To the beat y'all
In 1973 the 16-year-old Flash was still keen to find a path to greatness. Then suddenly his destiny became clear – he’d become a breakdancer! It was the fresh fly way to impress the girls – do some drops and flips and locks and body-pops like the kids on Soultrain. What could be more obvious? He made a fine start in pursuit of this dream, but then a thorny obstacle emerged – he discovered he had a tragic inability to breakdance. “I was kinda wack,” he admits. “I tried to learn it, I did some moves and landed on my back and hurt it a whole lot.”
Flash was forced to find a new route to stardom. Luckily, for the sake of his bruised bones, fresh career inspiration soon showed up – in the shape of the borough’s conquering musical demigod. “I got the word about a guy on the west side of the Bronx who has this massive sound system. He had this pair of Shure vocal master columns, and these two black bass bottoms.” When Flash tracked down this heroic figure playing in a park on his behemoth system he heard music like never before. Tracks like ‘Shack Up’ by Banbarra, ‘The Mexican’, ‘Funky Drummer’, and ‘Apache’ by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band. “Some of it my sisters had in their collection, some of it I never heard before. But it had such a great feel to it.”
What’s more, this Herc guy was really playing around with the music, and that made it even more exciting. He’d repeat the bits the crowd loved best, fading from one track to a second copy of the same song, booming “Rock on my mellow” or “To the beat, y’all” through an echo chamber to cover the join and basking in glory as the lads dancing went full crazy. Not only that but he was enthroned above the crowd high on a platform so you couldn’t see what he was playing. Like the star he was. Like the star Flash wanted to be. “I saw people gathered from miles around just for one individual, playing music.” This encounter wiped out any dreams of breakdancing. There was now no doubt in his mind. “When I saw Kool Herc sitting up on his podium, heavily guarded, and all these people in the park enjoying themselves, that was it: I was gonna be a DJ.”
Kool Herc, christened Hercules by his schoolmates but known to his mum as Clive Campbell, is a Jamaican immigrant who stands nearer seven foot than six. Herc ruled the west Bronx as party king throughout the first half of the seventies. His success was founded on a ground-shaking sound system, a record box groaning with earthy funk tunes and an admissions policy which let in the raucous sneaker-wearing teenage element – a combustible crowd which most clubs were eager to keep off the premises. Herc’s trump card musically – something which gave him unrivalled appeal to the B-boying youth – was to play the breaks of records rather than the whole song, calling this part of his set ‘The Merry Go Round’. This, m’lud, was the breakthrough move from which hip hop grew.
Herc influenced a generation. As economics saw the DJ start to replace the local funk bands, kids throughout the Bronx saw how a mere disc jockey could be a star, could draw a crowd wherever he played. Downtown, disco was emerging from its underground origins and getting glittered up for the mainstream. Uptown across the Harlem River, while the grown-ups were dancing the hustle to pretty much the same songs as the folk in the Village, for Bronx kids under 20 it was funk tracks a few years old that were ruling the floor. And it was Kool Herc who was playing them.
Flash’s first reaction to Herc was to build himself a system. For a kid obsessed with electronics, seeing this afroed giant sitting behind a park-quaking set of components was like a glimpse of the holy grail. “With my electronic knowledge, and my ability to take junk and jury-rig it together, I started to put together some sort of makeshift sound system. And it was a piece of shit, but it was mines.” By 1974 he had just enough equipment and just enough balls to start calling himself a DJ.
For Pete's sake
No surprises yet. So far this is much the same tale you”ll have learnt in your ‘Keepin’ it real’ history lessons. The great Herc delivered the notion of playing the breaks from on high, picking out the choicest chunks of your mom and pop’s old records, and his disciples – Flash foremost – followed him into the promised land. But not so fast: there’s another key figure, more or less forgotten today, who played a vital role in the web of inspirations that led Flash to create his new science – Pete DJ Jones.
