Your new album The Bridge is dropping in March. What inspired you to put this album together?
I’m a scientist first. I’m a DJ and producer second. I thought that for a good amount of years, it was a good idea to listen to the hottest producers in the ‘90s and 2000s, like Dre, DJ Premier, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Timbaland…I listened to them quite intensely and after a period of time, I felt like I wanted to reenter but I wanted to reenter properly. I had to find the right distribution company that would allow me to do what I needed to do with this record and when I say that, meaning I wanted to make this record like a DJ creates a DJ set. In a DJ set I might play 20 songs but none of them sound like each other but they all work with each other and that’s kind of how I made this record.
One of the things that impressed me with The Bridge was how many different directions you went in. Do you think that comes from your extensive background in DJing?
I think I had an added advantage. Being one of the inventors of hip-hop and being one of the DJs that has the privilege of traveling to almost any free country in the world and watching dance floors and festivals and learning different cultures and lifestyles, that there gave me an added edge along with listening to some of the greatest producers of all-time. Those things gave me an added edge to go into the studio. From that I was able to say, “This is what I will do and this is what I won’t do. This I’m pretty sure should work and this is what I’ll use here.” It was just a matter of me assembling the right team. Once I had the label in place, which was Adrenaline, then it was just a matter of getting K7 and Strut and the distribution together. Then it was just a matter of me finding the right musicians and mix engineers. Some would be like, ‘Flash, let’s pull this record off with no samples.’ Once I had all that in place, it was a matter of just going.
Being able to say you’re an “inventor” of hip-hop is pretty cool that only a few people can really say. What does that title mean to you?
I don’t think about it. I used to think about it long ago. It made me nervous. I just want to be the average, regular guy, man. I think we’re all born with a gift. Mine just happens to be with music. Honestly, I don’t even think about it. I don’t think about me being one of the inventors. I love the idea that I have, but on an everyday basis, I don’t think about it. I think about pleasing people. That’s what I do.
When you look at your extensive travels, do you find that you can pick up elements from different cultures and use that in hip-hop?
Absolutely. That’s one of the advantages that I have. I think this album would have been extremely difficult for me to make if I had stayed home. If I had stopped traveling and stopped seeing what the new hip-hoppers were into as well…I got vintage on smash. I know what that is. But I also had to get the feel for what the new hip-hoppers were loving and feeling. If I had been home there would have been no way possible that I would have been able to pull off this record.
How important was it to have rappers on there rapping in their first language as opposed to having them translate it to English?
This album would not have been totally complete. Journalists write about hip-hop and they say that hip-hop is global. I would have not been doing hip-hop. Journalists write about hip-hop. They say that hip-hop is global. People that are into hip-hop say that they love hip-hop but there are very few people that are doing hip-hop that are artists. And when I say that, I say that meaning that hip-hop is such a wonderful culture. What makes it unlike any other music genre is that we can mix and match and intertwine things from other music genres that came before us and make it hip-hop.
So there’s no way in the worked, me being the international DJ that I am, that I don’t go out and find the superstar MC, don’t go out and find the unknown MC, don’t go out and find that MC that doesn’t speak American languages. If I didn’t have those three elements involved, this would have been the wrong record. So I had to go out and find some artists that were not superstars. I had to go out and do a search on unsigned and unknown great talent. I had to go out to other countries and see if I could start the ball rolling for MCs that don’t speak the American language and bring them into the fold. It was important for me to do that. I had to do it that way.
How important was it for you to reach out to the legends like Grandmaster Caz, KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane while showcasing up-and-coming talent like Kel Spencer and Jumz?
Hip-hop allows you to do that. Not everybody could be a good DJ. Not everybody could be a good MC. Not everybody could be a good producer. But at the same time, if you handpick these things, there are some great superstars and unknown artists, even those that don’t speak the language. I just think that I’m just doing hip-hop. I’m not thinking about other things. I could have made this album with a bunch of superstars. All of them would have come and done this. I could have made this album with a bunch of unknowns. I had more of my share of people wanting to do it that way as well. And I could have put an international press out and had so many international artists on it. But I chose to do a balance of the three and that’s what I call doing hip-hop. On this album I’m doing hip-hop.
Looking at your varied production on The Bridge, how important was it for you to show the different styles you could do?
