How Grandmaster Flash Became my DJ Hero

DJ Hero, the brand new chapter in the Guitar Hero series of rhythm video games, came out last Tuesday.  And it’s a blast.  You get to be the DJ at the club, you get to spin a replica Technics turntable and scratch and cross-fade and mash-up, and it’s a blast.  I really enjoyed playing the demo version at Best Buy over the past few days – and when I switched over from “demo mode” to “training mode” in the game, I received a major but pleasant surprise.

The “trainer” in the game was none other than the turntable legend, Grandmaster Flash.  He explained what to do with the controls of the game, and what doing each different movement (scratching, cross-fading) meant to the concept of turntablism.

What you all don’t realize is that Grandmaster Flash was my personal DJ Hero.

It started way back in the day – 1981, to be totally accurate.  I was a high school student at Street Academy of Albany, where as a high school senior, I was introduced to early rap and hip-hop records.  “Rapper’s Delight?”  Sure.  “Monster Jam” with Spoonie Gee Featuring the Sequence?  Heck yeah.  “The Adventures of Super Rhyme?”  Awesome track.  In other words, my classmates had tracks that came all the way from the pressing plants of the Boogie Down Bronx.  And I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that my first 12-inch record I ever bought – not an album, mind you, but an album-sized record with one track per side – was “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” on Sugarhill Records.

I played that record till the needle wore out.  It was fantastic, it was revolutionary, it was a medley that was created not by re-recording the parts in a studio or by chopping up recording tape and splicing things together – but by using two turntables and a mixer, back-cueing and back-spinning and scratching and a host of other techniques – on two Technics turntables, which I later learned are as important to a turntablist as a Gibson guitar is to a rocker.

True story – when I arrived at Hamilton College as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, my roommate pulled out his phonograph and his collection of music – Squeeze, the B-52’s and the like – and I was not familiar with them.  Of course, when I played Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow on my phonograph, he was just as confused with my musical taste.  Thus continuing a tradition of people who are confused about my eclectic musical tastes.  But I digress.

While at college, and while working at the college radio station WHCL, I and several other on-air students experimented with live remixing on the air, using the two Technics SL1200 MK2 turntables in the college radio station studio and the station’s front panel operating board.  Sometimes the results were spectacular, sometimes the results involved people calling up the station and screaming at us to knock it off.

In 1985, Grandmaster Flash performed at Mohawk Valley Community College, and I interviewed him as part of an on-air radio special.  He was kind enough to autograph his latest 12-inch for me, a track called “Sign of the Times.”

In 1995, I was a struggling writer trying to get my work into a music publication called Goldmine.  Goldmine was a record collector’s biweekly, and they had in-depth interviews with music icons of the past and present. I contacted the editor, and just for the heck of it, I asked if they would be interested in an article on Grandmaster Flash.  After providing the publication with examples of my past work, including a small curriculum vitae, the editor said sure, get it to me in a couple of months and we’ll consider it.

I figured I could use my old 1985 radio interview for source material. But it wasn’t enough for a full-blown Goldmine article. Not in the least. I needed to get back in touch with Grandmaster Flash and interview him about his full career, from his days in the Bronx to the worldwide stage. I wanted to ask him about “The Message” and “Wheels of Steel” and every other track he ever worked on.

After weeks of trying, I finally got in touch with Grandmaster Flash. I asked him if we could set up an interview.

He said no.



This wouldn’t do. I tried again. I tried to convince him that I was not going to ask the same old questions that everybody else had asked. I wanted to ask him about Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins, one of his members of the Furious Five who passed away. I wanted to ask him about the early records like “Superrappin'” and “Wheels of Steel” and all the rest.

I was looking for any sign. Any chance.

Flash responded. “I’m very busy. If you can get down to New York City and to this address downtown (a radio station he was involved with at the time), I’ll give you one hour.”


“Oh, and it’ll cost $300.”

Uh-oh. Flash was testing me. I knew that if I went back to the editor at Goldmine and asked for $300 to interview Grandmaster Flash, I would never get another interview project with Goldmine ever.

But I also knew that if I didn’t get my foot in the door with this interview, I would never get another chance with Goldmine.

I showed up at the radio station in New York City at the designated time. Flash was there. I gave him the $300, which until earlier that morning was resting comfortably in an Albany-based ATM.

We went into a board room. I turned on my tape recorder. The interview began.

To his credit, Flash answered every question, and gave tremendous insight into his career. He even marveled at the small record collection I had brought with me – my original 12″ of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” my 7″ Australian pressing of “The Message,” and my “nobody has a copy of this, where did you get it” copy of the original Enjoy Records’ copy of “Superrappin,” the first 12-inch featuring Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

The hour finished. He kept on talking. He kept on reminiscing. My tape recorder kept rolling.

And as we left, he took my copy of “Superrappin,” pulled out a ballpoint pen, and autographed the cover. Personalized it. And at that moment, that record went from shelf-dust-gatherer to “I’m going to frame this some day.”

The article ran in Goldmine, you can read it here.

And in 2000, when my record collector’s guide Warman’s American Records was published, I made sure that no matter what, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would be listed on the front cover.  And if you look on the lower right corner of the book cover, you can see a copy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s LP “The Message,” as clear as day.

And when it comes to my writing career… that was the most beneficial $300 I ever spent.