Like Herc, Pete Jones is a giant among men. He towers in at six foot eight with ham-sized hands that once played professional basketball. “Here is one dude that doesn’t have to wear any flashy clothes to stand out in a crowd,” wrote New York DJ fanzine Melting Pot in 1975. “When he lights a match, he looks like the Towering Inferno”.
“Music For All Occasions” advertises Pete’s business card and he still takes bookings at the age of 62. He’s just back from DJing a weekend at a holiday camp up in the Poconos and there’s a flyer in the lobby of his building advertising an upcoming R&B weekender for middle-aged Bronxsters with his name as a draw. Back in the day Pete Jones was one of the biggest DJs in the city, a name you heard constantly on party ads on WBLS. Today he’s squeezed behind the wheel of his little red hatch-back, with his knees hovering up near his chin. He gives a Deputy Dawg chuckle at his car’s poor fit and offers some melodic Carolina musings about the joys of fishing.
Pete was Flash’s greatest inspiration. Why? Because he kept the beat.
Pete Jones was the leading DJ in a scene which has never been accorded much importance. Plenty has now been written about disco’s gay black underground of the Loft, the Gallery and the Paradise Garage; this was disco’s straight black overground. It was a close-knit scene of mobile DJs who’d set up their rigs in hotel ballrooms (the Sheridan and notably the Diplomat, which Pete saw trashed by the crowd in a cross-state battle when he took on Newark’s finest DJs – Steak and Red) and in otherwise underpopulated restaurants. Places with names like Pub Theatrical, Jimmy’s, Gasky’s, Adrian’s, Hillside Manor, The Loft (no relation), Nell Gwynn’s… right across Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and New Jersey. Besides Pete, the other players were Cameron ‘Grandmaster’ Flowers, the scene’s founding big-shot who sadly ended his days panhandling outside Tower Records (and who was also an early graffiti writer), Maboya, a Panamanian who pioneered outdoor parties at Riis Beach before returning to Central America, and Ron Plummer a chemistry graduate who shot to fame as the scene’s Deejay Of The Year 1975 before heading off to medical school in Boston. The biggest boost to their fortunes, Pete recalls, was the beef crisis of 1971, which left restaurants empty and desperate. As ‘Where’s the beef?’ became the catchphrase of the day, disco came to the rescue with wily promoters turning eateries into niteries. “After they’d finished serving the last meal they’d start throwing the tables to one side and put the chairs on top of each other, put a makeshift bar up and the place would be jam packed until four in the morning.”
Pete, a teacher by career, got his DJing start in 1970, just after he’d moved from Raleigh to New York, by promoting a Bronx party around the first Grambling-Morgan game, a black college football fixture. After hiring a room but unable to book a DJ, he decided to do the job himself. “I went down to Sam Ash and bought the speakers and everything. I put this system together, went out and bought the top 20 and rocked the house. The party was so successful that the guy gave me the back room of the club every Friday and Saturday.” Later the same year he covered for a no-show Grandmaster Flowers in a jam on 57th St and his downtown reputation was launched
Through the seventies Pete played his punters what they wanted to hear: the length and breadth of the Billboard R&B chart sprinkled through with plenty of funky oldies and a smattering of more obscure southern soul. “You know what this is?” he asks as he picks out songs from a stack of dusty sleeveless 45s in his dark and crammed apartment. “It’s gut-bucket music. Yeah… gut-bucket music, poverty music.” An Ann Winley tune gets an airing, then ‘JB’s ‘Monorail’, then Grover Washington’s ‘Mister Magic’, Leon Haywood’s ‘Believe Half Of What You See’, Curtis Mayfield singing ‘Can’t Save Nothing’. “Gut-bucket music is stuff like James Brown, BB King, Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Dr. John,” he explains. “When I went downtown and played in a club and everybody’s dressed up, I’d play more of the stuff that was on the radio’ – and he draws out a list of commercial hits ranging from Kool & The Gang to the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. But his heart lies with music slowed by the heat of the southern states. ‘I used to hear other DJs saying, “That Pete Jones’ music, it puts me to sleep! Because it’s too slow.” It’s that special beat. It’s that downbeat. It’s the only music they listen to down south.”
