Grand Wizard Theodore is known throughout the world as the man who discovered scratching when he accidentally did it in 1972. But, this talented musical genius of the hip-hop world is also credited with so many other accomplishments.
Theodore helped to revolutionize hip-hop as we know it today, and his whole life has been dedicated to pursuing new techniques and fresh new ideas. In this bio, we discuss everything there is to know about Grand Wizard Theodore, his history, and the scratching technique he invented.
The Man Who Discovered Scratching: Grand Wizard Theodore
Grand Wizard Theodore wasn’t always known by this name. Below are a few details about his life and his journey into the limelight.
Born in Harlem, New York on March 5th, 1963, Grand Wizard Theodore’s real name is Theodore Livingston. In the mid to late ’70s, Theodore developed various scratching and cutting techniques that helped to pave the way for DJing to become a form of art.
Growing up in the Bronx on Boston Road and 168th Street, he had two older brothers named Cordio and Gene, who were known as a hip-hop duo called the “L-Brothers” and regularly worked with Grandmaster Flash. One of Theodore’s older brothers, Mean Gene, became his mentor and was responsible for teaching him DJing techniques at a young age.
Because of Theodore’s close proximity to Flash, the latter discovered that the young boy, (who wasn’t even a teenager at the time) had a natural talent for using turntables. Theodore was then taken in under the wings of Grandmaster Flash, where he became an apprentice.
Whenever Flash would play his records in public parks and other areas, he would also set up a small milk crate where Theodore could DJ.
What Is Scratching?
Sometimes called scrubbing, scratching is a turntablist and DJ technique that involves moving a record back and forth while still on a turntable to create rhythmic or percussive sounds. A crossfader found on DJ mixers can also be used to fade in and out simultaneously between two records.
While it’s mostly associated with hip hop, where it first emerged back in the early 1970s, the use of scratching evolved during the 1990s when it was used for rap metal, some styles of rap rock, and nu metal. It has also become known as a measure of a DJ’s skills, where they compete in scratching competitions at the International DJ Association (IDA) and the International Turntablist Federation (ITF).
In such competitions, DJs are only allowed to use scratch-oriented gear such as:
- Vinyl records
- Digital vinyl systems
- DJ mixers
When it comes to recording hip-hop songs, scratched hooks will often have parts of other songs.
The Origin of Scratching
The technique behind scratching was invented by Grand Wizard Theodore, who, at the time of his discovery, was playing music too loud in his room. This happened in the summer of 1975, when 12-year-old Theodore was experimenting with records.
At the time, he was playing “Bongo Rock” by the Incredible Bongo Band, along with “Passport,” and had the volume to the max. As Theodore remembers it, his furious mother started knocking on his door in an attempt to make him turn the music down, so he panicked and paused the record.
His mom then came into the room to scold him while he was holding the record still. As he was getting an earful from his mom, he accidentally moved the record back and forth, scratching the record. While still holding on to the record, he was surprised to hear the sound his record made when he moved it by accident.
He felt that there was something new with this sound, and he interjected one record into another. Years later, Grand Wizard Theodore thought that he may have created something new in the music scene of hip-hop after playing his recording.
This technique would later be called “scratching,” which is essentially moving the vinyl record against a needle in a forward and backward fashion. However, it’s best to note that the motion is done along the grooves, rather than across the vinyl.
Thanks to this technique, the desire for turntables was rejuvenated and was once again celebrated and used for both solo and ensemble performances. As a result, scratching was able to revive hip-hop culture — and it’s all because of the accidental discovery of a DJ.
Becoming a DJ
Through Mean Gene and Grandmaster Flash, Theodore became a record boy, where he was responsible for going downtown or midtown Manhattan into a record shop known as Downstairs Records. It was his job to get records for Flash, and when the weekends came, the group would have a brand new record to play.
This was because everything was highly competitive from the early to the late ’70s. Whoever was the first to play a particular record would be the hottest DJ, which is why DJs had to purchase new records for each day of the week.
Theodore had his tastes back then, but he would essentially look for any record that had a nice beat to it. He would look through albums, where he would purchase records from Aerosmith or The Rolling Stones and check if there was anything in them with a beat.
Once he found something, he would buy two copies of the record and have Flash play them back and forth. Sometimes, he would look through records that no one else knew about, and would occasionally discover hidden gems.
For Theodore, it didn’t matter if the artist behind a record was white or black — as long as he heard a beat, he would gladly work with a piece of music. He distinctly remembers going to an Afrika Bambaataa party where the song “H#### Tonk Woman” was played and being wowed by it.
As such, he immediately researched the artist to find Mick Jagger, and also furthered his research on Aerosmith, which is how he found another record he loved, “Walk This Way.” At the same time, he would look through Jimi Hendrix records to see if he could find anything that he could turn into his artwork.
