Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Wheels of Steel


Like so many white males of his generation, Flatlander seems to have had aspirations of becoming a hip-hop DJ. His journals touch on this fantasy several times, mentioning the large roll that the first widely famous scratch DJ, Grandmaster Flash, played in the childhood mythology of Flatlander and his friends:

I remember when my friend Brad played the K-Tel Breakdance album for the first time. We were huddled in his dank basement, G.I. Joe figures scattered over the mildew-laden carpet, with Brad's record player set up on a table in the corner. He peeled off the plastic wrap and unsheathed the shiny black disk from its translucent sleeve. The first track on the collection is Herbie Hancock's "Rockit", a song that we were already familiar with, as Brad had recorded the bizarre video for it from TV some weeks before. The second track is the legendary "Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel", and this one utterly blew our minds. The first thirty seconds of the song were like nothing we had ever heard, seamlessly mixing together stuttering snippets from Spoonie Gee and Blondie before blasting into the laidback base rif of Chic's "Good Times".

Listening to the song, it was as if our heads had been smashed through a brick wall, leaving us dizzy and speachless in an entire new dimension peopled with impossibly cool breakdancing, record spinning ninjas of sound. We had no idea at the time who Spoonie Gee, Chic or even Blondie actually were, nor did we know that what we were listening to was a revolutionary piece of musical history [the track under discussion is the first recorded instance of a song's being composed entirely out of mixed and repeated elements of other recordings -music ed]. All we knew was that it sounded good, and that we wanted to track down more of that sound.

We tried to scratch using Brad's record player, but we didn't know that the technique required a special direct-drive turntable, so we ended up wrecking a few disks and needles this way. In the end we had to resort to makeshift instruments: we zipped on zippers, tweaked plastic combs, and ran our fingernails over Gortex to approximate the scribbles and quibs of the record scratch. We searched out hard to find vinyl compilations in the used record stores in the seedier parts of town, looking for the Furious Five, Malcom McLaren, and the West Street Mob. On one of our missions, we went looking for the elusive Wild Style sountrack --a 1982 film featuring some of the earliest hip hop sounds ever recorded.

We searched through the pertinent sections of the record store, and even asked the extensively tattooed and intimidating store owner if he had seen the disk. He'd never even heard of it. Just as we were leaving, however, I was idly thumbing through a random bin of records--in the "S" section I think it was-- only to find the object of our quest staring up at me with its graffiti lettered logo. We ran back to Brad's place--he was the only one with a record player--and slapped our find on the turntable. The songs didn't have the flashy production of the more popular rap tracks we were familiar with, but they had a certain understated authenticity that grew on us over several listenings. The record has recently been re-released and I now own a copy.

It's been said many times: Hip Hop is the folk music of generation X. Flatlander writes in another entry of staying up late at night, crouched over his father's stereo reciever, listening to a soul music station from Buffalo so he could record the odd Run DMC or Afrika Bambaataa song that would air:

Mixed tapes of the new sounds would circulate the school yard like contraband in a penitentiary...Since the days of my youth, the hip hop DJ has gone from being the street-level maestro of Brooklyn block parties, to a globally recognized phenomenon transcending race, gender and economic boundaries. That the musical form has lately ended up drained of most of its socially relevant content and parked in the suburban purgatory of mall and pimp-mobile culture does not detract from the force of its original message. One only has to go back to the recordings of the 80's and early nineties, or give a listen to hip hop revivalists like K-OS, or mutant adaptionists like Beck and Buck 65 to see that the musical form is still vibrant, progressive and relevant.

Maybe Flatlander's going AWOL has something to do with chasing down his life long dream of busting loose on the wheels of steel. Even now, he could be high in the Himalayas learning the ancient secrets from a Master of Mixology, spinning records like they were prayer wheels. If this is the case, then I predict that Flatlander will be back, eventually--he left his record collection here.

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