Grandmaster Flash is one of the most iconic names in hip hop. Amongst many other pioneering achievements, in 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Grandmaster Flash’s innovations to production and sound contribute to the definition of what hip hop is. No history of the genre could exclude his place in it. So, in a sense, it is strange to find him performing in a medium-sized Dublin nightclub while hip hop booms. Jay-Z, the man who inducted Flash and co. to the Hall of Fame, has become arguably the most influential artist on the planet – he plays to stadiums, headlines major festivals: he is a million miles from The Village on a Friday night. But, given Flash’s brief tenure of that venerable Dublin institution, the difference in fortunes is easily comprehended. This was a highly enjoyable evening, worth far more than the admission price – but it had only momentary gusts of the energy that make a concert reside in the memory.
In fairness to Grandmaster Flash, he’s a DJ, not an MC. There are restrictions on the sort of performance he can offer. But when one’s turntable skills are the stuff of marvel, a screen backdrop that provides the URL to your website is a fairly insistent reminder of the mundane. Plus, situating a tired, sour-faced accomplice to stand on stage (ostensibly doing nothing but offering short shakes of his head to over-zealous spectators) is a slight, but incessant sap on entertainment. It’s a pity, and largely understandable, but Flash’s enterprise here seemed to be one of business before music. I’ve seen local London DJs play classic New York joints with a whole lot more excitement than the man who has engineered anthologies of them.
To move a crowd in spite of all these negatives is actually no small feat. Flash’s ability on the decks is evidently masterly. He makes scratching seem as natural as walking. As one would anticipate from someone with a comprehensive experience of hip hop, his scatterings of commentary were expert. He talked of being the man to use turntables as an instrument, and in one of the highlights of the set bellowed his pride at hailing from New York, before blasting Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’. Elsewhere his track selection toed an uneasy balance of catering to the kind of person who reveres him as one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century, and the kind of person who heard the name Grandmaster Flash about 24 hours before the concert. The latter demographic probably explains the admirably bold choice of a track like Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and the somewhat less successful airing of Jennifer Lopes’s ‘Jenny from the Block’.
There is always a thrill in seeing any legend perform. But the most noticeable absence from this set (with the exception of the inevitable Jigga) was contemporary hip hop. Grandmaster Flash regularly emphasizes that hip hop was born in the 70s, not in the 80s Golden Age of Rakim, KRS-One and co. But, hip hop has never been richer. In the mainstream it’s not just Jay-Z, it’s Kanye West, it’s Eminem, it’s Nas, it’s Mos Def, it’s Drake… the list goes on. It’s just not so much Grandmaster Flash. But in any case, even if we won’t recall some of his concerts in years to come, we’ll always remember Flash.