Interview: Grand Wizard Theodore

From the DJ History archives: The hip-hop pioneer chats about block parties, legendary rap battles and the invention of scratching

Alongside his friend Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theordore helped establish the hip-hop blueprint. During the mid-to-late 1970s, he was responsible for developing some of the cutting and scratching techniques that helped to turn DJing into an art form. By the early 1980s, he was a regular at clubs including Danceteria and The Roxy before finding international stardom via the pioneering hip-hop movie Wild Style.

In October 1998, he sat down with DJ History’s Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton to talk about his career behind the turntables, the origins of scratching and the legendary battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and his crew, the Fantastic Romantic Five.

Charlie Chase has recently re-mastered a tape of a battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic Five, which you were part of. Can you remember the night that was recorded in 1981?

I remember that night as if it was yesterday. I couldn’t sleep the night before. Me and the Fantastic Five, we practiced like, four or five times a week. It got to the point where our girlfriends were mad at us. “You guys spend so much time together. You’re together like seven days a week.” We’re together, we’re practicing, we’re going through ideas, we tried to get new dance steps, we tried to dress in tuxedos – we just wanted to be different. I remember that when I first started DJing, I wanted to be different from everybody else, because everybody played the music the same old way.

How did you get started in DJing?

I had a brother named Mean Gene. He was down with Grandmaster Flash, and I was like their record boy. I was responsible for coming downtown or into midtown Manhattan, going to this record shop called Downstairs Records. Go inside, the guy’s playing 45s all day long, there’s a pinball machine where if you hit 50,000 points they give you a free 45. It was really cool.

So you were getting records for Flash?

Yeah, so when the weekend comes he would have new records to play. It was so competitive then, in the early to late ’70s. It was like, “Who was the first to play this record, who was the first to play that record.” DJs were out buying records every day of the week.

What kind of records were you looking for?

Basically I was looking for any record that had a beat to it. I would go and buy some Rolling Stones albums, or some Aerosmith, and just search through the record and see if I can hear a beat. If I heard a beat, I’d buy two copies of it and just get Flash to play to back and forth.

So you were looking for records that other people didn’t know about?


Did you discover any records in that period?

Rolling Stones - Honky Tonk Women

I discovered some records, yeah. Like, Aerosmith records. I remember I went to an Afrika Bambaataa party and he played “Honky Tonk Woman” and I thought, “Wow, what’s that?” And after I went home and thought about it, I was like, “That’s Mick Jagger and them.” It doesn’t matter if it was a white artist or a black artist, any record you could find that had a beat on it [was game]. We were basically looking for anything. You could get a Jimi Hendrix record, and just search through and see if you could find something. That’s how Aerosmith were discovered. You know “Walk This Way?” Somebody got an Aerosmith record, searched through it, found it.

Who found that?

Afrika Bambaataa.

Thin Lizzy - Johnny the Fox meets Jimmy the Weed

What about the Thin Lizzy record, because Mantronix made a record using “Johnny The Fox.” Was that already a well-known breakbeat?

It was already a well-known breakbeat.

Was that Bambaataa again?

Bambaataa broke so many records into the hip-hop industry. I can’t begin to name the records he broke. He broke so many records. He was the first DJ to introduce reggae to a lot of people. He actually played reggae at a party and everybody was like [puzzled look] and then after time went by, they were really, really into it.

How did you get hooked up with Flash?

My brother Mean Gene – him and Flash were like partners together. They were like the Odd Couple. They both had different ideas of how they wanted to see themselves five and 10 years down the line. So Flash went and formed his own group and with my brother Mean Gene, we formed our own group called the L Brothers. That was me – Grand Wizard Theodore – my brother Cordio and Mean Gene. We formed our own group. That’s when I started DJing, playing in the parks. And that’s when everybody finally realized that I was also a DJ, too.

Do you remember your first gig?

Yeah. It was 63 Park on Boston Road in the Bronx. Back in the early ’70s, if you wanted to be a DJ you had to play all the block parties, the whole summer. You’d just play all the free parties that you could play, so that people see who you are and know that when you throw a party on the inside they will come to pay their three dollars or whatever you charge.

So it was like a promotion?

Right. Summer time was strictly promotions. Nobody really did no inside parties.

And the outside parties were free?

Yeah. They would go in the park, or go in the projects and hook up to a street pole and just play music.

Your first gig, whose equipment was it?

It was our equipment, the L Brothers. We spent money on equipment and everything. We made our own flyers.

Do you remember when it was?

It was August, in the summer time, because I celebrate my anniversary in August, around the 18th. It was summer of ’75 or ’76.

What were you playing around then?

