The press release accompanying "The Bridge" describes the CD in my hand as the "first [new] studio album in 20 years" from Grandmaster Flash. Has it really been that long? It depends on how you're counting or who you ask. In 1988 Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released a reunion album titled "On the Strength" which was received poor reviews but has managed to go gold in the intervening years. Cowboy would die a year later and the group would not attempt another comeback, but whether Flash was inactive from this point on is less clear. For the first half of that span Flash was pretty quiet, but in 1997 "Salsoul Jam 2000" quietly arrived on the scene, a mix album paying tribute to the Salsoul Records catalogue. Arguably that's not a "studio album" but the very label putting out "The Bridge" released "The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash" in 2002. As a historically important retrospective on Grandmaster Flash's career it's regarded as second to none, yet the question remains if recording interview segments and one or two new DJ mixes constitutes a "studio album" or not. If they were recorded IN a recording studio this writer would argue that it does. If we want to stretch the Strut Records definition of "studio album" to the limit though, it may be that they're implying that ONLY a full album of new and original rap songs with Grandmaster Flash on scratch and production qualifies. Since none of the albums from 1997 until now were collaborations between the Grandmaster and rappers, I'll accept their definition of "studio album" for that limited purpose.
To be honest the excitement of reviewing a new album from Grandmaster Flash would be exactly the same whether he had released a new studio album in the last 20 years or the last 2. As a turntablist the man I aspired to be like was the same man who recorded the first hip-hop song I ever heard, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." Sadly loving the art of scratching is not the same as being any good at it, and though I look back fondly on my college radio disc jockey days, I undoubtedly did hip-hop a favor by retiring from the Technics. My talents as a writer and webmaster have served the culture far better, but the nickname 'Flash' remains. Any album from my namesake is automatically going to pique my interest whether a dusty Sugarhill 12" scored at a rummage sale or a CD of disco classics given the mix treatment only Flash can provide. Shit, I was even more excited about "The Chris Rock Show" when I learned Grandmaster Flash would be the musical director and I was already a big Chris Rock fan at the time. The only way I can do an honest review of "The Bridge" is to the readers that the phrase "God damn that DJ made my day" applies to both a Grandmaster and a Jam Master equally for me. I was not fond of the elitist Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2007, but solely for the fact they decided to induct Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five I changed my mind. (Hopefully they won't forget there are other hip-hop pioneers equally worthy of being so honored.)
The review copy of "The Bridge" looks like a full length CD from the front, but looks can be deceiving. The front cover is an insert with no liner notes attached. The back tray insert has no artwork at all, just a spartan tracklisting noting half of the songs are shortened or edited and the usual "for promotional use only" warnings. That's fine by me since if some fool does decide to leak or bootleg a promo copy nobody who downloads it will get the whole album. I'd rather people go to the store and buy it in March when the release becomes official, and from the opening song "Shine All Day" on there's plenty of good reasons why. Q-Tip, Jumz and Kel Spencer all contribute to the Flash track but it's Tip who is the star of the show, proving to be as natural at collaborating with the Grandmaster as he is with Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Peep the verbals:
"Lookin at you sometimes it's
Hard on my eyes I get blinded
So when the sun shines I'm reminded
of your booty and your general way
When I'm around you girl I'm never tired
I'm like a car's engine, pistons fired
I'm always hopped up and inspired
When you're around me it makes a better day"
Shine, shine on. Things get even hotter on the following track "Bounce Back" featuring Busta Rhymes and DJ Scratch:
"See my Cohiba fire glow
With my Persian lamp fur drippin I'm sippin Merlot
See while your man trippin I'm dippin word yo
Get him mad, let his hands grip, when I hit the curb slow
Let me see is my man flippin, as a passenger then she slipped
Lil Wayne rippin I hit the cho-cho"
The staccato heartbeat instrumental is perfect for the always charismatic Mr. Rhymes to turn in a performance where less is more, speaking just above a whisper yet coming off loud and clear. The song making the most noise off this pre-release though is "Swagger," an all-star collaboration featuring Lynn Carter, Red Cafe and Snoop Dogg. Red Cafe brags that he's "Howie Mandel, Deal or No Deal [..] so real with swag so ill" while his West coast counterpart toasts to the beat with equal flair:
"So debonaire, so fresh so fly
I flash the cash, and razzamatazz
I holla at my peoples as I walk past and smash
Don't step on toes, might step on a rose
Chose to oppose, designed my own clothes
Cock my rhyme unload, let the episode get sewed
and explode, expose or so I suppose"
The uptempo snappy drums and bouncing bass meld perfectly with a light symphonic string backdrop to create a song that's elegant yet hard hitting. Not everything is about the brand new though, as Grandmaster Flash goes out of his way to record a "Tribute to the Breakdancer" with the underrated Supernatural providing the rap. There is plenty of respect for the roots of hip-hop culture though, from "What If" featuring KRS-One to "Here Comes My DJ" featuring DJ Kool. There are also tracks shining a spotlight on talent looking to blow like "Bronx Bombers" featuring Almighty Thor, Lordikim Allah and Mann Child. It all makes sense to me except for "Grown & Sexy" featuring Mr. Cheeks. I know there are Lost Boyz fans out there and I don't mean to offend y'all, but it's hard for me to forget that Cheeks once won the New Hack Hip-Hop Awards category for "Whackest Rhyme of the Year" and it's colored my perception of everything he's done since. The man tends to rhyme multiple bars with the same words (in the first 35 seconds of this song along he rhymes "outta here" with "outta here") and his vocal tone sounds like someone rubbed the muscles of his larynx with a cheese grater. This is a skipworthy song. "Those Chix" only has one chick worth listening to and that's Princess Superstar so it too is skippable. Hopefully these mediocre tracks get the axe.
It's hard to say with 100% certainty that the finished version of "The Bridge" will have the same number of tracks (only 10) or whether there will be any better features that come with it (extensive liner notes, a bonus disc or both) but based on what's already here I can easily recommend keeping an eye out for that March release date. Flash and his collaborators provide good beats and rhymes so if this is what a "studio album" is for Flash in 2009 let's just hope there are plenty more on the way. The only thing I can knock about "The Bridge" is that I would have liked a few more turntablist tracks, cuts where Grandmaster Flash showed off the pioneering techniques on Technics that put him in the Hall of Fame to begin with. Kudos if they're included on the full length but I look forward to the official copy of the new album either way.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: February 17, 2009