Dusty Henry takes us back to 1977 when a young DJ from the Bronx, Theodore Livingston, debuted a technique so powerful, so innovative, that it’s become an essential part of hip-hop: scratching.
Audio production by Roddy Nikpour.
Written by Dusty Henry.
Sitting in his Bronx bedroom in 1975, Theodore Livingston stumbled onto something that would define hip-hop. Like most 12 year olds, Livingston loved playing his records loud in his room. And like most parents, his mother scolded him from the other room to turn it down. This day he was playing The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” As he reached over to pause the record to hear what his mom was saying, Theodore accidentally moved the record playing back and forth.
The sound piqued his interest. So he did it again.
Theodore spent days on end experimenting with this new sound he quite literally stumbled upon. Something we now know today as “scratching.”
But let’s go back a little further for a minute.
These were the early days of hip-hop and Theodore was acutely aware of what was going on. His older brothers Mean Gene was entrenched in the bubbling hip-hop phenomenon. Gene was also closer friends and a creative partner with another future legend of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash.
Gene and Flash picked up on Theodore’s natural DJ abilities early on and took the pre-teen under their wings. Theodore would join his mentors on crate digging expeditions in downtown Manhattn. They’d spin their days searching for new records that they could play before everyone else. Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Dizzy Gillespie, The Incredible Bongo band. Anything with a great beat that they could get to first.
Flash and others were famously DJing in parks and abandoned buildings. Huge block parties with massive speakers, loud music, and the earliest forms of breakdancing. Theodore was right there for it. He, Mean Gene, and their other brother DJ Cordio formed their own group L-Brothers and began performing in the parks too.
During this time, Flash was making huge innovations to DJing. As we’ve already discussed on this podcast, Kool Herc is ofteen credited with starting hip-hop in 1973 playing only the danceable breaks in records to keep the party going. Flash took that idea and started to make his own embellishments. After perfecting Herc’s break-beat technique, Flash took it to the next level. Here’s Flash speaking on his first ground-breaking method.
Flash also developed “clock theory,” a method of identifying a certain segment of a record he liked that he could punch in back-and-forth on his turntables and create a new, continuous beat. Just the very act of putting his hands on the record was revolutionary, something that was considered a faux paus among DJs.
So when Theodore was sitting in his room and started moving his records back and forth, he was unwittingly iterating on Flash’s technique. Theodore recalls the moment he discovered scratching in a 2014 interview with Hot 97
Where Flash’s quick-mix and clock theory’s were all about fluidity, Theodore’s new scratching technique was rough and jagged. Rhythmically scratching on his records started to develop a new sound. In 1977, the 14 year old Theodore debuted as Grand Wizzard Theodore and began performing his scratching technique for the first time at The Sparkle Club. His song of choice? “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band – the song he first accidentally scratched to when his mom told him to turn down the music. Here’s a rare clip recorded on cassette of Theodore scratching the next year in 1978 with L Brothers at Bronx River Centre.
As we’ll undoubtedly reiterate on this series, it’s difficult to attribute specific people or dates and times in the origins of hip-hop, or any genre for that matter. Grand Wizzard Theodore certainly might not be the first person to jostle a record back and forth on the needle, but he was the first we know of to recognize it’s potential. He continued to be mentored under Grandmaster Flash, who took to the scratching technique and arguably began to perfect it. You hear it all over Flash’s seminal track “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.”
Scratching continued to evolve over the years under the fingertips of artists like DJ Scratch, DJ Qbert, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and DJ Premiere, just to name a few.