career. Let’s check out these songs in depth, as they would become the go-to source for samples in the decades to come.
20 Songs That Influenced* Grandmaster Flash
*as referenced in His Memoir
These songs have become part of hip-hop’s canon. See if you recognize any of the drum fills or bass lines from the music above in your favorite hip-hop tracks.
Grandmaster Flash’s Legacy
Flash’s impact is not merely anecdotal. Several of the songs he used in his DJ sets are now among hip hop’s 100 most sampled tracks and are testaments to his influence on the genre.
The 100 Most Sampled Songs in Music
Data from whosampled.com
Grandmaster Flash used many of the most important samples in hip hop before they became commonplace. For example, Flash sampled “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins in 1987, well after he had already made his mark. He was the 4th person, according to WhoSampled, to do so. Since then, at least 1,553 other people have borrowed it for their music. Grandmaster Flash’s favorite breaks carried into his production career, and he continued to be a trendsetter.
This impact underscores Grandmaster Flash’s role in the birth of hip hop. He was able to take the most dynamic part of each song, the break, and give it to the crowd uninterrupted, and they adored him for it. He perfected the demanding task of staying on time while jumping from record to record. But the other DJs picked up on his tip and started biting his style. Quickly, Flash’s scratching became the technique all other DJs used. Soon, every party had those wild scratches, and with Flash, hip hop established its place in history for good.
Netflix’s original series “The Get Down” depicts the growing hip-hop scene immediately after Grandmaster Flash invented scratching. Check out the show to see the story of how hip hop blossomed.