Manu Dibango - Soul Makossa

We were playing, like, Rick James, James Brown. Everybody lived with their mother and father, so we would play the records that our mothers and fathers would play, like Van McCoy, Average White Band “Pick Up The Pieces” and “Soul Makossa.” That was the stuff we used to play in the park. And then we also used to play the breaks, like Dennis Coffey “Scorpio,” the Incredible Bongo Band. Anything Dennis Coffey made, you could just play at a party, because they were strictly bongos and percussion. We mostly played stuff like that.

Were you cutting stuff up or playing it right through?

We were cutting it up.

From day one?

From day one. When Flash and my brother Mean Gene were together there were no earphones, it was like you could put the record on the needle and actually hear the record playing. When you put an album on the turntable and you look at the grooves on the record and you see the thick part of the record, you know that’s the part that has the most drum beat and percussion, so you put the needle on that part and that’s where the break was. So [that’s how it was] until Flash came up with the earphones. He was like, “There’s gotta be a way for you to hear the record before you play it.” So he did his research until he finally came up with the cueing, which was really incredible.

And that made a big difference to everybody?

Oh, big difference! Oh man, that’s like putting tires on a car. All of a sudden…

But that was something that disco DJs had been using for a long time. How come nobody knew about it?

Mostly radio DJs. They were using the cueing. But a lot of DJs would just put the record on and mix it to the next record. It didn’t matter if it was on beat. They just played a record. When the record goes off, you put the needle on the [next] record, just wait for it to come in and move the slide fader from there to there. Or they had this mixer called the Bozak at the roller skating rinks, with the [rotary] knobs. So every time we went to the roller skating rinks and we saw a Bozak mixer, we’d be like, “Oh man!”

Me getting into music was my way of getting away from everyday problems. Everybody has problems from the President on down. It could be a small problem, it could be a big problem. It could be school, it could be family, or it could be the neighborhood. That was just my way of getting away from my everyday problems, just listening to music. Even now – I mean, when I’m home I play nothing but soft, light music.

Charlie Chase told me how the first time he saw Flash, you were battling Flash. Do you remember that?

Yeah, it was at this high school called Theodore Roosevelt and that was the first time people had seen anybody use four turntables. He had two turntables on his side and I had two turntables on my side. I really wouldn’t call it a battle – it was more like a little exhibition.

He would play a record and I would put the same record on my turntable. He would scratch it, and scratch it, and play it, and then let it play, and I would scratch mine and then play mine. His turntables would go off and mine go on. Mine go off, his go on. And everybody looked at it as a battle because we had two different styles. So everybody looked at it as, “Theodore’s style is much different from Flash.” They figured it was a battle and that I won. I wasn’t much into battling. I was mostly… play the music and make sure that everybody in the party had a good time. That’s what was satisfying for me.

Charlie said that he watched you and you were lifting the needle and working the breaks without ever touching the record. He was really impressed, because he said it wasn’t a whole break, you were doing that for each bar. How did you learn to do that?

Dennis Coffey - Scorpio

Well, everybody’s mother had a little turntable, a little record player in the house. I used to play my mother’s 45s. I used to play the Dennis Coffey records and I used to skip the record back and forth so I could hear the break. Doing this for so many years, it just developed into a style, because when I skip the record back it actually falls on the beat. From doing it for so many years, it just became an art form for me.

It’s very important when you’re playing breaks that people can snap their fingers and tap their feet to it. It’s like dancing. When you’re dancing with a girl on the floor and the guy switches the record, you have to stop, and then you have to keep dancing in order for you to keep up with the music. But I like to play my breaks so you still can clap your hands or snap your fingers to it without even stopping. Still go with the flow. I mean, if you’re on the floor and you’re dancing with somebody, and they switch the record, if the record skips it makes you stop and then you want to pick up on the beat again. And that throws everything off. It makes you want to walk off the floor, because the groove is gone. So I was into playing the breakbeats and making sure that you could snap your fingers all night and the pace would never, ever change. It’s like riding in your car and never hitting a bump.

Do you remember what year that party with Flash was?

It was before the movie Wild Style, so I have to say it was about 1980, something like that. 1979 maybe.

In what way would you say your style was different to Flash’s style?

Well, I always wanted to be different from everyone else. A DJ has to have a certain kind of touch when he’s moving a record back and forth. I mean some people have different finger and arm coordination. It’s like driving a stick shift. Some people move the stick shift hard and rough and rugged. Some people just do it nice and easy, nice and sooth.

I was the kind of person who, when I was playing my music and doing my scratches, liked to have a nice soft touch. So when I scratched the record it was a nice clean scratch that didn’t sound distorted. Some people have that rough scratch, so it’s kind of fuzzy and you’re like, “Ow, what is he doing!” I was the kind of person who would study other DJs and make sure that every scratch, mix and blend was nice and smooth. That’s what made my style different from other DJs.

How did it sound different to a crowd? How long would you work a break, things like that?

