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DJs, like curators, are collectors, so when Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop luminaries met up with some officials from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History the other day, there was some serious collecting to discuss. To begin with, museum director Brent Glass described his institution's grand undertaking: "It's the only museum in the world that has the mission of telling the whole of American history," he said. It's a tall order, but the museum's holdingsnearly three million objects, which include a Pac-Man gumball bank, a bag of brown rice, and over a hundred pieces of Tupperwaregive the impression that the curators cast a wide net. Now alongside the S. Newman Darby Windsurfing Collection, the museum will maintain an archive entitled "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life."
The new collection will consist of a custom-made Kangol hat from Grandmaster Flash, some Zulu Nation stickers from Afrika Bambaataa, a noise-maker/keychain from Ice T, and other ephemera. If the objects do not seem earth-shattering, some of the founding fathers of the genre (including influential DJs Kool Herc and Bambaataa, impresario Russell Simmons, and noise-maker maker/actor/MC Ice T were at the New York Hilton to describe the importance of the initiative and also to add to the oral history of hip-hop. "Hip-hop is not only the soundtrack of American culture over the last 30 years," Simmons said, "it's a documentation of a lot that has been left out of our history." Ice T added: "I'm so happy that right now anybody comes and asks me about my music or hip-hop, I can say, 'Take your fucking ass to the museum.' "
In the curatorial spirit, though, Grandmaster Flash seemed particularly attuned to the power of archives and collections. He described it in personal terms. "My father was a serious collector of vinyl records," he said. "The number one rule was: Don't go in dad's records. My father used to work for the railroad. I'd watch him put on his backpack and as soon as I heard the door slam, I would go get a chair, drag it over to the closet, climb up on the chair and wow, look at all those records." Flash wore diamond earrings and a baby-blue Kansas City Royals hat. He smiled mysteriously and looked like he was still under the spell of his dad's records.
"Rule number three was"He didn't mention rule number two"never, ever touch the stereo. So I would grab the record, and I'd drag the chair and the record over to the stereo. I would turn on the stereo, and I'd be dancing in the living room. Then I would try to put the record back in exactly the same spot. When my dad came home, he would want to listen to his music and he would notice that something was different. He would go to my mom and say, 'Who's been in my records?' She would say, 'No, Joe, don't do it.' And my father would kick my ass. He'd kick my fucking ass. I'd cry, and my mother would hold me. The next day my father would put on his backpack, and when the door slammed, I'd go into the kitchen and get that chair."
Flash's masochistic persistence and technical curiosity ("I had this incredible urge. I would go in back yards. I would unscrew speakers out of rusted old cars.") paid off. By the time he was twenty, he was a renowned DJ, and a few years later, in 1981 his The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel helped usher in a new genre of recorded music.
After the Hilton event, Grandmaster Flash lingered in the hotel hallway talking about his dad's records, still enchanted by them. His father must have forgiven him eventually. He died of cancer, but in the hospital he told his son, "Make sure you get the records." Flash recalled: "When we went to the house after the funeral, I opened up that closet and just looked at all those records. I cried for a couple days." He paused. "I found all these great records in there. Him and I had never powwowed and talked about what he had. Old Isley brothers and this and that." I asked him where he kept the vinyl now, and he told me about the 20-foot-by-20-foot two-story shack he built for the collection. "There are no categories," he said. "That's the way my mind thinks. When I go in there to get something, I can be in there all day."
Flash gave the Smithsonian a turntable and mixer, but only a couple records (two copies of Bustin Loose by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers). As part of hip-hop's old guard, he had respect for the museum's age and stature, though. "The old-schoolest of collectors is the Smithsonian. Everyone else comes after. Whether they be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Experience Music Project in Seattle. They all come after. To be part of the Smithsonian is just monumental."
I asked him if he might donate his record collection some day, but he had other plans. "When I pass, all my objects can go to the most fitting organizations that will treasure them, but the vinylI want it melted in a shape of a casket, that's how I want to go."