While the music they played was hardly ground-breaking, rarely veering too far from the playlists of black radio, Pete and his peers were key in spreading the innovations of the more underground clubs to a wider audience, an audience that included the black population of the Bronx. Beatmatching, cuts and blends (or “running” records, as Pete calls it) were required skills on the gay scene thanks to pioneers like Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Cappello. Grandmaster Flowers, who’d been playing since 1967, as well as Plummer, Maboya and Pete Jones himself, deserve credit for developing the same skills at the same time and – crucial to our story – for showing them off to the wide world of greater New York.
“They would say that Flowers was a mixer and I was a chopper,” says Pete, describing Grandmaster Flowers’ style as being closest to the DJs in the gay clubs. “Flowers was an expert mixer. He didn’t chop too many of the records, he would bleeend. Plummer was a mixer also, but I liked to chop, I liked to get the beat – BANG! BANG! – I loved to chop. Even before I had a cueing system, I liked to chop them records up.” Emphasising his claims, Pete says he had two copies of everything. “I’d play a record over and over again, because you didn’t have many hits in those days, and you had to keep playing until four or five in the morning. So you’d play it over again and you’d shine a light on that groove and play it awhile. Best part of the record is usually that groove part,” he says with a chuckle.
Setting the equation
Most of the time dance music advances slowly and subtly. DJs on a scene pick out certain records and, by highlighting a particular style, spur producers to turn it into a genre. Flash’s innovations weren’t like that. His revolution wasn’t organic or accidental, it was all about vision and hard work. Flash imagined a future style of DJing and then bust his guts figuring out how to deliver it. He picked out the elements he wanted from two completely different DJs and set himself the challenge of combining them.
As he tells it, it was all about ‘unison and disarray’. Herc was the man because of what he played. But while he searched out obscure funk tracks and piled their breaks together for the B-boys, his technique, by all accounts, was pretty rough round the edges. The fever-pitch excitement of his ‘Merry Go Round’ came from the records he chose and the parts of those records he played – he had no concern for making clean mixes or keeping a steady beat. For Flash, this was a serious downfall.
“I noticed that if the crowd were into a record they would have to wait until he mixed it, because it was never on time,” he recalls. “I could see the audience in unison, then in disarray, then in unison, then in disarray. I said: I like what he’s playing but he’s not playing it right. So I says: I want to do something about that. The thought was to have as little disarray as possible. Didn’t know how I was gonna do it.”
“For Herc timing was not a factor. He would play a record that was maybe 90 beats a minute, and then he would play another one that was 110. But timing was a factor, because a lot of these dancers were really good. They did their moves on time. So I said to myself, I got to be able to go to just the particular section of the record, just the break, and extend that, but on time.
And that’s where Pete comes in.
Flash recalls: “The word gets back to me: there’s this guy who plays in the downtown clubs, playing the disco stuff. I hear he’s coming to the neighbourhood. He’s coming to my territory.” Imagining himself as a mini-Herc, and already armed with some fearsome funk tracks, Flash thought he’d have no problem trouncing a mere disco DJ. “I’m like, – Alll-right! I was sure I was better than him. Me and my boys got a couple of shopping carts and we put the speakers and the records and we walk over seven or eight blocks to 138th and Alexander. Mitchell houses.
“But as I’m walking, the ground is sort of vibrating. Wow, is there a car accident happening… continuously? And as I get closer and closer the ground is shaking to a beat. He was playing this song, and it was like neeeeeeeaarrr-pumm, and then it goes into this disco beat. As I go into the park this system was so powerful it was shaking concrete.”
