Grandmaster Flash // Festival Chorus Hauts-de-Seine // 7.4.19
It’s not often in music we get to talk about real technical innovation, but these are the moments we must cherish the most. It’s 1977 and the Bronx is burning. A nineteen-year-old Joseph Saddler, a kid who would later become known as Grandmaster Flash, loots his first set of turntables from an abandoned building. The rest, as they say, is history. From the rubble and the ruins of the South Bronx of New York City emerged some of the brightest stars in music history. This is where hip-hop began.
Inspired by the disco and funk of the ‘70s, early DJs like Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore began organising parties in the neighbourhood. Herc noticed that the percussive breaks in these dance tunes really got the crowd moving (hence ‘breakdancing’). So he did the rational thing and bought a copy of every record he wanted to play. This way he could loop the break for as long as he wanted, a technique known as ‘quick-mix theory’. Grandmaster Flash took these techniques, studied them, and got them down to a fine art, before taking this music from underground to mainstream in 1982 with the release of ‘The Message’.
Festival Chorus Hauts-de-Seine takes place on an island on the river to the southeast of Paris. La Seine Musicale is a really impressive venue, with four indoor stages and two outdoor. Grandmaster Flash wasn’t on until 10, so we checked out some of the other acts beforehand. Caleborate was pretty cool – old-school beats and high-energy vocals. The French rap was hit-and-miss to be honest, but proved that hip-hop is at least alive and well in France, with a big and enthusiastic fanbase. We were also very aware that fellow hip-hop legend Yasiin Bey, FKA Mos Def, was on after Grandmaster Flash and so didn’t want to get too excited too early. After a decent pizza, it was time.
I was surprised the crowd wasn’t bigger as we approached the stage, getting right to the front. 15 minutes after he was due to appear people began to wonder whether he was going to turn up. The beginning of his set was unorthodox, consisting of a montage of video and audio clips paying homage to the hip-hop’s predecessors – James Brown, Stevie Wonder etc. – projected on a screen behind the decks. The set then transitioned into a musical exploration of the city of New York, moving through the different boroughs – The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island – playing a song or two by artists from each district. For Grandmaster Flash, it was a celebration of his roots. “Respect”, he repeated, applauding both the musical genius and diversity of the music, coupled I think with a nostalgia for all things old-school. There was some scratching on the turntables from the man himself, as well as the occasional “Somebody scream!”, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was far removed from the kind of DJing he would’ve done in the ‘70s. But actually, that’s fine. At the age of 61, to still be able to play incredible, timeless music to fans all around the world is a wonderful thing. His set finished with ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain, instantly recognisable by the horns in the intro. We did indeed jump around.
In the immortal words of the great Run-D.M.C., “Goddamn that DJ made my day.”
This video gives you a sense of the vibes on offer at the festival.
For anyone interested in hip-hop’s early days, check out the great Netflix documentary ‘Hip-hop Evolution’, which features interviews with all those artists and many more.