Grandmaster Flash Calls Out Kool Herc’s DJ Skills In A Push For Peace (Video)
One week ago today, Hip-Hop celebrated its 44th birthday. That day is associated with an August 11 Bronx, New York party where DJ Kool Herc (aka Clive Campbell) prolonged the dance section of a record by using two turntables with copies of the same disc. For the event, an incredible Google doodle was created that honored the culture’s music history. Lasting 48 hours, the feature included two turntables, a mixer, and a crate of records using some of the very break-beats played at the onset of the culture in 1973. Fab 5 Freddy, Cey Adams, and Prince Paul were involved in the narration, creation, and music of the feature, respectively.
For those that missed it, some footage of the Hip-Hop doodle in Ambrosia For Heads‘ Last 7 video:
In an apparent response to the doodle and its association with DJ Kool Herc, another Hip-Hop pioneer has spoken up. This week (August 14), Grandmaster Flash published a video “A Letter To Kool Herc From Grandmaster Flash.”
In the video, Flash appears before his turntables and mixer. After shouting out respected DJs including Dr. Dre, DJ Jazzy Jeff, A-Trak and others, the Bronx, New York icon and Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee starts, “A letter to Kool Herc is what this is. From one Godfather to another, we don’t speak much anymore, and that’s…pretty sad. So I’d like to take this time to reintroduce myself, Herc, if I may. First, there’s Grandmaster Flash the performer. He’s into the ‘Yo, what up, dope, hot,’ and all the good things that Hip-Hop has contributed. Then there’s Joseph Sadler (Grandmaster Flash’s birth name), the geek, the scientist. He thinks about things like [Albert] Einstein and The Theory Of Relativity in unison. He thinks about Benjamin Banneker, inventor of the stop light, in unison.”
Continuing, he delves into the relationship. “I’ve been asked, ‘Describe Kool Herc,’ [I say], ‘Wonderful. [He was] the first DJ to publicly play grooves and breaks. [He] had the most incredible sound system, and this echo chamber gave him like the voice of God. But then there’s a technical aspect in this world of DJs. There’s possibly where I have questioned [things].’ Godfather, I went online to see if there were any performances of your hands doing what you do. Since I could not find it, this is what I remember—especially going to see you in Cedar Park [in] the west side of the Bronx, Sedgwick. Now there is [the] question: who is the creator of this thing from a layman’s perspective [known as] looping? When I went on Google and I looked for what I feel you did, I came up with ‘Repeat.’ I do hope that someday we can sit down and discuss this. Joseph Sadler would love to.”
Further in the video, Flash compares “looping” (which he asserts he brought to Hip-Hop) with “repeating,” the act of prolonging sections of the record. Near the video’s end, he demonstrates how he controls the music without moving the turntable’s tone-arm or stopping the music. Instead, as Flash shows with The Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 version of “Apache,” the move between one platter’s section to another should be seamless. Flash appears to refer to Herc’s technique of repeating as “the law of disarray.”
The front-man to Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five goes on, “You see Herc, when I was comin’ up, my father had this closet where all his vinyl lived. As a tot, I was so perplexed and confused on how this music comes out of those little tunnels [in the record]. And every time I went in that closet and he found out, every time, he kicked my ass. Every time he turned around and he wasn’t looking, I went back in that closet and I took them black discs with the little teenie tiny tunnels inside it and I went to the brown box (the turntable stereo) in my father’s living room. I used to get my ass tore the f*ck up. My father’s no longer [alive]. But in some odd sort of way I want to say thank you to him. Because as he was kicking my ass, I learned that this must be something pretty, pretty valuable of why he did he keep beating me…so I did studies when I was able to get my own vinyl—electronic studies on things…” Flash then details his technical understanding of voltage, meters, and more theories of electricity. “I also created the piece of material that went between the platter and the record,” he adds, referring to what’s now called a slipmat (he says he first called ‘a wafer’).”