Undeterred, or at least stubborn enough to carry on, Flash hooked up his meagre equipment opposite Pete’s. “I set up and when he turned off I turned on. I had a bunch of midrange and some tweeters. Of course when he turned it back on he was the complete frequency. And I’m thinking: You fucking asshole Flash. You popped all this shit to your friends, you’re gonna go over there and beat this guy that plays disco.”
Pete recalls their first meeting “I was working for the department of social services at the time and this woman called me and said she had a young DJ and they were really trying to launch him. Trying to get him known, get him out there. So we set up this battle. I used to have a Volkswagen, I had my bus. I had those big horns like they have at Yankee Stadium. I had two of those. Then Flash came down. He was talented. He was fast. I’d say he’s one of the smoothest mixers, other than Grandmaster Flowers. He reminded me of Flowers.”
“Pete could have totally humiliated me,” admits Flash. “But he was very cool. He gave me his card and we became friends after that. He said, “Here’s my number, why don’t you come to a couple of gigs of mines.” I took it with a grain of salt, like – ah, he’s not going to fucking call me. I don’t even play the same shit he plays. But he called me. I think my first gig with him was with the Stardust Ballroom in the Bronx.”
Aside from befriending one of New York’s biggest DJs, this meeting gave Flash the final inspiration he needed. Pete’s music was not what he wanted to play, but Flash was transfixed by the idea of continuity. What blew him away was hearing records merge into each other without losing the beat. This was the first time he’d heard blends.
“It was incredible that you could hear that other record coming in from the horizon, and then all of a sudden it’s right here, and then it becomes the record. He was playing Donna Summers, Trammps, stuff like that, and he wouldn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t very fast at it, but he would blend from one and I could hear the other one coming in. No horses galloping. Bass drum on top of bass drum and snare on top of snare.
“The music he was playing was not to my liking at all – I was playing the obscure R&B and rock but he was playing just disco – but the way he was playing it – the blend, where there’s no disarray, there’s unison, the crowd was into a frenzy and he was blending it – tight!
For Flash it was a eureka! moment. Lightbulbs popped inside his head as he imagined somehow connecting Pete’s continuity with Herc’s breaks. Even as he conceived this he knew it would be massive. “I watched Herc with unison and disarray and I watched Pete with unison,” he explains. “Herc went straight to the meat of the sandwich – the get-down part of a record – and it would get the people hype. I seen his audience lose their minds. Pete would play his style of a break and the people that came to his party – I seen them lose their minds. I knew that if I could just come up with the formula in between I would have something.” Seamless mixing seemed to work for disco. Could he do the same with the chunks of funk that the B-boys loved so much?
Methodical and obsessed, Flash now set himself this goal of playing breakbeats with precision. “I was like: how can I take the Herc tracks – that kind of sound – and find a way to make it seamless…?
“I had to figure out how to take these records and take these sections and manually edit them so that the person in front of me wouldn’t even know that I had taken a section that was maybe 15 seconds and made it five minutes. So that these people that really danced, they could just dance as long as they wanted. I got to find a way to do this.” This is what the world would one day know as hip hop: music made from breaks of records sampled, edited and repeated in a continuous rhythm, using nothing but two turntables and a mixer. At first, he had no idea whether it was possible, just that it would be amazing – and that if he could get it right, he would make history.
Into the laboratory
Flash became like a physicist on the tail of a new elemental particle, so sure of its existence he won’t leave his lab before he’s nailed it. Each part of his style was the result of rigorous testing. Nothing came about by accident; it was all from hundreds of hours of trial and error. How do you do this? Maybe this would work. No? OK how about this? Forget fiddling around, this was serious research. For months, during high school and then while working as a messenger for a company called Crantex Fabrics, he spent as much time as possible shut in his room relentlessly pursuing his goal. Immersing himself in the technical mysteries of turntable torque, cartridge construction, needle configuration and the like, examining every aspect of the machinery which he aimed to master.