After I watched some of the best do it, I said to myself I wanted to reenter. I’ve heard incredible production from the Premiers and the Timbalands and Dr. Dres and Just Blazes. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m feeling what they’re doing. I would like to make a contribution, if I may.’ That’s why I just reentered the production game. That’s why I did it.
Before you reentered the game, there was a long layover where you weren’t doing any production. Were you not feeling the music at the time?
My excitement was growing. My excitement was growing. You gotta realize, I DJ the music of these great producers. That’s probably what was telling me the most to get back in, other than these great records that these producers were putting out. The music from the ‘90s on was progressive. It was getting more and more powerful. As I was taking these songs and playing them, I could see the reactions from the people and I was like, ‘I can do this. I could do this.’ The reaction went from the back of my mind to forehead that I could do this shit and I just went in.
Why do you think you don’t get more calls for production and MCs like Caz aren’t featured on more albums?
I don’t know. Okay, this is what I do know. For me, I get calls all the time to do stuff with artists. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But in my opinion, and this might get me in a whole lot of trouble, but from my point of view, in the ‘70s, which is actually the building blocks of hip-hop, what that person would do to get known is do promotion. That promotion was a flyer or a handout. What would happen is our promoters would stand by high schools and junior high schools that Grandmaster Flash was going to be in the gymnasium. That was in the ‘70s. Now we’re in the 2000s. So to answer your question for why I think superstars from my era don’t get calls, it’s because, in my opinion, the new flyer is people like you, people like the DJs on video channels, radio DJs and internet DJs. These four elements have become the new flyer and if they don’t get mentioned by people like you or people don’t talk about them or you don’t see them on television shows or on radio shows, how will the kids know? That’s just my opinion.
It’s almost like…Put it this way. I’m into watching the Discovery Channel and things like that. Whenever they have a program with finding something from King Tut’s tomb, when those things are in the ground and it’s buried, it has no value to it. But as soon as we dig it up and we find it, it has been advertised and it becomes super-valuable. “We found this thing from King Tut’s tomb and it’s this old and such and such.” Then it becomes valuable and it’s in every magazine and it’s on TV and radio. It becomes valuable.
You guys are the new flyer. So people should be talking about Melle Mel, still, and Grandmaster Caz, still. They should be talking about on radio, like Grandwizard Theodore, and on the TV. If the four man flyers don’t talk about it, how will the kids put the value on it? Because it’s the kids that put values on things because the kids buy it. How does it become valuable again? Does that make sense to you? If the kids don’t know then it has no value and once the kids know, believe me, it will become valuable. That’s just my take on it. It saddens me that there are so many great DJs from my era that are not talked about but they won’t become valuable until they become talked about and then the kids will hold them as being valuable and then they will become a hot commodity again. That’s my take on it. This is the archeologist perspective on it. If you guys talk about it and think about it, it becomes valuable.
A cat like Grandmaster Caz is still incredible. If you go and see him he will blow you away like, ‘Oh, shit!’ If you got 40 major magazines saying that he’s still got it, he’ll probably get a phone call from a record label to his house quickly that they want to sign him. But if you don’t know, that’s the sad part. That’s my view on it. You guys are the new flyer and until that changes, I don’t know. That’s just my humble take on it.
“What If” featuring KRS-One is a song about what would happen if hip-hop didn’t exist. What do you think you would be doing today without hip-hop?
(laughs) I would be, my mother told me, you gotta realize, when I was a toddler, I was unscrewing everything you could plug into the wall because I was always wondering why when you plug it into these two little sockets and this thing lights up. Me, I probably would have been some sort of electronic technician, of some sort, whether it be a computer technician or probably building, like, stereos or designing some shit that had to do with electrical objects. I would have been that. But that would have been kind of weird though. I’m glad I am what I am.
(laughs) Me too. I’m real glad I’m who I am.
Speaking of gadgets, you had the song “Turn Up Your Boombox.” Looking back, what’s your all-time favorite boombox?
Oh, my favorite boombox, and actually my guy at Flood Watches, made a replica of it into a watch. It was a company called Lasonic. This box, I could make a cassette mixtape, put it in my boombox, go to the neighborhood park and turn up the volume loud and we would jam for hours. Put six D batteries in the back and we would jam for hours. My favorite was the Lasonic. It had great reach. You could put it in the middle of a small baseball park, turn the volume up and the shit would rock.
