Grandmaster Flash to MacBook Pro DJs: What are you doing?

He helped create the soundtrack to rap. On the sidelines of a Twitch SXSW event, the hip-hop forebear raises his eyebrows at trading turntables for a Touch Bar.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

To Grandmaster Flash, technology is a gift and a curse.

The hip-hop icon loves no longer paying a fortune in power bills to fuel a roomful of mixing gear. But when a DJ steps onto stage only to twiddle with a MacBook Pro's Touch Bar instead of putting fingers to vinyl, he has stern advice about swapping showmanship for tech simplicity: "Go try another profession."

"The Touch Bar ... you're not really doing that. The technology that's in the operating system is really doing that," he said. "So, what are you doing?"

(Apple didn't offer a rebuttal.)

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Grandmaster Flash DJs a SXSW event hosted by Twitch and Reddit.

SPF Studios

Flash, born Joseph Saddler, is one of hip-hop's "holy trinity" of forefathers, three DJs in the 1970s Bronx in New York City who made an art out of mixing records on turntables that an MC could rap over. By committing a cardinal sin of vinyl LPs -- scratching records backward -- Flash perfected turning 10-second musical breaks into 10 minutes of beats and helped invent a genre that is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

Speaking on the sidelines of SXSW before a Twitch event, Flash discussed technology, the showmanship of DJing and a resurgence of interest in hip-hop's founding through things like Netflix's original series "The Get-Down." The following is an edited Q&A.

Something I always wonder, when a company like Apple unveils a new laptop, and it brings a DJ up on stage to to mix on a little Touch Bar: If Grandmaster Flash were watching this right now, what would he say?
Grandmaster Flash: Mixing with the laptop?

"Scratching" with your fingers on a Touch Bar.
Flash: [Long pause] I would say technology has come a long way. [Long pause] And I would watch him for a few minutes. [Long pause] And I would ask him, "Out of all the apparatuses and hardware that you could do it, why are you doing it that way?"

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Flash said the best platform for DJ showmanship "will always be ... turntables."

SPF Studios

The audience wants to see you perform. And as a DJ, the best platform will always be turntables. Especially if you play multiple genres of music, the [beats per minute] fluctuate on all songs, you're constantly trying to lock it in so that one beat connects on time to the next one. People want to see the constant battle going on. It's something for them to look at, as opposed to [having] something that does it for you. I won't say that it's right or wrong, left or right, black or white. But why?

Is that the question you ask yourself, as technology has changed so much over the course of your career? Why should I choose this tech versus that?
Flash: I look at 2017 as the year of cyclical. Everything comes in cycles. There has never been this much awareness for yesterday, of what was taking place in the '70s. So many people are trying to replicate what was. And in the age of the DJ, anybody that's choosing a piece of hardware, a true test is turntables. DJs are like performers. Why does the operating system have to do it for you? If you have to go in your room and practice it for 100 hours, so then you have to do it, it's worth it to your fans.

Have you stuck with a process for mixing or have you changed as technology has evolved?
Flash: OK, I used to have a room full of all the hardware. Two things happened: The room is increasingly hot -- your power bill is out the window, it's a mortgage. And it breaks down quite a bit. So, the scientist that I am, I went on a tear in the early '90s when a lot of technology companies were making software versions of, like, a base module. Once I bought the app version, I took the hardware version and put it away. Slowly but surely, I put all my stuff away, because the wonder about technology is you can carry it with you. That's a gift in it.

The curse is when it's doing the work for you. I find that to be an insult to the audience. If you ain't really mixing, then go try another profession. Don't cheat the audience like that.

When I'm mixing sometimes, I make a mistake. They want to see you pick the arm up by accident and it gets quiet in the room. It almost gives you a chance to see me vulnerable. You could talk about that 20 years from now: "I watched somebody that the world loves, he made a mistake and I was standing there." That's something to talk about. It's in love, but it just shows we have flaws. But if you've got a computer doing it for you, then why do it? The audience deserves that, to say the least.

This being the year of the cyclical -- vinyl's part of that. When streaming can put conceivably any kind of music at your fingertips, what do you think about vinyl's growing popularity?
Flash: That is the ultimate litmus test of DJs. I don't know why [it's gaining popularity], but I know for a fact it's a good thing for a lot of the new up-and-coming DJs to respect the art of what this is.

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Grandmaster Flash photographed in roughly 1983.

Images Press/Getty Images

For me to pull off an incredible set, I would have to bring minimum 16 milk crates of records. For an upcoming DJ, use MP3s but then switch it to analog and put two pieces of vinyl on of the same song. It's a drastic difference, and it actually makes you sharper when you go back to digital.

If the internet existed during the birth of hip hop, what would have been different?
Flash: We were taking so many chances, but we didn't realize we were taking chances. When we went looking for the perfect break beat inside of a song, we didn't just stay with one genre of music. We went to the pop bin and to the rock bin and to the jazz bin and to the blues bin. We didn't too much care about what people were thinking. We were just trying to find that amazing drum beat.

If the internet existed back then, I don't think I cared. It doesn't matter because I was in the moment, trying to find the next break. That's pretty much the scientist, the mad geek in me.

You were an associate producer on Netflix's "The Get Down," what do you think of it?
I love it. Baz [Luhrmann, "The Get Down" creator] said to me, "I want to intertwine some of your history along with our story, and we're going to let it be lived through these five kids." I was good with it. He cracked a vault open that I've been trying to crack open for 15 years. Because before "The Get Down," I would sit down with people like yourself and I would explain to you what it was that we did back then, and you all would look at me like I had a third eye on my forehead. He opened a whole line of questioning for the Bronx, about people like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa and myself. Wonderful, super wonderful.

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