The Get Down Exclusive Interview: Grandmaster Flash and E.Z. Mike
I don’t know much about hip-hop music, but I know passion. When I meet passionate people, they are infectious. The new Netflix original series The Get Down is made by people passionate about the birth of hip-hop. It stems from creator Baz Luhrmann, and he enlisted original DJ and hip-hop artist Grandmaster Flash to help him tell the story. He even made Flash a character in the story, played by Mamoudou Athie.
Flash was on a panel for The Get Down for the Television Critics Association and even presented a DJing demo live for critics to experience. Earlier in the day, I got to sit down with Flash who practically took me by the hand to walk me through the early days of hip-hop as portrayed in The Get Down. It turned out that sitting right behind him was E.Z. Mike, Flash’s best friend who joined in at the end. The Get Down is now streaming on Netflix.
How did you hook up with Baz Luhrmann?
Grandmaster Flash: I started off, I remember when I met Baz. He takes me in his room, and it’s this huge wall. It’s white, and it’s got a green magic marker. It’s all these timeline things. He said, “Flash, I need your help putting this film together. Please feel free to look at the timeline. Tell me if the person, place, and things are correct.” So we meet again, we do the deal. Pretty much after that, it was just a matter of doing it. I was a consultant first. Then after, I became an associate producer. Everything kind of escalated from one place to another to another and here I am.
Baz has a very different background than you, but does he get music?
Grandmaster Flash: This is what he gets. He gets things that are meaningful, but they can be tiny. When he asked me, he says, “Flash, I don’t care about the years when you became and artist, and you were selling records. We don’t care about that. We want the organic years.” So I paused, and I ask him, “Why? Why?” He says, “Flash, I’ve been studying this for close to 10 years. Flash, I’m wondering why haven’t anybody even thought about doing such an era with people who had so little that caused so much around the planet?” So it’s pretty special.
What did Baz teach you about music and vice versa?
Grandmaster Flash: When Baz does the filming, he films it in pieces of course. He goes to location A, films for a couple of days and then location B, location C. We were doing this for 17 months. I remember him saying to me, “Flash, go to the screening room. We need to show you something. I gotta go on location. I’ll see you in a couple of days. Go to the screening room.” I didn’t know what the screening room was. I do music. He goes, “My staff are going to take you to this room. You’re going to go to this room. Get something to drink, get something to eat and you’re going to sit down by yourself.” So this guy’s sitting in the back, he presses this button; the room gets dark, and this film turns on. So all the annoying questions that [Luhrmann] was asking me over and over and over and over and over again are now materializing. I’m seeing it on the screen, and I must tell you, this was quite an emotional time for me because there had been nobody that cared like this. There’s nobody that cared enough to say, “Let us take this era that has caused this billion dollar industry and let’s put that on the screen.” Pretty special.
Do the Furious Five or Sugar Hill Gang enter The Get Down at some point?
Grandmaster Flash: The reason why they do not is because this is before that time. I’ve wanted somebody to do this for so, so, so, so long because there are those hip-hoppers in 2016, please continue the hip-hop like you do. But there are years when this thing was being created. Now Baz and Netflix and Sony have wonderfully allowed us on this platform to at least crack open the vault for you guys to see. Because for example, we weren’t musicians, so we needed music. We strictly depended on vinyl. When we DJs, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Breakout, when we wanted to please our audience, we had to go shopping for vinyl. If you know anything about music, certain songs had a drum solo for a couple of seconds. That drum solo part was where I come in. I took that drum solo part, bought duplicate copies of a record and found a way to manually cut and paste 10 seconds and make it 10 minutes. This arguably became turntablism. Also, the musical bed that was 10 seconds that became seamlessly 10 minutes, now the MC had a music bed to talk on, that could arguably become rap. A lot of journalists look at the Bronx like it was some fireball and we were living in fires. It was a blank palette that has become a billion dollar industry.
Were you involved in creating the Misty Holloway music?
Grandmaster Flash: No, I wasn’t involved in it, but I know people who was. Elliott Wheeler who was an incredible, incredible music producer and all the people that were involved.
You get into the art of DJing in episode two, and you show us novices how it’s done while Grandmaster Flash is teaching Shaolin. Have any movies gotten it right before? There haven’t been that many movies about it.
Grandmaster Flash: I don’t know if anybody even ventured into this area. I have to say that because of my travel schedule, I don’t get to watch movies a lot. I don’t get to watch TV a lot, but I don’t know if anybody, the only thing that came close to this was Wild Style. Other than that, I don’t know of any other film that cared to go into the ingredient years, before the cake was baked. I don’t know any other company that did this.
What are your thoughts on iPod DJing?
Grandmaster Flash: I have never seen anybody do it. Me, I still trust turntables. Where I come from, where the DJ is arguably the most important figure in culture, they want to see you working it. iPod DJing, I think I have to see that. This is the second time somebody’s asked that question. I’ve got an iPod in my room. I listen to Deepak Chopra and Dr. Wayne Dyer on my iPod. I don’t know if I’m going to go to a party [with one]. My best friend, EZ Mike, who watched me create this 48 years ago, doesn’t that sound a little bit weird?
E.Z. Mike: I’m real technical about that. I come from you, the birth. I like that it grew, that people can do what they do, iPod DJing if you will. To me, it takes away from the essence of actual DJing, for me. I’m used to seeing him put his hands on a record, and when he passes it back to me to put back in the crate, it’s got fingerprints on it. And he doesn’t say, “Wipe it off first.” So that gritty part of it is the essence. If you miss that part, to me, then you’re missing something.
Grandmaster Flash: That’s EZ Mike. He’s the guy that, when I invented it, I woke him up at three o’clock in the morning, and I said, “Look at this thing that I do. Look at how I connect the drum beat. I take ‘Walk This Way’ and just go, ps, dan, ba doo boo, dan, ps, Dan” and do that for 10 minutes and then walk away.
E.Z. Mike: And leave me standing there. I’m like, “No, he didn’t just wake me up and do that.”
Grandmaster Flash: So it’s wonderful that Baz took these years, man. Now he made the South Bronx a topic of discussion. It needs to be because this thing created this big thing. So we need people like yourself to write about it. Even if today’s hip-hoppers say, “I don’t too much care about that,” I think it’s just extremely important that they sit down on their couch one day and just take a look. Just take a look. That’s all I ask. Take a look.