Grand Wizard Theodore
accepting his ITF Award.
For me, someone who lives for scratch music, visiting
legendary DJ Grand Wizard Theodorethe creator of the scratchat
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?
GWT: 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 ampshe 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
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
BJ: Do you think that the new documentary
Scratch that you are featured in is a fair portrayal of the scratch
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.