GRANDMASTER FLOWERS AND THE MOBILE DJ MOVEMENT
The mobile DJ, as we know him, has been around since the early 1940s. Names like Bertrand Thorpe, known for playing 78rpm records through a 30-watt amp, and Ron Diggins, have been cited as some of the first mobile DJs in the UK. Diggins even built his own art deco DJ booth by 1949, complete with home-made mixer, 78rpm double decks, lights, microphone and ten speakers. Jimmy Savile, also from the UK and recently deceased, was also originally known as one of the first mobile DJs, even so much as being one of the first to use two turntables and a microphone in the early 1940s, according to his autobiography. In the late 1940s in Jamaica the mobile DJ was also appearing and later towards the early 1960s, stars were beginning to come out with their sound systems, like Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster and Duke Reid. In 1959 in the US, DJ John Ausby began making appearances in Brooklyn, New York with his sets. But by far, the single most important mobile DJ to come out of the US was Jonathan Cameron Flowers, also known as Flowers, and later, Grandmaster Flowers. His importance lies in the fact that it was he, who gave birth to the mobile DJ as a movement.
After Flowers the barrage of DJs came. Everyone started deejaying or wanted to become a DJ. After Flowers major DJs either started or started to become known, like Pete DJ Jones, Maboya, Plummer, Hollywood, Lovebug Starski, Disco Twins, Frankie Knuckles and others, then later the hip hop DJs like Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizzard Theodore for example. Flowers is the unsung hero of the entire recording industry, promoting hundreds, if not thousands of records through his sound system, which was as much the star as him, because of its power, complete with walk-in woofer cabinets, JBL bullet tweeters, Thorens TD-125 turntables and such. Flowers generated tons of sales for the record industry, something that the present day DJ continues to do for them. But it was with and after Flowers that the industry really began to see the importance of the mobile DJ as a selling machine, so much so, that towards 1975 in the US, record pools for DJs came into being, where companies actually gave DJs records to play for them for little or no money.
Flowers hailed from the Farragut Projects in Brooklyn, New York. His first appearance on the scene was as a tagger or graffiti writer. His black magic marker tag “Flowers + Dice” embossed many subway walls and parks in the 1960s, in and out of the vicinity. His official appearance as a DJ was in 1968 when he opened for James Brown in Yankee Stadium, a major feat for any serious artist of any kind at the time, especially considering that there were other DJs with systems out there working, like Nu Sounds and King Charles for example.
Besides his powerful sound system, which is what all DJs were recognized for during their reign before the appearance of MCs (later to be called rappers), Flowers, like all DJs then, was also recognized for the records that he played, and the way he played them. His blending and mixing of these, by all accounts, was extraordinary, and it helped to establish him as unique. He was known to throw on records from genres such as rock, hustle or disco, funk, with R&B and sometimes a little jazz. During this period, not all DJs played the same thing. If you wanted to dance to a particular record that you liked, you had to go to the DJ that played it. This is because DJs took to darkening the labels of certain records that their dance crowd liked, so no other rival DJ (or their spies) could identify what it was and play it for their own crowd. Flowers darkened his labels, probably with a magic marker. Soon DJs began soaking labels completely off records all together. This method and technique only lasted a few years. The end of it helped destroy the uniqueness of the DJ’s record sets, as far as what they played, because soon, everyone began playing the exact same records in their sets.
Some of the records that Flowers was known for playing include “Space Age” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, “Sunnin’ And Funnin’ by MFSB, “Somebody’s Gotta Go” by Mike and Bill. “Touch and Go” by Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, “Changes” by Vernon Burch and “Messin’ With My Mind” by Labelle. Another favorite of his was the rock group Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” (which would later become a hip hop staple as a breakbeat record and sample). He would mix that with James Brown material, and he was also known to on occasion, use three turntables simultaneously. (He would combine Chic’s “Good Times,” MFSB’s “Love Is The Message,” and Vaughan Mason and Crew’s “Bounce Skate Roll Bounce” for example.)
The venues for a DJ during that period included many parks, beaches, roller skating rinks, school gyms, hotels and community centers. Flowers, like other DJs, played places like the Hotel Diplomat, Hotel St. George, Leviticus, Club 371, Club Saturn, Manhattan Center, New York Coliseum, Stardust Ballroom, Riis Beach and Prospect Park to name a small few. If there was more than one DJ billed at a venue on a flyer (the most prominent method of promotion for DJs at the time, with radio promotion announcements being the second), they were usually billed in “versus” fashion, and labeled as battles. In that regard, Flowers battled a few, including Pete DJ Jones, Maboya, the Smith Bros., Fantasia, and the Disco Twins. It wasn’t just their music repertoires pitted against each other, but their sound systems.
DJs did a lot of traveling from venue to venue, and many times the venues were not located in the best of communities. Occasionally they were subjected to thieves stealing their equipment. Flowers was no different, so after he himself was robbed of his speakers, he began carrying a .357 Magnum for protection. It was big enough for people to see, and helped curtail further incidents.
For most of the DJs from the 1960s, their popularity began to wane during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This was due to the emergence of the hip hop DJs and their MCs. Gigs for them became few and far between. Some tried to compete by getting their own MCs. Others were not able to compete at all. During this same period, the crack epidemic began to emerge. As time went on, Flowers would become the victim of declining popularity and hard drugs. His last known appearance in the music capacity was as the sound man for the hip hop group X-Clan in the early 1990s. He was literally spotted on the streets and given the job by the group members who remembered his significance in the industry. By the time of his death in 1992, Flowers was homeless and dependent on drugs. His name in later years would become legend among DJs who heard about his importance to the culture of deejaying.