What did your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?
Boy, I’m speechless to that. Me being the first hip-hop DJ to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a wonderful feeling in itself. But what was really euphoric for me was that hip-hop went in. Hip-hop got accepted because at first I wasn’t sure that they were even going to take us. They had been on their own forever but not realizing that hip-hop is rock and roll because hip-hop is created by a DJ and when we went shopping for records, we looked in the rock and roll bin too along with the funk bin and the jazz bin and the R&B bin. We were playing that shit forever. “Apache” is rock and roll.
I didn’t think out of all the other huge organizations that might have said early on that hip-hop is like a ship passing in the night, they all changed their tune as hip-hop began to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I wasn’t thinking we were going to get that one but then we got the call. That was the ultimate certification for me that we are here and we are not going anywhere. That particular award was quite wonderful and just to do it with the old boys again. And there was also another award, the Icon award, by BET. BET gave me this award for my technical contribution as a DJ to hip-hop. That was wonderful as well. It’s cool.
The way you said you don’t think about what you’ve done for hip-hop on an everyday basis, do you treat your awards and accolades the same way?
As soon as you walk in my house, my family has all the awards on the upper part of the ceiling. There are 32 of them in total. When I walk in the house I see them all the time. Sometimes I look at them and sometimes I don’t. When I do stop and look at them, I say, “Wow.” It makes me nervous. I’m just a guy. I’m just a guy with a gift. I guess my gift is just music. I try not to think about it a whole lot.
What does your all-time classic “The Message” mean to you today?
(pause) Mixed emotions about that one because my opinion of that record is that it’s a gift and a curse. It was a gift because the concept of it was seen on a whole other level but the curse to it is that all my five MCs couldn’t perform on that record and I remember fighting with the record label and I told them that if you did it that way that record would destroy as a whole if you let that record record the way that it is. Now mind you, it’s a hit record and everybody responded to the record and just as sure as I said it, it broke the group up. Unfortunately it was something that we had done as a group. The six of us had touched a lot about what hip-hop today is about but the only two faces you know are me and Melle Mel and that probable hurts me the most. You should know who Creole is. You should know who Scorpio is. You should know who Cowboy is. You should know who Rahiem is. Our biggest song, at that time, did not cover all the members, and that probably is the biggest curse to me.
Are you still in touch with the living members of the Furious Five?
I talk to Scorp. I see Mel every now and then. Cowboy’s passed away many years ago. Creole, I haven’t seen him. Rahiem, I still see him.
Is there a reason Melle Mel wasn’t on the album?
For this time around, I came from a producer’s standpoint and mind you, I was in on the producing of all of our records back then. This time around, I just wanted to go with a different perspective just to see what the result might be. That’s why I did it the way that I did it. I made many records with my old boys and those made great results. But from a producer’s standpoint, I just wanted to see what would happen if I put my production on this. You know how it is. What would happen now? So here we are a week or two in and maybe next year if you interview me I can answer your question.
Do you have more albums planned for the near future?
Yeah. I got an album or two more. I’m just taking it one step at a time. I have offers to do two more albums. I have offers to do music to videos and I have offers to do music for a soundtrack for a movie or two. These are things that I want to do but I’m just going to take my time and do these slowly. Right now I’m in Australia. I’m going to finish this tour up. I’m going to go home and I’m going to figure it all out.
You also have an autobiography, The Great Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, coming soon. What was it like putting your memoirs on paper?
It was probably one of the scariest feelings in the world, having to let go of my imperfections and my skeletons. When I was asked to do it, I was very fearful of doing it. Whenever journalists would touch on that area, I would find a way to get around it whenever you guys would ask, but when I was asked to do the book, I said no and then I thought about it and then I did it and in the course of doing it, I had to relive some things that were very painful for me. But hindsight is 20/20. Now that I did it, it allowed me to do The Bridge. It allowed me to do all these production deals that are on the table. It allowed me to do the video game music for the biggest video game in the world. That used to be my story and I held it aside for many, many, many decades. Now it’s your story. I don’t want to hold it anymore.
How are you gauging the success of The Bridge?
I’m gauging it on nothing. I have no expectations at all. The people will tell me what it is. And that’s what it’s been when I’m DJing. The people DJ. And that’s simply how I live. I have no gauges.