The Pitchfork 500 The Old Skool Revolution – Flash to Flash

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel
Funky 4+1 – That’s The Joint
Kraftwerk – Numbers/Computer World 2
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message

1981 saw the release of one of those landmark records, without which modern music could potentially have been very different. The idea was simple – use the cut-up techniques that had previously been explored by people such as Cabaret Voltaire and Buchanan and Goodman, and apply them to hip-hop. The result was mind-blowing.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (praise the Lord for copy & paste) was that record. Listen to it today, nearly 30 years after its release, and you’re first struck by how modern it sounds. Like some other revolutionary records (like “Marquee Moon” or “This Charming Man”), it hasn’t dated one little bit. It kicks off with a sample of Blondie’s “Rapture” – a song by a New York band released in 1980, which was influenced by the house parties and clubs in the Bronx in 1979. This record was released in 1981. That’s how fresh it was. Then the bassline from “Good Times” and “Another One Bites The Dust” kick in, alternately, and then the scratching starts.

I wonder how many people in 1981, when they first heard this played, thought the record was skipping. John Peel must have had a heart attack1. Nothing like it had really been heard before on a commercial record – you could argue that some of Throbbing Gristle’s music was pretty shocking, but it certainly wasn’t out there to be liked. The rest of the song continues in the same way; constantly shifting, cutting bits of records in and out, with samples of old radio and movies, and all sorts of bits and bobs, with each new part introduced with some furious scratching. Four minutes in, he even throws in Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder”.

Dear oh dear

Dear oh dear

That’s not to say that DJ’s at parties all over the Bronx hadn’t been scratching and mixing together records for years – they had. But none of them had used their prodigious skills to create a masterpiece, so Grandmaster Flash had the field to himself. Ironically, he wasn’t really a party DJ, more of a bedroom geek, by his own admission his friends thought he was a “dork”. And rather than spending hours on his own in his bedroom with his guitar, like so many other musically obsessed youngsters, he did it with some decks – the titular wheels of steel. Even now he’s obsessed with needles, the torque of the drive motor, and the weight of the platter. He was the inspiration for a whole new breed of musicians; those that instead of playing other people’s music and using them to build their own music, using guitar, or bass, or keyboards; no, they’d just take that music direct from the record and cut it together, sometimes using a rudimentary drum machine to provide the rhythm section. This record spoke to you, and it said, all you need are some decks, a good musical intuition and imagination. That’s it. Go and do it yourself.

It was a more revolutionary record than “God Save The Queen” 5 years earlier, and it changed music for ever. And what’s more, this was a big, shiny, pop song, and it was a massive hit. Hip-hop, and popular music, would never be the same again.

If you want to hear the sound of a Bronx party of the late ’70’s, then Funky 4+1’s “That’s The Joint” is the one. Unlike Grandmaster Flash or Sugarhill Gang, this lot were the real deal – proper party rappers, making a proper party hip-hop record. And as you’d expect, it’s a party tune, full of shout-outs and exhortations to just go and enjoy yourself. Made after their move to Sugar Hill Records, Funky 4+1 (the +1 being female rapper Sha Rock) never followed up their success with this record; amazing, given their obvious talent on this record.

Kraftwerk, meanwhile, were starting to sound dated. The initial shock of their astonishing ’70’s albums had given way to familiarity, and with it, a sense that they’d lost their edge. But they hit back with “Computer World”, which was about, er, computers. Home computers, pocket calculators, and how much fun it was to use computers. And pocket calculators. These crazy Germans, eh?

The two tracks on offer here2 both feature Kraftwerk intoning numbers 1 to 8 in a variety of foreign languages, over the classic Kraftwerk electronic beats and keyboards. As I’ve talked quite a bit about Kraftwerk before and their influence on modern music, so I won’t go on at length again. But I will share another funny story, after this fantastic live version:

Kraftwerk were, and still are for that matter, notoriously secretive. Their studio location in Dusseldorf was a closely guarded secret. They would not meet journalists in person, so getting an interview was very tough. One journo was given a phone number and an instruction to call at 10am, on the dot – not one minute later or earlier. He rang the number and it was answered after one ring by a member of the band, who then went on to explain that the phone did not have a ring tone, so the band would not be disturbed. If he’d called late they wouldn’t have known the phone was ringing.

Within a couple of seconds of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” you can hear Kraftwerk’s influence. The track kicks off after the initial (hugely-sampled) “Yeeeah!” with a sped-up, cut-up version of “Trans-Europe Express”, which underpins the whole track. Whilst “Adventures…” continually cut between songs, “Planet Rock” sticks to the same tune, adding layers on top, with rappers Soulsonic Force telling you to “Rock it, don’t stop it”. Again, it’s pure party music, but this time it’s reaching out to the whole wide world, and it’s using electronic beats to pass on its message. Another absolutely revolutionary song.

And finally, yet another revolution. Hip-hop, until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, had largely concerned itself with partying and saying how great they were, and nothing wrong with that. But Melle Mel wanted to tell the world about the real life they lived in – the deprivation, the violence, and the squalor. So he and Ed Fletcher (otherwise known as “Duke Bootee”) wrote “The Message”, which the rest of the band, Grandmaster Flash included, wanted nothing to do with3.

“The Message” is a sad, desperate social commentary. With its chorus of “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge\I’m trying not to loose my head\It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder\How I keep from goin’ under”, followed by a strange, mad grunting laugh, Melle Mel leaves you with no illusions about what party songs like “Planet Rock” and “That’s The Joint” were trying to make people forget. Over Fletcher’s slowly funky beats, with their incipient paranoia, he talks about “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back\Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat” and “People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care”. And that’s just the first verse. Cheery stuff.

This took urban American music back to the social commentary of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron, but with much of the soul replaced with a hard-edged anger, reflecting the violence and ugliness of everyday ghetto existence. Everything from Public Enemy and NWA, to 50 Cent would stem from here. Rap was now a force for reporting the bad times, not just selling the good times. It’s a battle that’s still going on today.

1 Yes, I know. But I’d bet you Peely would agree with me, and he probably did when he played it. I grew up with the sound of him putting records on at the wrong speed, or with fluff on the needle so the record skipped, or the time the needle slid all the way to the middle whilst he was in the loo, so we were treated to three minutes of a faint scuffling sound. I miss John Peel very, very much. *sniff*

2 And no, I don’t know why Pitchfork suddenly decided to allow two tracks on here and treat them as one. Yes, the seque into one another, but that doesn’t make them one track. They are two separate tracks on the album. But they’d often play them live together. Hmm. I’m confused.

3 Which does beg the question – why didn’t Melle Mel and Ed Fletcher just release it separately?

MP3: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels Of Steel by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

MP3: Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa

Buy “The Essential Grandmaster Flash” Here (CD)

Buy Funky 4+1’s “Back To The Old School 2 – That’s The Joint” (CD Box Set)

Buy Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (MP3)

Buy Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (MP3)

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