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3.0 out of 5 stars The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of Grandmaster Flash, 12 Jun 2008
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats - A Memoir (Hardcover)
Over the last five years or so, as hip hop culture has moved into its third decade, there have been more and more books published about its early days. Books like Yes, Yes, Y'all and Can't Stop, Won't Stop have sought to trace the development of b-boying, DJing, MCing, and graffiti from their disparate origins in the early 1970s into the unified "street" culture and big business hip hop has become. This autobiography by one hip hop's pioneers traces the early years of this evolution through the personal story of someone who was there from the start.

In many respects, Flash's story (at least as he presents it), is a classic American rise and fall story. We meet him as a child with an abusive father with a killer record collection, who ditches the family and a mentally ill mother. Then through a succession of foster homes, the calm of The Greer School in upstate New York, and then back to the Bronx and Gompers VoTech High School. During these teen years, the slightly nerdy kid with a love of music and electronics manages to marry the two and more or less invent turntablism. Through hard work, innovative techniques, and the help of friends, he rises to local fame as a street and then club DJ. Then the perfidious Sugar Hill Records scoops him up, uses him up, and dumps him. Oh yeah, along the way he succumbs to the classic "rock star" pitfalls of not keeping his business affairs in good order, getting wrapped up in partying, women, and drugs. By the mid '80s, he's become an out of control cokehead who is rescued from ODing in a crack house by his older sister. Years pass as he lives on his sister's couch, with no income, struggling to put his life back together. Eventually, he finds some manner of spiritual peace, find closure with his father, and rebuilds his music career and rescues his reputation.

In many ways, Flash's story is predictably sad: the broken home, the signing of a record contract without understanding it, the allure of cash and flashy cars, the betrayal by friends, the coke, the dog-like behavior with women (he has children by five different women). And yet, there's a lot to like: from his confession that he tried b-boying and tried graffiti and failed at both before hitting on DJing as his ticket into hip-hop, his scavenging dumps for parts to build his own sound system, the combination of trial and error and inspiration it took to figure out how to cut beats and breaks and mix on the fly, the hours spent digging through record crates looking for obscure material, how "Big Bank Hank" stole the rhymes for "Rapper's Delight" from a friend, how Flash had nothing to do with the hits "The Message" or "White Lines," the crooked dealings of Sugar Hill Records (not to mention their silent mob-connected financier).

The book is probably at its most engaging, however, when describing the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx. The days of sound systems in parks and playgrounds, with street gangs in charge, and everybody out to have a good time. Flash's memories bring that all to life quite effectively and colorfully (as do many of the interviews in Yes, Yes, Y'all). One quibble I have with his account about these early days, is a failure to explain how what was happening on the street of the Bronx in the early '70s was replicating what had gone down in Jamaica ten years earlier. DJ Kool Herc, who figures prominently in Flash's account of the early years, lived in Jamaica until 1967, and the scene was exactly the same: competing street sound systems, with competing DJs who would take the labels off records so spies couldn't find out what they were playing, gangs, violence--all the same. Even MCing was preceded in Jamaica by "toasters" like King Stitt, U-Roy, Alcapone, and others, who would do rhymes over backing rhythm tracks. The line from '60s Jamaica to '70s Bronx is a pretty clear one, and it's a shame that Flash either never realized it, or chose not to mention it. (I've heard that a decent account of that Jamaican ancestry can be found in the early chapters Can't Stop, Won't Stop, although I haven't read it myself).

In the end, Flash's life is a quick read broken down into lots of bite-sized chapters. The writing isn't the best, and some of the stylistic tics are kind of clunky and cheesy, but it's definitely worth checking out if you're interested in the history of hip-hop, and turntablism in particular. Possibly worth checking out if you're interested in how urban subcultures rise and thrive.
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