The Grand Wizard’s First Gig
While Mean Gene and the Flash started off as partners, it became evident that they had different ideas about the hip-hop scene and started seeing themselves working on different things five to 10 years down the line. As a result, Flash went off to form his own group, and Mean Gene created a group with Theodore and their brother Cordio.
This is the point where Theodore decided to take DJing seriously and started playing in parks. His older brothers, along with their friends, started to realize that Theodore was also a great DJ. At the time, those who wanted to be a DJ would need to play at as many block parties as possible throughout the summer.
It was essential that you made your presence known at every block party so that your audience could see what you can do and who you are. During these times, people who played at inside parties would need to be experienced in order for people to take interest in their shows and earn $3 (or however much the charge was) from each patron.
However, summertime was strictly used for promotions so that DJs could get their name out in the open, so no one really did any inside parties. The outside parties, on the other hand, were free — people would go to the park or go to the projects so they could hook up their systems to the street poles and play their music.
For his first gig, Theodore headed over to Boston Road’s 63 Park in The Bronx. Being part of the L Brothers, Theodore and his brothers were able to spend money on everything they needed, including equipment.
The brothers made their own flyers to promote their gig. On August 18, 1977, after perfecting the needle drop technique he had created earlier, Theodore wowed the crowd when he introduced this move along with scratching.
For this party, the L Brothers played James Brown and Rick James. Because youth at the time had all lived with their parents, the group played records that their fathers and mothers would play, such as Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces,” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.”
For their next gigs, the L Brothers would play in parks where they would play breaks such as the Incredible Bongo Band, and Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio.” Theodore recalls that anything made by Dennis Coffey could be used at a party since the music relied heavily on percussion and bongos.
The Makings of Greatness
By the early 1980s, Theodore became part of the hip-hop group known as Grand Wizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five (also known as the Fantastic Freaks). The name Grand Wizard Theodore rose to fame during this time and was given to him due to his prowess in quickly mixing R&B with hip-hop records back and forth.
In 1982, the group released “Can I Get a Soul Clap” under the label Tuff City. By 1983, Theodore and the rest of his group were featured in the movie Wild Style, where they appeared with their rivals, the Cold Crush Brothers.
He also contributed to the movie’s soundtrack by providing scratch mixes of “Subway Theme,” “Military Cut,” and an instrumental version of “Gangbusters.” Through the movie, he found international success, and at the same time, the Technics SL-1200 model went on to become one of the most popular turntables for many decades to come.
Soon after, the documentary “Scratch” was released, where Grand Wizard Theodore explained the origins behind his scratching technique for DJing. As the ‘80s continued, Grand Wizard Theodore became a regular at clubs like The Roxy and Danceteria.
Theodore also built on the works of Grandmaster Flash by taking the scratching sounds that a record makes when it’s cued and then adding a rhythm that transforms the turntable into an instrument for percussion that can be played by a DJ. He could even emulate Grandmaster Flash’s style of DJing by performing acrobatic moves where he used his feet and elbows to scratch his records.
For the rest of the decade, Grand Wizard Theodore would host and DJ at parties all over the city, including at some of the most popular venues at the time, including The Sparkle, which was found under the train station in the Bronx. His group would also throw parties inside recreation rooms throughout the projects all around New York, and they would be allowed to rent out their high school over the weekend.
Starting in the 1990s, Grand Wizard Theodore started spinning and scratching records internationally, and in 1998, he was inducted into the Technics DJ Hall of Fame. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Awards from two of the most prestigious associations in hip-hop; “Back to Mecca,” and the International Turntablists Federation.
Grand Wizard Theodore also made an appearance at the Hip Hop conference for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Back in 2000, he also taught a DJ Master Class at the Brooklyn Museum of Art when an exhibit presented the opportunity, which he did with DJ Perseus who was just getting started at the time.
In 2001, he appeared in the documentary Scratch to discuss the origins of scratching and hip hop while also contributing to the soundtrack. The phrase that Theodore coined, “Say turn it up” from his “Fantastic Freaks at the Dixie” track was sampled by both rap and hip hop acts such as Bomb the Bass (found on “Megablast”), Public Enemy (found on “Bring the Noise”), and a few others.
Early in his career, Theodore was credited with creating the needle drop, another DJing technique where the DJ drops the needle into the exact passage that will be played rather than silently cueing the record. He was the first ever to invent and perfect this style, which went on to inspire many artists and has been widely used by DJs all over the world.
Grand Wizard Theodore also took the scratching sounds that records made when cued and combined them with a rhythm that transformed a regular turntable into an instrument to be used for percussion. Theodore’s invention of scratching was dramatized and featured on the TV show Drunk History, which was narrated by Questlove and shown on Comedy Central.
As mentioned, he was a part of two crews; The L Brothers and the Fantastic Freaks, and Grand Wizard Theodore remains a spokesman for the culture of hip hop. Today, he still hosts DJ classes while continuing to shake up parties anywhere he goes across the planet.