Whether spelled with one "z", as in his younger days, or with two as he styles himself now, Grand Wizzard Theodore is undoubtedly a key figure in hip-hop’s early years. He’s often credited with inventing not one but two pioneering techniques — scratching and the needle drop — that would be adopted by many who followed in his path. As with many groundbreaking icons, his influence is belied by his short but sweet recording career.
Growing Up in the Bronx
Born in the Bronx, New York, on March 5, 1963, Theodore Livingston was the youngest of three brothers. His two older siblings, Gene and Cordio, were also DJs, and soon the trio of DJ Mean Gene, DJ Cordio and Grand Wizard Theodore were performing at parties together as The L Brothers (and occasionally as The Love Brothers). They were friends with Grandmaster Flash, who often partnered with Mean Gene, and all the DJs used to practice together (which explains why many people claim ownership of the techniques that were spawned in these sessions). Livingston claims to have learned his trade watching the older DJs, carrying their records and venturing to shops to pick up vinyl for their shows.
The Birth of the Scratch
Flash himself tells it differently, but according to Theodore his discovery of scratching, a sound that would go on to underpin hip-hop’s development and remain a potent part of it to the present day, was an accident. Practicing at his 159th Street home, his mother entered the room and asked him to turn his music down. He did, but he also stopped the record with his hand and, as he moved it gently back and forth, was intrigued by the sound it made through his headphones. He told hiphopslam.com: “I thought, ‘This really sounded something… interjecting another record with another record.' As time went by I experimented with it and soon it became scratching.” After placating his mother, he later unveiled the new technique in 1977, scratching Bongo Rock by the Incredible Bongo Band at the Sparkle Club.
Livingston also developed the needle drop at around the same time. This method, where a DJ puts the stylus on a spinning piece of vinyl at the precise point he wants to use, meant that DJs could save time cueing up records — another potent weapon in their arsenal in the days when block party DJs would entertain crowds by cutting back and forth between the break (the funkiest part of two identical records).
The Fantastic Freaky Five
By the late 1970s, hip hop had matured from park jams and underground parties into a recorded music. The success of The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 smash hit "Rapper’s Delight" fueled a boom in "disco-rap" records and while some pioneers like Kool Herc would never commit themselves to vinyl, Livingston was to do so. Groups were constantly shifting and mutating in rap’s early days, and the Fantastic Romantic Five — also known as the Fantastic Freaks — was formed from members of The Mighty Gestapo Crew, Funky Phase Four MCs, Cold Crush Brothers and the L Brothers. The line-up of Theodore, Waterbed Kev, Master Rob, Dot-a-Rock, Ruby Dee and Prince Whipper Whip only recorded the one single: its original pressing much sought after, and one that cements their legacy.
"Can I Get a Soul Clap" (often changed on reissues to "Clap") was released on the independent Soul-O-Wax label in 1982, with the group name misspelled "The Fantastic Romatic Five" on one pressing, and "Ronmatic" on another. The MCs trade verses as cowbells vie with Theodore’s space-age sound effects to create something the hip-hop journalist Drew Huge would argue on hilobrow.com: “Bottles the genie that was early hip-hop. It spans the gap between the block party era and the record label era.”
Originator of the Wild Style
Livingston’s recording career is restricted to that landmark single and several contributions to the seminal 1983 hip-hop film Wild Style. His instrumental tracks — "Gangbusters Scratch Mix" and "Military Cut Scratch Mix" are fine examples of his turntable skills, while his "Subway Theme" is so evocative of its time that Nas later used it as the backdrop to the first track on his epochal 1994 album Illmatic in an attempt to capture the essence of his New York youth.
As an elder statesman of hip-hop culture, Livingston is in demand for documentaries, panel discussions and teaches DJ master classes. In 1998 he was inducted into the Technics DJ Hall of Fame and can be seen talking about his art in the 2001 documentary about DJing, Scratch. In 2014 he joined Flash and fellow rap legend Grandmixer DXT as the first DJs to be immortalized on the Rock Walk outside Hollywood’s Guitar Center. And while historians may always fight about who exactly was the first person to put their hands on a record and create a new sound by moving it back and forth, even Grandmaster Flash himself pays tribute to Livingston. “Theodore was one of the very first to get it,” he told GQ, “then he added his own innovations and it went on and on.”
(Profile photo of Grand Wizard Theodore by Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images)
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