Thursday, July 2, 2009

BrooklynBio: The Mystery of Grandmaster Flowers


Working in an era where their sociocultural stratum was plagued by gang violence and urban decay, many of the New York-based pioneers of hip-hop and dance music operated under a veil of secrecy. The block parties that served as the birth pang of hip-hop and the dance incubators of SoHo were more than merely parties and clubs -- they were refuges from such virulent forces of homophobia and compulsory braggadocio, where even the toughest B-boy could lock and pop to the JB's "Monorail". As glorified saloonkeepers who hardly saw themselves as enduring historical figures, the founding fathers of these respective movements -- whose paths commingled and dovetailed more frequently than the prematurely revisionist record led earlier generations to believe -- were largely forgotten until recent years, when ethnographers like Tim Lawrence brought such seminal figures as David Mancuso and Nicky Siano from the microfiche collection at the New York Public Library to VH1. Even still, figures are bound to get lost in the shuffle, and despite valiant efforts by the few who remember him, Grandmaster Flowers will probably remain not much more than an enigmatically fading memory.

Here's what we know about the elusive DJ:

  • In 1969, Flowers -- who was reportedly based in central Brooklyn -- opened for James Brown at Yankees Stadium. That a regional performer opened for Brown is rather peculiar in the context of the times, and the fact that the trend-saavy Brown hired a DJ (instead of a band) suggests that the influence of the discotheque had already become pervasive by 1969 -- three years before Vince Aletti's seminal article on the trend in Rolling Stone.
  • During the warmer months, Flowers and a coterie of earlier mobile DJs (also including Pete DJ Jones, Maboya, and DJ Plummer) would play spontaneous and semi-illicit gatherings at Riis Park in the Rockaways, Prospect Heights' St. Mark's Park, assorted Brooklyn schoolyards (with the P.S. 92 yard figuring most prominently), and Prospect Park. According to Mike Barnes, a member of the deephousepage.com message boards who has done much to preserve the legacies of Flowers and other DJs whose careers defy the traditional bifurcation between disco and hip-hop, "Cats from Brooklyn would not fess when it came to traveling to other parts of New York to rock a spot or park throwdown."
  • According to Paradise the Architect from early 90s Afrocentric group X-Clan, "In Brooklyn, Flowers was to brothers in Brooklyn what Kool Herc was to brothers in the Bronx. Everybody loved and followed Flowers." After drug addiction forced Flowers into vagrancy and destitution in the early 90s, X-Clan took Flowers on the road with them as their sound engineer.
  • In addition to gigging at many Bronx proto-hiphop clubs, Flowers held down regular residencies at Panorama on Flatbush Avenue and the Blue Maze on Nostrand Avenue (popular discos that mainly catered to a straight African-American clientele) and worked at Downstairs Records (a specialist shop popular among early dance spinners).
  • As a primarily mobile DJ who played for a diverse range of audiences, Flowers was expected to be conversant in numerous styles -- and boast a sound system that could compete with the city's finest underground clubs. According to DJ Poppysoul, another DHP poster and veteran of the era, "Not only could Flowers and [Pete] Jones throw down on the turntable and rock a party, they had truly incredible sound systems and excelled at turning a plain space into something that resembled the Garage. Massive speaker stacks with subs you could walk into, horns you see in arenas, tweeters, speakers and more tweeters and speakers would be spread all around the ballroom, the park, etc., all connected with what seemed like Con-Ed feeder cable to four and five way active amp racks. There was no full range and a sub thing going on. Parties back in the day were really more like a cultural religious concert of sorts. Grandmaster Flowers was the first guy I ever heard scratch or cut if you prefer. It was back @ The Stardust Ballroom. The record he used was "Apache" [a staple of Nicky Siano's 1972-73 Gallery sets that later popularized by hip-hop "founding father" Kool Herc during his "Merry Go Round" mix of James Brown's "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose" and "The Mexican" by English prog-rock group Babe Ruth]. Talk about being amazed. The moment is forever etched in my mind. I used to say to myself I want to be like these guys when I grow up. My subsequent thought was where in the world will I get the cash to buy all that equipment (now called gear) they had?"
  • Tellingly, Kool Herc views the early mobile jocks like Flowers in a more circumspect fashion. "I used to hear the gripes from the audience on the dancefloor," he recalls. "Even myself, 'cause I used to be a breaker (breakdancer). Why didn't the guy let the record play out? Or why cut it off there? So with that, me gathering all this information around me, I say: 'I think I could do that'. Although hip-hop likely would not have coalesced into a genre without the contributions of the mobile DJs -- who brought funk and early disco records to some of the most economically depreciated areas of New York City -- Flowers' affinity for mixing and beatmatching records (like the gay club DJs) separated and eventually alienated him from the later generation of cutup-oriented jocks (who creatively looped the percussive breaks instead of playing whole records). Despite this, a tape from a St. Mark's Park performance in 1979 demonstrates that Flowers had integrated certain hip-hop flourishes -- MCing, limited scratching, and a greater propensity of break-oriented records (as opposed to the four-on-the-floor metier of disco that was then in vogue) -- into his sets. Barnes corrobrates this assessment and speaks of a "battle" between Grandmaster Flash (who omitted any reference of his namesake in his recent memoir) at the Stardust Ballroom in the late 70s where "Flash was doing alot of tricks (cutting, scratching, rocking the breaks of plates [records], etc.) while Grandmaster Flowers was mixing and blending plates ([but] rocking the breaks of plates too)."
  • According to Tony Smith, a peripheral DJ in the disco scene who asserts that it was possible that Flowers -- and not the canonical Francis Grasso -- was the first DJ to beat-match records, "He was the best, but he was most egotistical, too. He was a bastard. He just wasn’t nice to you. He wanted to be so exclusive. He wanted to be the best and I guess and he thought that’s the way he had to be to be the best."
  • On the Ilixor boards, PappaWheelie reports that "At a lecture about hip hop history at the Brooklyn public library the lecturer was interupted, while claiming hip hop to have originated out in the Bronx, by an angry man claiming hip hop to have started out in Brooklyn. After gaing the attention of the crowd the man, whose name escapes me now, proceded to produce photos and a flyer, both dated 1968, of Grandmaster Flowers rocking a party of thousands in Brooklyn and in the front row are what appeared to be bboys uprocking. Who knows, it might just turn out to be that Brooklyn keeps on makin it and its the Bronx that keeps on takin it."
What are we to conclude from these nebulous (and seemingly improbable) accounts?

