I’ll admit, being an Eighties baby, I missed the Seventies the first time around, much to my chagrin. But lately, between catching local shows by Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers from Chic, I’ve felt transported back to that lush, disco-fied era. That concept was hammered home when I got to catch a Grandmaster Flash DJ set at House of Yes in Brooklyn.
The father of modern turntablism, Grandmaster Flash is in the tricky position of being mythologized. He’s known for so much, including his work as part of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, appearing in the early hip-hop film Wild Style and serving as consulting producer to the Netflix series The Get Down.
Sometimes it’s difficult for someone with a mythos like Flash to live up to the hype. In this case, he succeeded because, beyond anything else, Flash is very simply a great DJ. It’s always exciting to see one of the fathers of the hip-hop movement in the flesh doing his thing for an appreciative crowd.
Born Joseph Saddler, Grandmaster Flash created the backspin technique to extend a drum loop on a record to play for an infinite amount of times. He also perfected scratching and made it the art-form it is today. These techniques and more were well on display during his set in Brooklyn.
This particular Grandmaster Flash party served many different functions for various members of his audience. For older folks and old-school aficionados like me, it was a nostalgic trip back to the nascent hip-hop parties of burnt-out Bronx yore. It also served as a comprehensive survey of the rock, funk, and disco that built the foundations of the hip-hop movement.
For the average party-goer, Flash still needs to provide an entertaining and vibrant night full of hits and dancing. This show straddled the fine line of being all of those things and impressively so. I guess there’s a reason why the first part of the man’s title is “Grandmaster.”
What surprised me most about the set was the way Flash often stopped the flow of the music to take breaks and address the crowd. He started his set not with a song, but by telling a story about how he had been cleaning out his apartment that day, entering his music room with his trophies and current DJ gear.
Flash said that he felt like going back before all of the acclaims, a time before Facebook and Instagram, a time when there were just “these.” He held up two vinyl records, marked with chalk for cues and the crowd went wild.
Flash continued his story to use the analogy that if hip-hop were a cake, then you had to give credit to the bakers. Baz Luhrmann approached Flash to do just that, by asking him to serve as a consulting producer on The Get Down.
According to Flash, Luhrmann said to him “You guys did so much; the Seventies need some respect.” He also made sure before we started that we got the party rules: if Grandmaster Flash says you put your hands in the air, your hands are in the air!
And with that, Flash was off, starting his scratching and cutting with the sublime choice of “Blame it on the Boogie” by the Jacksons. Flash then ran the gamut. He spun the disco he sampled into breakbeats (I lost it when I heard Flash mixing in “Apache” by Incredible Bongo Band — a track he discovered that was so important to early hip-hop).
He played a very needed and cathartic Prince set into a great David Bowie double header of “Let’s Dance” / “Under Pressure.” He linked everything together using surprising transitions. You didn’t know what was coming next from the turntable pioneer.
Flash showcased his jovial personality, being on the mic more than I’ve seen other DJs, very often ordering us to get us our hands up, which only made the party more fun. Throughout the set, he initiated a lot of pleasurable call-and-responses. Flash’s style gave the whole night a big Seventies feel and the double-dutch jump roping and breakdance circles that preceded his set at House of Yes helped a lot, too.
Speaking of House of Yes, it’s a gorgeous and intimate venue to see someone like Flash play. One of the most fun clubs in Brooklyn, House of Yes has a throwback vibe to seventies opulence through a modern, recycled, and retro lens.
The projections of breakdancers and NYC ’70s scenes playing behind Flash the entire time were immersive and transportive as well. Sometimes hipster go-go dancers appeared behind Flash while he was playing, dancing on a platform behind the stage. The entire space is quirkily decorated in a vibe that can only be described as “Circus Chic.”
Members of the cast of The Get Down also made some surprise appearances onstage to chat with Grandmaster Flash during DJ downtime, including Mamoudou Athie, who plays a young Flash on the Netflix series. They all seemed thrilled to be there and watch the master at work.
As the night went on, Flash segued into playing more modern hip-hop, including the requisite Jay-Z and Reggaeton. But my mind was personally blown as Flash played a tight set of Motown including a killer Aretha Franklin singalong and then proceeded to “have some fun” by putting a beat behind the themes for both The Jeffersons and Cheers. Flash remains an innovative curator but more than that, a meticulous music geek, always looking for the next loop to sample.
At one point later in the night, he even played the contentious hit “The Message.” People associate Flash with this track despite the fact that he didn’t play a note on it, due to some behind-the-scenes small thinking by nascent hip-hop producers as to how to use his skills.
Flash never showcased his innovative pioneering DJ techniques on this, or any of the hits for the Furious Five, although he was part of the group’s whole mystique. Flash did appear properly on one Furious Five song: the track “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel,” but that’s about it.
This early version of hip-hop hucksterism has always irked Flash. By playing the track, Flash shows he’s moved past the drama. With vintage footage of the Furious Five playing behind Flash while he spun “The Message,” this was an exciting moment for any fan of old school hip-hop to both see and hear.
Flash’s final few songs took it down by playing “Can I Kick It” by Tribe Called Quest, (Lou Reed sample included). Shortly after Flash whipped the crowd back into a dance frenzy and ended with “Jump Around” by House of Pain before abruptly leaving the stage. His work was clearly done.
I’m not even scratching (pun intended) the surface of the amount of material Grandmaster Flash got though in his over-an-hour set. His cuts were, ahem, furious (I had to do both of these, folks. Sorry.) As the Furious Five rapped decades ago, “Grandmaster cuts faster,” and that was nothing if not on display at House of Yes.
All photos by Luis Nieto Dickens.