“Friends of mine used to come to my house and say, ‘C’mon, let’s go to the park, let’s go hang with girls.’ I’m like, ‘Naw, man, I can’t do that. I’m working on something.’”I didn’t know what I was working on, didn’t have a clue. All I know is that with each obstacle there came an excitement on how to figure it out. How to get past it… How to get past it, how to get past it.”
First equip your lab. In his quest to become a DJ, Flash had tried out all sorts of turntables. His earliest system had decks scavenged from old radiograms and re-housed in wooden cases he’d built. “Of course they were horrible,” he admits. In desperation he had even tried out a Fisher price Close and Play toy record player, to see if it could do the job. He then set his sights on decks like the ones he’d heard of in the Hunts Point Palace, a nightspot round the corner from his house. Too young to get inside but well-informed about the quality of the club’s equipment, he’d found out these were Thorens TD125s – thousand-dollar audiophile monsters with swinging weights and delicate gimbals, supposedly the best in the world. After negotiations with the neighbourhood thieves, a pair appeared in his house.
“I looked at my old turntables and I looked at their Thorens and I was like: OK, now I can continue my science.” Their reputation preceded them, but the Thorens were more or less useless. Problem was, while his experiments demanded a quick start and a lot of torque, it took the Thorens about a day to start going round. “They had horrible pick up – horrible,” he recalls. “If I held the record while the platter was spinning, I would literally have to push the record up to speed.”
He started rating turntables, testing them wherever he could. “My thing was, it would have to be from a state of inertia up to speed by at least a quarter of a turn. If not then it didn’t qualify. If I went to somebody’s house I’d try out their turntable – I stopped the platter – and turned it back on. If it took too long to get up to speed then it was the wrong turntable.” After fiddling with half the decks in the Bronx he bumped into the Technics SL120s, a predecessor to the SL1200s “This went up to speed at about a quarter of a turn, and it had decent torque.” Finally the experiments could resume.
Another particularly thorny problem was cueing – listening to the next record to find the part he wanted without the audience hearing it too. At the time, mixers with the necessary extra pre-amplifiers and headphone sockets were rare and expensive, and Flash was only vaguely aware such technology even existed. Again, Pete Jones provided the spark. Although Herc had an impressive GLI 3800 mixer, he didn’t much use headphones, preferring to just guess and crash one record into another, so it wasn’t until Flash finally got a close look at Pete’s system that he understood how the disco DJs pulled off their crisp blends. “Because Pete had headphones, I guessed that he was hearing the track before he played it.”
Flash pulled out his soldering iron and went to work. “What I had to do was build what I called a ‘peek-a-boo’ system. The mixer I was using at the time was a Sony MX8 microphone mixer. I bought two external pre-amps to take the voltage of the cartridge and boost it to line level and I could hear it. I had to go to Radio Shack to find something that could split two frequencies independently. So I put a single-pole-double-throw switch up the middle and just split the two signals. An spdt switch is something I learned on the blackboard at school. Put the grounds up the middle and the positives on the end. In the centre position it would be off. Click it to the right and you’d hear the right turntable, two clicks to the left and you’d hear the other one.
Pete Jones still has the warhorse of a mixer that inspired this bout of amateur electronics. When he plays out he uses a modern model, but back home between his dusty decks, blending his gut-bucket 45s, is an ancient GLI 7000 unit the size of a television.
Salted away in his bedroom, Flash edged towards his vision of a completely new way of playing records. It was a lonely existence, often with his ‘best friend’ Caesar, – his miniature Doberman pinscher – as his only company. He left his room to walk Caesar, to go to school or go to work. Every other minute was spent at the decks. “There wasn’t too much playtime, because whenever I would run into an obstacle it would nag me so much so I had to go back to it” Eventually his doggedly clinical approach started to pay off. By the end of 1974 he could cut and mix records exactly as he wanted. In true laboratory style, he named his new techniques ‘theories’. If he could have patented them, he would.
