Written By Gregor Scott

While Nicky Siano, Francis Grosso and the like cemented their name as pioneers of the nightclub scene, and DJs like Kool Herc and Pete Jones paved the way for Hip Hop, there is a cast of characters who don’t fit neatly into the narrative on either side.

Particularly with Hip Hop, where the Bronx is seen as the be-all end-all of early development, DJs from the other boroughs are forgotten or erased from history, and when they’re not they’re often misrepresented in that history. That indeed is the story of the first Grandmaster, a DJ who before any other had an outsized impact on innovations that led to Hip Hop, and Deejaying at large. So why is he often left as a footnote?

For one he was from Brooklyn, for two he was past his peak popularity by the late 70s, and for three, he tragically passed in 1992, so he cannot defend his own legacy. This is the story of the late, great, Grandmaster Flowers.

Jonathon Flowers hailed from the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, and his name first appeared in tags on walls around the mid 60s, often as Flowers & Dice. His debut as a deejay likely came around this time too, but it isn’t until the late 60s that we have flyers and first-hand accounts showing the DJ Grandmaster Flowers in full effect.

This was an interesting time in the development of DJing, as venues weren’t yet built out with their own sound systems, so often the importance of a DJ was half on his skill and record collection, and half on his sound system.

Grandmaster Flowers came about at a time when DJing really was still in its infancy as an art, and he was a pioneer on the wave of a lot of innovations. He was in that first wave of mobile DJs in the 60s, as venues looked to transition to DJs from live bands, both Flowers and King Charles looked to be on the crest of that first wave. He even became the opening DJ for James Brown’s Yankee Stadium show in 1968.

At the end of the 60s he was one of the first people to play club music from a sound system during Carnival, instead of traditional Caribbean instruments. Both Flowers and Starlight Disco played carnival, and in this way brought the West Indian community and African American community together, and paved the way for the more modern New York carnival style.

There are of course lots of debates about who did what first, but we can confidently say Flowers was the first deejay many people saw who used two turntables as part of his set. Many of the innovations may not have been his, but he was the most popular mobile DJ at the time, and was the first DJ many people saw to use two turntables, or the first deejay people saw incorporate lights into his show.

In researching Flowers more thoroughly, I came across two interviews with DJs Tony Smith and Ron Plummer. Both were in the same circles as Flowers and had some great first-hand accounts that, for me, shed a lot more light on exactly why he was THE Grandmaster before any other.

Starting with Tony, when asked what Flowers was like, he said;

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.

DJ Plummer echoes this sentiment too, that Flowers was both great, and very sure of it;

If you didn’t know about that arrogance and you listened to the music and you were into the funk, the west coast stuff, the rock stuff you really thought he was god-like fantastic. So a lot of people thought he was better than anyone else. Flowers was sort of like a Jimmy Hendrix, he would do everything and you were always learning from him. Flowers was probably the most extreme that I remember, somebody that just knows they are good.

Tony also shed some light on a practice I know was commonplace in Jamaica, but had only seen alluded to in New York;

They used to cross the records out so if you looked you couldn’t even see what the record was. I started doing that… Especially exclusive records that you knew people were gonna come up. Maboya and Smith Brothers were definitely more friendly. Flowers had the best music [though], he had a really great sound system.

The technique wasn’t quite as effective as it had been in the 1950s for Coxsone Dodd and his Downbeat system in Jamaica, as by the 1970s you couldn’t keep a record secret for multiple years, but they were doing everything they could.

Flowers was one of the first DJs to play outdoor jams, he had one of the first great sound systems, he pioneered mobile DJing as an artform, used two turntables earlier than some of his peers. He was the first DJ to play New York Carnival, the first DJ to support James Brown… It’s a long long list of accolades, so why don’t we talk more about him?

With a lot of these early proponents we rely on first hand accounts, for Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash we rely quite often on their own retelling of the story. That’s not something we can do with Flowers, as he passed in 1992. His legacy has to be carried forward by those who are left behind, and often the “interesting” story is being told about those who came after him, who built on top of his work.

But why doesn’t he pop up more after the early 70s? He’s on a few flyers, and there’s a tape circulating from ~1980, but whereas the stars of Flash, Herc, Mancuso, Grosso… are all rising, Flowers was fading. He fell hard into a world of drugs, and by a couple accounts had sold most of his record collection to fuel his habit by the early 80s. According to DJ Plummer, people tried to help him out of the spiral, but to them it felt like he didn’t want help. His early legacy was one he never built on, and the world of DJing passed him by, leaving him as a footnote in a history he really should have written.

A tragedy that such an important figure, with so much to offer, fell so hard. The veneration his peers had for the skill of the Grandmaster Flowers speaks volumes to the place he should take in DJ history, and we would all do well to remember, before any other, The First Grandmaster.

This post was originally published on Claymore Sound.

GrandMaster Flowers – Brooklyn Park Jam

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