  • Breakdancing began at Grandmaster Flowers' Brooklyn-based parties, which were already enjoying a considerable following by 1968. (What were they dancing to? Dyke and the Blazers? Southern soul?)
  • Grandmaster Flowers was so popular among inner city audiences that he opened a stadium show for James Brown in 1969 and -- his extreme arrogance notwithstanding -- inspired numerous DJs in the five boroughs.
  • Incensed by the disco tendencies of Flowers and his older brethren, a younger generation of jocks (led by breakdancer Kool Herc) began to isolate the percussive breaks in dance records. The birth pang of hip-hop.
  • Flowers solidified his connections with the predominantly gay downtown party network (namely Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian) while still playing to the putatively "declasse" inner-city audience.
  • Hip-hop and dance music are so much more related than their exponents care to admit.
And that, as they say, is that.

7 comments:

  1. I'll read this tomorrow. It's 4:23. I apologize for not reading it yet. It's too full of history for my brain to grasp it at the moment.

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  2. I'm 51 yrs old and I went to most of Flowers parties. I loved the ones at Pace College the best.

    Thanks for the memories........

    Swiss

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  3. So true. Pace was the place. I remember when Flowers and DJ AL Gee battled at Pace awesome. He killed Pick Up the Pieces by AWB.(Average White Band.) Any info on 2 more Brooklyn Mobile DJ's that rocked like; Charisma Funk and DJ Count JC?

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    1. Unfortunately Charisma Funk aka Bruce passed away some years back

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  4. I remember Dj Flowers had a practice spot turned dance spot on Central Ave between Jefferson Ave & Cornelia St! They called it the Five-Cent. It was in the back of a big building! When Dj Flowers left without notice we all went up the street to the Red Light 1972!

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  5. As a former member of Flowers Crew in the mid 70's some of your facts are totally inaccurate. The first glaring inaccuracy is Flowers provided the Sound System for the Wednesday night parties at Panorama which was actually located on in Brooklyn on Waverly Place between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue. Before there were Bboyz "The City Steppers" led by Michael Dungee were creating that particular style of dancing. They shared numerous venues with Flowers. There is no mention of the Music Hut 812A Franklin Ave a record store where he worked in the mid 70s and home of the First DJ Record Pool in Brooklyn. I knew and worked with man, what people perceived as arrogance in my opinion was him protecting his livelihood.There is so much more I have to say but perhaps this is not the proper forum.
    Best Regards
    Michael A DeCrumpe
    "The PowerPlant"

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