Central to it all was the ‘Quick Mix Theory’. This is the idea of taking a short section of music from one record and cutting it into the same section from a second, on time, back to back. “It was basically taking a particular passage of music and rearranging the arrangement by way of rubbing the record back and forth or cutting the record, or back-spinning the record,” explains Flash. This is the basic skill required of a hip hop DJ: to manually sample a few bars of a song and, by cutting between two copies of the same record, to repeat them as many times as he likes.
Flash’s supporting ‘Clock Theory’ was key to this. He needed a superfast way to find the beginning of a break. Initially he practised cuts and blends like the disco DJs – with the aid of headphones. But if you want to play tiny two-bar breaks back to back you don’t have time to listen to the record and wait for the right part – you have to get there straight off the bat. “I had to figure out how to recapture the beginning of the break without picking up the needle, because I tried doing it that way and I wasn’t very good at it.’ Clock Theory let you spin the record back to exactly the right place without having to pick up the needle. “You mark a section of the record and then you gotta just count how many revolutions go by.” To this day, a hip hop DJ’s records will be plastered in little stick-on paper strips, the starting lines for the break.
Flash even experimented to find the perfect way to spin back the record, emerging with sub-theories to describe the different methods. The Dog Paddle Theory is where you wind the record by walking your hands on its outside edge. If you prefer you could use the Phone Dial Theory, where you stick your finger near the label to spin it back.
A great influence on Flash’s style has been his impatience. “I’m fidgety,” he confesses. “I can’t wait for a record to go from the beginning to almost the end and then go into another record.” On the other hand, he was driven to create the quick mix so he could extend chosen sections of a track at will. “On the music I liked, the best part of the record was always too short,” he explains. “Frustrating. Frustrating. Frustrating. I would listen to records and I would notice: wow the breaks on these records are really short. Either that or they were at the end of the song. Or it was a problem where the best part is really great, but it would go into a wack passage right after.”
So what records did Flash use to perfect his technique? Stand back spotters, here comes the good stuff. You’ve got a library list of breaks stapled to your anorak, but which were the actual test tunes in the Flash laboratory? One of the favourites was ‘Lowdown’ by blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs. This was a track he worked to death perfecting his skills. But it was a relatively late addition to the Flash canon. The earliest tunes he can recall using were ‘Do It’ by Billy Sha-Rae and early Barry White records, ‘because his joints had drums in the middle.’ He’d use different records depending on his mood. Full of energy and confidence, he’d pick out a challenge; tired and up against an irritating problem, he’d plump for something easier. “It’s like a person who works out,” he says. “Sometimes he’s using 40lbs and some days he wants to push 100lbs.” One of the heaviest weights to play with was James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’. “You had to really be in the mood for that. Because the drummer played for just two bars, then the record would be off.” Another track that took some lifting to keep it out of the mud was by Ace Spectrum, a track he called ‘The Piano Song’, where the good part went straight into an unplayable piano solo. “‘Rocksteady’ was another one that was really a pain in the ass – ‘cos it went Rock-uhuhuh… Steady-uhuhuh, then it went totally undanceable. It went into this real high string shit and the bass drum really got lost. So you had to really be on your toes.” If funky drummer weighed in at 100lbs, when he wanted to do a lot of reps he’d choose something easy on the arms – like Jackie Robinson’s ‘Pussy Footer’ or Bob James’ ‘Take Me To The Mardi Gras’. Or he might go back to old favourite Barry White for ‘I’m Going To Love You Just A Little Bit More’. “The break went forever, so you didn’t have so much rush.”
By teaching himself to streak between his two turntables, to zip each record back to the first beat of the break, and to play, repeat and recombine a few selected bars, Flash became able to completely restructure a song at will. This was manual sampling, live looping, live remixing.