an interview with the inventor of the scratch…
For me, someone who lives for scratch music, visiting legendary DJ Grand Wizard Theodore—the creator of the scratch—at his Bronx, NY home could only be compared to an Elvis Presley fan making a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the King of rock’n’roll in his day. I had met Grand Wizard Theodore (GWT) once before a few years earlier when he had been flown out to San Francisco to receive an ITF award. Our meeting was brief so I really had no idea what kind of person he really was. And after years of interviewing hip hop and other music stars I had admired, I was used to discovering that some of the greatest artists were the biggest assholes in person. But such was far from the case with GWT. When my disoriented white face emerged from the “D” subway station deep in the Boogie Down Bronx among a sea of black and brown faces, GWT was there to pick me up in his sturdy but old American car. You can’t have a fancy new car in the Bronx, he explained in his soft-spoken but firm voice as we drove the fifteen blocks back to his modest Bronx apartment. Like many of the great pioneers of hip hop that created the genre here on these Bronx streets three decades earlier, GWT was not rich from a culture that he helped shape and form. But unlike many of his contemporaries from hip hop’s seminal years, who are embittered by the fact that they live in comparative poverty/obscurity while so-called “hip hoppers” like mogul Puff Daddy are making millions off something they created, GWT is not at all bitter. In fact he is a warm and humble man who is gracious to be a part of a cultural movement that he never thought would spread from these Bronx, NY streets to every other corner of the world.
BILLY JAM: How did you first create the scratch 26 years ago in 1975?
GRAND WIZARD THEODORE: I used to come home from school and go in my room and practice a lot and this particular day I came home and played my music too loud and my mom was banging on the door and when she opened the door I turned the music down but the music was still playing in my headphones and she was screaming ‘If you don’t turn the music down you better turn it off’ and I had turned down the speakers but I was still holding the record and moving it back and forth listening in my headphones and I thought ‘This really sounded something….interjecting another record with another record.’ And as time went by I experimented with it trying other records and soon it became scratching.
BJ: At that time Kool Herc was around here doing his thing but he wasn’t doing anything like scratching, was he?
GWT: Well Herc is like an old school DJ. Basically he would put a record on and let the record play. He might have both on at once but the cross-fader was on one side only. I think many people were on the verge of discovering it back then but I happened to be the first.
BJ: After you discovered the scratch who did you show first?
GWT: Well actually I didn’t show anyone. I just did it. I was always the type of DJ who wanted to be different from everyone else coz everyone else was playing the same records the same way. So after a time people started to notice that I played different records and was scratching the records and interjecting different records and needle dropping coz I also invented the ‘needle drop’ and basically I would just display my talents when it was time to do a party. At first I would only scratch maybe one or two records during a party but as time went by I would scratch more and more and soon I would scratch on every track I played.
BJ: So what kind of parties would these be and how did people initially react?
GWT: These would be house parties and big parties here in the Bronx and people loved it when they first heard it. It was raw and they appreciated it!
BJ: What was it like in the very early days of hip hop?
GWT: I had an older brother named Mean Jean and he was down with Grand Master Flash. They were partners and I was like the record boy for them and I would carry their records for them or go downtown to Downstairs Records and pick up 45’s for them. But Flash and my brother had different ideas about music so they split up and Flash formed the Furious Emcees and my brother and me and my other brother Corleo we formed The L Brothers since our last name is Livingston and everybody was like ‘The Livingston Brothers’and for a while they called us the ‘The Love Brothers.’ And we took on two emcees… and later on my brother quit DJ’ing and I went on and formed my own group… and back in those days it was not just Blacks but Latinos as well who helped form the culture of hip hop: like a lot of the graffiti artists and break dancers were Latino. We were all down together
BJ: Does the fact that hip hop is so popular all over the world today amaze you?
GWT: It does and it doesn’t but really I just did it for the love. The money was good but I did it all coz I love music. My mother and my uncles and my family growing up would always gather around and play good music and eat good food so I was always surrounded by music so I had the love for it and when I would DJ parties I would always try to make it a good time for people to forget about their problems.
BJ: How important is the DJ in hip hop?
GWT: The DJ sets the tone for the party. He has the records, the speakers, the amps—he has everything. The b-boy couldn’t come out and break until the DJ was playing the music. And the rapper: all he has to do is show up and pick up the mic and just start rapping, but not until after the DJ had set everything up. Back in the day with someone like Kool Herc, he was the DJ and he had rappers with him but he was the one out front and they just backed him up. But as time went by the rappers started phasing out the DJ as they became more and more popular and moved to the front. So I think it is great that the DJ is now making a comeback coz the DJ played a major, major part in this hip hop culture.
BJ: What do you think of all the new techniques being developed by today’s ‘turntablists’ and how companies are streamlining DJ equipment for scratch DJs.
GWT: With all of these new developments, like say the new needles made just for turntablists, it means that the art form of DJ’ing is going to keep evolving and I think it has a little further to go until it is fully evolved.
BJ: What are you working on nowadays?
GWT: I am working on a new CD called The Nights of the Round Table coz the turntable is round and when you think of a DJ he does his work at night… And I do a lot of traveling to other places like Europe. I just want people to know that I am still out there and I want to educate people on the culture coz a lot of people do not know about the culture.
BJ: Which brings us to Heineken beer’s recent TV ad campaign in which they got their facts all wrong and misinformed people saying that scratching began in 1982, seven years after you created it.
GWT: I don’t know if they knew what they was doing and just decided to make a spoof out of it or whatever but they have to realize that this is a culture and that this culture affects a lot of peoples’ lives and we want people to understand the truth of a culture so it won’t be misinterpreted. Like back in the days we never called women ‘bitches’ or ‘hoes’ but nowadays you’ve got guys calling women these things and rapping about ‘my big car this and that’ and ‘selling drugs this and that.’ But back in the day hip hop wasn’t about that. It was only about ‘clap your hands’ and ‘stomp your feet, you know?’ People have to learn the culture.
BJ: Do you think that the new documentary Scratch that you are featured in is a fair portrayal of the scratch DJ?
GWT: Yes I do.
BJ: And where do you see the scratch DJ in the future?
GWT: I see scratch DJs getting more and more recognition and winning awards like Grammies just like rappers and any other type of musician. And nowadays you have a lot of bands with DJs in them so I see the DJ evolving and getting the type of recognition that they have always deserved.