Grandmaster Flash on Hip-hop, His Memoir, and Why It’s Better to Be a Basehead Than a Crackhead

grandmaster flash 1983
Grandmaster Flash in 1983. Photo: Chris Walter / Wireimage / Getty

As hip-hop historian Jeff Chang notes on the back cover of Grandmaster Flash’s new memoir, “Every night a DJ saves your life, Flash deserves more than a little bit of your thanks.” In The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats, the hip-hop legend chronicles the lifelong obsession with records and beats that led him to pioneer the most important turntable breakthrough of all time (cutting), which paved the way for him and the Furious Five to land massive fame and a deal with Sugar Hill Records — all of which devolved into money squabbles, record-label beefs, and at least one year spent by Flash near-overdosing in a hellish basement in the Bronx. He opened up in an epic interview with Vulture about his childhood obsession with records, the economics of crack versus base, and the importance of having a good cry now and again.

The book kicks off with you as a kid desperate to get into your dad’s record collection. Can you talk about that time?
Oooweee. How can I explain it? My dad was highly feared, as you read in the book. He happened to be the brother to 1957 flyweight champion of the world Sandy Saddler, so he was really good with his hands. And he had some cardinal rules: Never go into the living room where the stereo is. Never touch the stereo. Never ever go into the closet where his prized possession, his records, were. Now I heard the rule, but I had this uncontrollable urge. So I would drag a chair to the closet because I was so little and the knob was kind of high. I would climb up and open up his closet. It was like gold or something. I would take out a record and put it on and just dance around the living room, and then I would try to put the record back in the same place where the record was originally living in the closet. But my father was very meticulous and he always knew it was me. So I got beat, beat, beat, and after he would beat me, next morning I’d get up, he’d get up, I’d hear him leave for work, and I’d do the same thing all over again. And it got the point that where he would beat me to almost where I was unconscious, but the next day it would be the same process. So what he would do then was take my hands and put them on a hot radiator to burn them, but of course they would heal and I would get over it and I would wait for that clink and the door slam and I would sort of go back to it again. I just had this uncontrollable urge.

Which eventually led to you coming up with a technique that’s pretty much paved the way for all the D.J.'s and turntablists to come. What did you feel like the first time you were able to make it work?
When I first did it, I called up Disco B and EZ Mike, and I was like, "Listen, I got something, I got something." And when they came down, they were like "What the fuck is this?" And I was like, "Watch what I’m doing, ya’ll, please watch what I’m doing." But they just could not grasp it. I went on to doing it in different parks. I figured if I was playing the hardest, best part of these different genres of music I would have people on the ceiling, but people were just like "What the fuck are you doing?" I went home and I cried, cried, cried, cried. Nobody got it! I tried to go to different clubs, get on for five or ten minutes, and I heard excuses like "My boss will fire me, I hear you ruin records, I can’t let you touch my stuff." It was just ridicule after ridicule after ridicule. I was a geek for a long time. [Laughs.]

Is it weird to go to the clubs now and see everybody using the technique that you pioneered like it’s no big thing?
It’s just that I was ridiculed for so long, and now you’ve got to do those same things in order to do any hip-hop D.J.-ing on this planet. And to watch people who expounded on my science and took it to a whole 'nother level — my heart beats really fast when I see it. D.J.'s are real artists now. Makes me feel kinda gooey inside.

There’s a sad chapter — the one called "Hell" — where you describe your battles with crack in the eighties.
Not crack. Base. Crack is a man-made drug. Base is actually the essence of a coca leaf. There’s a difference.

I’ve actually never done crack or base.
[Laughs.] Man, they’re both bad. But I would have rather been a basehead because with base, at least you get the essence of a coca leaf, which comes from the ground. Versus crack, which is man-made chemicals. It could be bleach, Tide, or whatever. I was never a crackhead. I was a basehead.

And that was better than being a crackhead?
Here’s what it is. You had to have money to be a basehead. And I’m not waving the flag like "Yay!" for it. It really was an awful habit, but you had to be able to have … in order to get cocaine down to base, you have to cook it in such a way and burn out any impurities that might be in what you’re sniffing to get it down to base. So let’s just say — and I’m gonna be pretty bad here — let’s say if it was a quarter in weight, by the time you purified it, it might be ten times less that. So you had to buy a whole lot of cocaine to base.

Wow.
Yeah. Base was a very expensive habit. I think you could buy crack for ten dollars. To base you had to easily spend five, six, seven hundred dollars, minimum.

Jeez!
Just to get somewhat of a decent high.

That’s insane.
Yeah, and I was insane too. Mind you.

You know there’s this whole new school of rapper, like Clipse and Young Jeezy who rap about coke — they all talk about selling coke, doing coke, whatever.
Oh my God.

What do you think about that?
Okay, so, there are MCs that talk about it. I can’t speak for another individual, but for some of the MCs that talk about it, if you haven’t experienced it, then you’re painting an inaccurate picture. Because today you can buy something that’s manufactured, that’s a combination of bleach and whatever it might be. That ain’t cocaine. Cocaine comes from Bolivia and it comes from a leaf and there’s a special process to it. Now I’m not saying that they didn’t do it that way, but the people that talk about it … I just sort of don’t know if it’s accurate. It doesn’t get more accurate than what I’m telling you in my book.

It must have been really hard to relive all that stuff.
At first when I was given the book deal, I thought I’d prefer to have a woman to extract this information from me. If I was going to be a crybaby — because I was a crybaby throughout this whole thing — I’d rather pour my heart out to a woman! And then my editor says, "I really have someone who is an expert at autobiographies, he’s done Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, BB King … this person is way, way great.’" And it was David Ritz. And I’m like "David! That’s a guy!" And I fought her for a minute, but when I met him, he was the gentlest, most understanding guy you could imagine, and he opened up our meeting by saying, "Oh, the seventies were fucked up, man. I did cocaine, I fucked over so many people." He just opened up. I was like "Oh shit! He was an asshole just like me!" So I could really open up too. Some days I did a lot of crying and we had to stop, let two days go by, finish, stop tape, check, stop tape, check, record, stop, cry. But the end result is I’m very happy with the book. I’ve been burned, I’ve been taken advantage of, I’ve had some good times, I’ve had some bad times, but I let it go. It’s good now. Now it’s okay.
—Sara Cardace