How Grandmaster Flash learnt to mix


WASHINGTON • In Baz Luhrmann's Netflix hip-hop saga, The Get Down, a young Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) gives the main characters 24 hours to figure out the key to his quick-mix theory.

Their only clue? A purple crayon.

The quick-mix theory allowed Flash (above), 58, to repeat, on a loop, the parts of songs that party crowds found most exciting and he could blend drum breaks from different genres of music. He would mark a record's climactic point - known in the series as "the get down" - with a crayon or a grease pencil.

The pioneering mixing technique is just one of the authentic pieces from the early days of hip-hop that made its way onto the screen in The Get Down. And Flash worked closely with Athie and Luhrmann to make sure they got it right.

"What I found annoying with Baz was he would ask the same question 30 times," Flash said in an interview.

Luhrmann would occasionally have the iconic DJ use a Sharpie and paper to replicate what he would do on the turntables.

The director's persistence was puzzling, but when Flash saw rough cuts of the series - with his technique being replicated deftly onscreen - it all started to make sense.

Flash spoke about how he came up with the technique: "My mother and my sister used to have house parties. What I noticed is the part (of the record) where there was a drum solo, the crowd would become more reactive at that point.

"I'm like, oh wow - so why isn't that most of the record? How can I take this 10-second part that I thought should be the whole entire record and manually edit it and cut and paste it on time to the beat?

"I had to do what was considered a major violation to vinyl. People hated me for it. DJs at this time thought I was very disrespectful.

"I was a geek coming up... I had to figure out the proper needle that would stay inside the groove when it's under the pressure of the vinyl being moved counter-clockwise.

"The second step was figuring out what to do with the rubber matting that comes with the turntable. When I was trying to move the vinyl counter-clockwise, it caused too much drag and too much friction, so I had to remove it.

"Then under that was the steel platter. The problem was I couldn't put the vinyl on the steel platter because if there was a cut on the other side, I would ruin the record.

"My mother was a seamstress so I knew different types of materials. When I touched felt, I said, 'This could possibly work.' The problem with felt is that it draped, it was limp. So I bought just enough felt to cut out two round circles the same size as a 33' LP and - when my mother wasn't looking - I turned the iron all the way up high and I used her spray starch.

"I sprayed it until this limp piece of felt became - I called it a wafer... Today, it's called a slipmat.Then I put the felt on top of the metal platter and I put the album on top of the felt, so when I moved it now, it was fluid.

"Then it was a matter of me finding the right turntable. I went into junkyards and any stereo equipment that was thrown out, I brought it into my bedroom and I would test it.

"What was important to me was when the platter was still and I powered it up, if it took the turntable the whole turn to go up to speed, then that turntable had poor torque. I needed the muscle because I was going counter-clockwise with the vinyl.

"After going through countless turntables, I was going past a store on Hunts Point in the Bronx. There was this ugly steel grey turntable in the window. It was this little-known company, it had a little sticker on it - Technics. The model was the SL-23. So I try it and when I rest my hand on it, the torque on this is pretty good.

"Once I came up with the queuing, the proper needle, the 'wafer', duplicate copies of records, the mixer, which I had to rebuild, I was able to take a 10-second drumbeat and make it seamlessly 10 minutes.

"I was so excited. My best friend Mike spent the night at my house and I woke him up at three in the morning and I said, 'Mike. You need to see this.' He says, 'You're putting your fingers on the record?' I said, 'I know, Mike, I know.' Extending the 10- second drum beat created a music bed for the MC/rapper to speak. So this was also the beginning of rap."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'How Grandmaster Flash learnt to mix'. Print Edition | Subscribe