Meet Ardsley's Aston George Taylor, Jr.—AKA, Hot 97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex
The continued success of Funkmaster Flex, a hip-hop icon for the last quarter-century, is a study in staying on top despite an increasingly fickle cultural consciousness.
Funkmaster Flex really, really likes one of Westchester’s top bakeries—we won’t say which one—but he also has a slight qualm with it, too.
“I want to go on the record: The cookies are amazing,” says the Bronx-born Ardsley resident known primarily for his prolific DJ sets on Hot 97, often regarded as the country’s most prominent hip-hop radio station. “It’s just young kids working in there. I always wanted to tell the owner, ‘Man, these kids don’t understand how big this place is.’ There were just a few that didn’t take pride in their work. That’s the only thing I didn’t like.”
It’s fitting that Aston Taylor Jr., or Funk Flex to listeners of his energetic evening timeslot on 97.1 FM, brings up pride and work together. Without taking painfully serious pride in his work, could a 47-year-old DJ stay digitally relevant to the tune of 3 million unique monthly page views on his blog, In Flex We Trust; followers in the hundreds of thousands on all the major social streams; and maintain a popular music app (“DJ Funkmaster Flex”)?
Probably not. That’s why Flex works diligently off the radio, too. There was a time when spinning records accounted for his entire day-job description (on top of producing six compilation albums with the likes of 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige and starring in television shows on Spike TV, ESPN, and MTV2 on his own time). It now entails poring over Google Analytics and listening to what his team of teenage bloggers say is popular.
“The Internet doesn’t lie,” says Flex. “You can’t jiggle it. You can’t dump money into it. You can’t make it trend.”
He was inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Association’s Hall of Fame in November 2013, an honor he values, but an accomplishment he considers far from the end of a chapter in his career. “I didn’t want them to write me off like I wasn’t going to do anything else,” says Flex. “I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve sold a lot of albums. I’ve done a lot of TV shows. But when I was a kid, I wanted to be on the radio in New York City.”
After reflecting, perfunctorily, on his induction, he wants instead to talk about his next moves—whether it be an innovative app holding his attention or his new role helping design websites for other on-air personalities. From fidgeting in his chair while clutching two cellphones to going off on playful tangents, he comes across as someone who doesn’t stay still for very long.
But what else, besides versatility and agility, has kept him relevant in today’s era of seemingly indecipherable online “cool”—when artless, user-generated memes unpredictably explode with likes and millenials with flaky tastes reign? Asked his advice for professionals from any field on how to achieve that modern-day impact, Flex shares an anecdote about his recent search for a landscaper. He came across one company with a Facebook page; another just had a phone number.
“I thought the site looked great, the Facebook was active, and I didn’t feel like he was going to be more expensive,” says Flex. “I just feel like I like what he was doing in comparison to a guy that just had a phone number and came to my house and showed me his booklet with pictures.” In short: Let your passion come through in the digital space.
While Flex’s passions range from his neighborhood (“I love where I live,” he says of the Rivertowns) to his kids (who go to Ardsley schools) to the classic muscle cars he collects and builds for friends like Danica Patrick (a ’67 Camaro), the music industry remains where his heart is. Asked about the current state of hip-hop, Flex offered no long, drawn-out sermon about how rap’s art and poetry has been lost in a sea of party music: He feels that hip-hop simply means different things to different people.
The genre has become more varied since he started—he’s been making a living examining and influencing it since his first job at Kiss-FM nearly 30 years ago. That doesn’t mean he’s willing to live in the past, though: “I’m not big on the cutesy dance records,” he says. “I play them, people like them in the club. My job is to look at the landscape and give you the music that matters.”
In Flex We Trust covers the other things his audience says matter: sports, tech, cars, sneakers, and girls. With that same characteristic passion, Flex recalls flipping through the Source and Vibe in years past, neatly summing up the site as his “2014 version of a magazine.” It goes to show—when it comes to keeping up with what’s “hot,” it pays to be flexible.