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In 1977, a 12-year-old invented record scratching and changed hip-hop forever

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This year, NPR, along with member stations, has been marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. One of those stations, KEXP in Seattle, has been celebrating with a weekly podcast, 50 Years Of Hip-Hop. In each episode, host Larry Mizell Jr. and his team highlight a different year of the music's history. They've jumped around the timeline from 1973 to today, picking certain songs or moments from each year, exploring hip-hop's origins and its continued evolution.

In this episode chronicling 1977, KEXP contributor Dusty Henry takes a look at the groundbreaking innovation by 12-year-old Theodore Livingston, aka Grand Wizzard Theodore. The young DJ quite literally stumbled upon a technique that would change hip-hop forever - scratching.

DUSTY HENRY, BYLINE: Like most 12-year-olds, Livingston loved playing records loud in his bedroom. And like most parents, some others scolded him from the other room to turn it down. On one particular day back in 1975, Theodore was playing the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache." As he reached over to pause the record to hear what his mom was saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

HENRY: ...Theodore accidently moved the record playing back-and-forth. The sound piqued his interest, so he did it again...

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

HENRY: ...And again.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

HENRY: Theodore spent days on end experimenting with this new sound that he, quite literally, stumbled upon, something we now know today as scratching.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE")

HENRY: So let's go back a little further for just a minute. We're talking about the 1970s here, the earliest days of hip-hop. Theodore was acutely aware of what was going on. His older brother, who went by the name Mean Gene, was entrenched in the bubbling hip-hop phenomenon. Gene was also close friends and a creative partner with another future legend of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

MELLE MEL: (Singing) A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind. God is smiling on you, but he's frowning too, because only God knows what you go through.

HENRY: Gene and Flash picked up on Theodore's natural DJ abilities early on and took the pre-teen under their wings. Theodore joined his mentors to dig through crates full of vinyl in downtown Manhattan. They'd spend their days searching for new records that they could play before anyone else - The Rolling Stones...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK WOMEN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) It's the honky tonk women.

HENRY: ...Aerosmith...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK THIS WAY")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) Walk this way. Walk this way.

HENRY: ...The Incredible Bongo Band, anything with a danceable beat that they could get to first.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE")

HENRY: At this point, Flash and other DJs were famously performing in parks and abandoned buildings, huge block parties with massive speakers, loud music and the earliest forms of breakdancing. And our hero, Theodore, had a front-row seat. He, Mean Gene and their other brother, DJ Cordioo, formed their own group, the L Brothers, and they began performing in the parks too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible). Tomorrow, the L Brothers will be at Rock City on 159th St. and Prospect - $2 for everybody, 12:00.

HENRY: During this time, Flash was making huge innovations to DJing. People often credit Kool Herc for starting hip-hop in 1973 by playing only the danceable breaks in records to keep the party going. After perfecting Herc's breakbeat technique, Flash took it to the next level. Here's Flash speaking in a documentary about his first groundbreaking method.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I had come up with a mixing technique, which I called the quick mix theory, where I was able to take two copies of the same record on two different turntables and repeat the climactic part of the record over and over and over and over and over again.

HENRY: Flash also developed clock theory. That's his method of identifying a certain segment of record he liked so he could punch in back-and-forth on his turntables to create a new, continuous beat. Just the very act of putting his hands on the record was revolutionary, something that was considered faux pas among DJs. I wouldn't recommend doing it with your record collection either unless you're a professional DJ, that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAND WIZZARD THEODORE: Crossfaders didn't go from left to right...

HENRY: So when Theodore was sitting in his bedroom and started moving his records back-and-forth, he was unwittingly building on Flash's technique. Theodore spoke with Hot 97 back in 2014 about the moment he discovered scratching.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAND WIZZARD THEODORE: ...So when she startled me, both crossfaders went up in the air, which means that I could hear both records at the same time. So what I did was I did a baby scratch, pulled the music down a little bit. She left the room, played the next record, finished my cassette tape, and when I rewind it back to the part where my mother came in the room, I can hear myself baby scratching. I was like, wow. I can incorporate that into all the other things that I do as a DJ. So I practiced it another couple of days and a couple of hours, different records. And that's when it became the scratch. I was 12 years old in 1975.

HENRY: You see, Flash's quick mix and clock theories 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 the cassette of Theodore scratching the next year, in 1978, with L Brothers at the Bronx River Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENRY: As we'll undoubtedly repeat throughout this series, it's difficult to attribute specific people or specific 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 its potential. He continued his studies 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH'S "THE ADVENTURES OF GRANDMASTER FLASH ON THE WHEELS OF STEEL")

HENRY: Scratching continued to evolve over the years under the fingertips of artists like DJ scratch, DJ Premier, DJ Jazzy Jeff and DJ Qbert, just to name a few. Like most art forms, the story of hip-hop gives us some of the clearest examples of watching an idea be born and evolve. There's no barrier for entry to start innovating. A young kid being told to turn down his music by his mom sparked a revolution for a whole genre and culture. And it's not just a freak incident either. Grand Wizzard Theodore's persistence to follow his music and chase down an idea changed the game. Beyond just hip-hop, it's inspiration to follow your muse when it shows itself. You never know what it might create next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENRY: That was Dusty Henry digging into the story of Grand Wizzard Theodore and the invention of scratching for KEXP's 50 Years Of Hip-Hop podcast. You can find the entire series on kexp.org, with episodes on everything from Jay-Z and Nas to MF Doom to the story of an early female hip-hop pioneer, MC Lyte, who found fans among Chuck D, Sinead O'Connor and a U.S. president.

HENRY: She became the first female rapper to perform at the White House for President Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MC LYTE: Who would have thought that hip-hop would ever be heard in this room? Most definitely, it did not start in such a fancy place.

DETROW: Hear them all at kexp.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.