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Call and Response


My most vivid memory from South by Southwest:

Thursday night in Austin, TX, USA, MSN threw a party across the street from the convention center. It was in a spare warehouse space, like a rave or fly-by-night underground party, but the fancy lighting, free drinks, and imported-looking crowd (L.A.) all said Big Bucks. The women checking the guest list looked as if they might moonlight on The Price is Right. The event was planned, from what I could gather, as a buzz-builder for MSN’s big move into the iTunes-style content business.

When I came in, the crowd — around two hundred, I’d guess — had gathered around
the stage where legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash was in the middle of a set. Rumor had it that DJ Dangermouse would be playing, but that a last-minute nastygram from EMI scuppered the plan. That rumor seemed dubious for a number of reasons — what’s that cause of action, exactly? And in any event, it was hard to imagine finding anyone better to preside over the birth of Microsoft’s cool than Grandmaster Flash, by most accounts the pioneer of turntable performance: the sample, the scratch, the fader-toggle, the break, the real-time remix. If this event was meant to kick-off Microsoft’s entry into Apple’s rip-mix-burn marketing niche, they could not have chosen an entertainer with better creds to preside over it.

That was clear within just a few seconds of watching Grandmaster Flash, whom I’d never seen perform live before, stand over the turntables and mixer. I wish I could have brought with me every single person I’ve met who have said they don’t believe DJ’ing or sound manipulation to be an art form in and of itself. This guy could make a vinyl LP do anything,
make any sound, scratch it like a percussion instrument over a completely
different track before putting the needle back to precisely the place he’d left a split-second before. And this was all analog: no digital tricks, no ProTools. If you’ve ever wondered how a trombonist or the player of a fretless instrument knows where and when to find a particular note, to pull it
out of nowhere with no orientation, all while maintaining the overall
energy of the tune, you could appreciate what Grandmaster Flash was doing. The crowd was eating it up. The only thing slightly off about the show was the DJ’s sidekick, who goofily bounced around the stage pantomiming the lyrics, like a sign-language interpreter for the hip-hop impaired. But even he was entertaining in his own way.

Then, after a compelling tweak of the bassline in
Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Grandmaster Flash cut the music and prepared the crowd for some call-and-response. It was old-school audience participation time. He’d play a hook, then cut the music, and the crowd would shout an answer in time with the song.

The call?

The chorus of “Good Times,” a 1979 disco classic whose
bassline Grandmaster’s labelmates, the Sugarhill Gang, lifted for
their single “Rapper’s Delight” — probably one of the
top few most famous hip-hop songs ever, and one of the
very first.

The response?

When I do this, said Grandmaster Flash, playing the
vocal “Good Times,” then dropping the volume, everyone yell “MSN.”

People in the audience looked at each other.

Got it? he said into the microphone, Good times — MSN! Good times — MSN! Got it? Here we go.

A few people booed. The DJ played a few rounds of the vocal, then cut the volume.

Grandmaster Flash, and about a dozen audience members, shouted “MSN!”

A few scattered boos followed. Flash tried to rally the crowd. He played the call again: Good Times . . . Good Times . . . And the music cut out again — the audience’s turn.

This time they responded. But they didn’t say “MSN.”

What did they say? I asked the couple in front of me.

They said, ‘Bulls–t,’ the couple said, laughing. I asked my friends. They heard the same thing.

After a couple more such calls and responses, Grandmaster Flash went back to the regular show, and right away the crowd threw its hands in the air and danced again as if none of it had ever happened.

I don’t really blame Grandmaster Flash. Or MSN for that matter. It’s all just business.

Whether it’s smart business is another story. And whether the stunt’s layer upon layer of irony were intended or accidental is simply a mystery.

Posted 23 March 2004