This is where Grandmaster Flash states his contributions to Hip-Hop and DJ culture. “Here’s my definition of what I call ‘looping’: [I am the] first DJ to put his hands on the record and use the record as a controller as well as his sound source. I was very much hated when I came up with this system. I gotta tell ya, Herc—it was so hard; I was tryin’ to find a job doin’ this. And nobody would hire me. I was known for making the record [surface] dirty, I was known for rubbing the record back and forth and destroying the record. I was known for disrespecting [the record] by putting a mark on it with the crayon. The only person who truly understood what it was, what I was doin’, was my first prodigy [sic]. His name was Grand Wizard Theodore.” Theodore would later follow Flash’s footsteps, leading Grand Wizard Theodore & The Fantastic Five. The Bronx native is also credited with pioneering the scratch as Hip-Hop Heads know it. He appeared prominently in the Doug Pray documentary film Scratch.
Flash continues his video letter, “You see Herc, from where I come from, looping—if you look on [at this video]—it’s a structure, series, or process which is the end that is connected to the beginning. That means there is no stops, there are no starts. And when I came up with this, I did this in honor of the break-dancer, I did this in honor of the two-stepper, I definitely did this in honor of people that did that Latin dance: ‘the hustle.’ You see Herc, with this style, it spawned all these techniques behind it, like the cut, and the rub, and the scratch, and the scribble, and the transform, and the orbit, and the [crab-scratch], and the flares. All this [was] done with this technique.”
It appears that Grandmaster Flash then addresses Afrika Bambaataa. While he never mentions Bam’, the Universal Zulu Nation founder is historically credited as the third member of Hip-Hop’s pioneering DJ trinity. In March of 2016, a sex scandal and multiple child abuse allegations appeared to force the DJ born Kevin Donovan out of the public eye. While no arrests or charges have been made, Afrika Bambaataa’s public image appears greatly compromised. In late 2015, prior to those charges surfacing, Bam’ appeared alongside KRS-One, Rocksteady Crew’s Crazy Legs, and others, who asserted his role as a possible founder of Hip-Hop music.
As for Flash, approaching the 10:00 mark, he says, “I want to make this absolutely clear: Herc, it’s only me and you left. Our third component, I haven’t seen in I don’t know [long]. But it’s just us, man. I’m about peace. It is absolutely clear that you played the grooves and the drum breaks first that hot day in August [of 1973]. It’s absolutely clear that you had the greatest sound system. And it is absolutely crystal clear that you had the echo chamber, first. Did I go out and buy one when I seen yours? Absolutely. Did I wish I had a sound system like you? Absolutely. But I could not. I just to make it clear: the art of this technical thing, Herc, it’s me.”
After demonstrating on the tables, he says near 14:20: “I say to you Kool Herc, all the respect and love for you, I know what you did and I personally want to say thank you. It’s my father, and it’s you that helped me to do what I did. I think it’s only two of us, Herc, and from this point on, we need to teach the newbies what this is. If we continue on this way, Herc, what we do, Herc, will become nothing.” While the three men were photographed together in the 1990s, there have been public accounts of rifts for more than a decade.
Flash brings his point home at 15:50, after a “quick mix” demonstration: “I say this with all the love and respect, Herc: of course you didn’t put your fingertips on the record, and you did not have absolute control of the vinyl. So then the question is: where did I learn timing?” Flash answers, “The technical aspect of this, no Herc, I definitely did not want to learn from your technique. I went out elsewhere—all due respect. So where did I learn this from? Well, let me tell you. When I finally came up with the technique, I went around looking for other DJs.” The former Sugar Hill Records star says he studied the mixing methods of radio DJs in the 1970s. However, those mixmasters—which he does not credit by name, were not playing the same selections that Hip-Hop favored. As Flash portrays it, he adapted, and applied those lessons to discs by James Brown, Queen, Rick James, Jimmy Castor Bunch, and others.
Although Grandmaster Flash is clearly calling out his peer, he seeks resolution. “Herc, happy birthday two times. Thank you so much for starting this. I definitely want to give a big ups to Google, thank you so much for this. Thank you for putting this on such a huge platform…In closing, I want to say to you Herc—we were three [Godfathers] at one time. Now we’re two. Eventually, God will call and it’ll be one. And then there’ll be none. I don’t want it to end this way. Let’s break bread, chop it up alone or we can just sit in front of press and talk about the stories, ’cause believe me, the world really wants to know. Goodnight.”
Kool Herc has yet to publicly respond to Grandmaster Flash. This month, Flash’s former Furious Five band-mate Kidd Creole was indicted for murder after allegedly fatally stabbing a homeless man in Manhattan.