I would study a break from the beginning to the end. I would never play a break if I couldn’t listen to the whole record. I wanted to play parts of the break that nobody else would play. Like some people would play… See, a break has eight bars. A person would play the break to eight bars, and then they would go back to the beginning and play the eight bars, and then go back to the beginning and play the eight bars. What I would do, I would play the first four bars, then go back, play the first four bars, go back, play the first four bars, go back, play the first two bars, go back, play the first two bars, go back and play the first two bars. I wanted to be different.

I’d play the first eight bars, let it go back to the eight bars, then play the first four bars, go back, the first four bars, go back, then play the first two, go back, first two, go back, and just play the one bar. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam!

Basically, you’re altering the rhythm.

Right. I would play with the whole break. Now if a break had 16 bars, oh boy! I would play the first eight bars, go back, play the first eight bars, go back, play the 16 bars, go back, play the 16 bars. I would probably then just play 10 bars, go back, play 10 bars, go back, then five bars, four bars, three, two and then one. One, one, one, one, one, one, like that. That’s how I made myself different from other DJs.

The thing you’re most known for is inventing scratching. How did that come about?

Grandmaster Flash, he had a vision of scratching records, but he couldn’t really present it to the people because he didn’t know how to tell his mind to tell his fingers to present it to the people.

What, you mean he had a vision, he thought of it?

He didn’t actually think of it. He wanted to change the way people played music. But Flash, he liked the backspin – spin the record back to the part you want.

But he would never do that so that you could hear it spinning backwards? The crowd would never hear it?

Exactly, that was the key. I was the kind of person where I would just hold the record. I would hold the record and scratch it. He would backspin the record and hit it, which made it different. I wouldn’t call it a scratch. He calls it the clock theory.

So the audience would hear the backspin?


They would just hear the break going from one to the other?

But you wouldn’t know how the break got back to the beginning of the break.

Whereas you would let them know how you did it?

Exactly. That’s what made everything different.

So where was the inspiration for that?

Well, I used to come home from school, practice and try to get new ideas. This particular day I was playing music a little bit too loud. And my mom comes and says, “If you don’t turn that music down!” My earphones were still on and while she was cursing me out in the doorway, I was still holding the record and my hand was going like this [back and forth] with the record. And when she left I was like, “What is this?” So I studied it and studied it and studied it for a couple of months, until I actually figured out what I wanted to do with it. Then that’s when it became a scratch.

So your mom invented it?

Yeah, God bless my mama!

Can you remember when that was?

That was like, 1975, ’76, because that’s when we formed our own group and that’s when I started scratching. Everybody was like [gasps]. If you know a record, and you hear a record and you hear a part going, “bam, bam bam,” you walk over to the turntables and go, “What the hell is that?” Everybody was astonished about what I was doing.

What were people’s reactions like?

People were dancing and then when I started scratching, everybody would stop dancing and walk up to the front of the stage to try to see what the hell is I was doing: the arm movement and the cross-fader going back and forth. Everybody was like, “Wow!”

Did anybody ever really freak out and just not get it?

Yeah, they’d be screaming out. Imagine listening to your favorite record and I’m going ba-bam, ba-bam, ba-bam, ba-bam, ba-ba bam bam. They’d be like, “Wow”. It was like the talk of the town. Every time we gave a party, it was like, “Yo you gotta go see this guy, he’s like scratching the record.” Our crowd really increased because everybody was talking about this little short guy Grand Wizard Theodore. Every time we gave a party it was a humungous crowd.

Where were your parties?

We were doing parties at this place called The Sparkle, in the Bronx, under the train station. We would throw parties in the recreation rooms of the projects all around. We were doing parties in high schools. They would let us rent out the high school at the weekend. That was basically the only thing that we did until we started coming down here to the clubs, like the Roxy, Danceteria, stuff like that.

What was the first downtown gig you played?

1980, I think. That was when I really started coming downtown to throw parties.

Why did it take so long to come downtown?

That’s a good question. My theory is that when you associate hip-hop, it’s with breakdancing and graffiti. A lot of people didn’t want that inside their clubs. They wanted people to come to their clubs in nice suits and shoes…

To spend lots of money. They knew it was going on but didn’t want it.

They wouldn’t want to see nobody on the side breakdancing, or doing graffiti, or anything like that. What they wanted was mature crowds inside their parties – people with nice jackets on and shoes and slacks. As time went by it was making such a big roar that they had no other choice but to do it. That was one of the scenes they had in Wild Style – the scene where they went downtown, they were in the art gallery and everybody was there with their champagne glasses. That’s how it was. So after a while went by they had no choice but to have it there. That’s my theory.

When it moved downtown it was the first step in going global. Are you surprised how hip-hop has grown?

To be honest with you I am surprised. A lot of people from the old school would say, “No, I’m not surprised – I knew it was gonna happen.” No, no, no! I did not know it would happen. The only thing that concerned me was playing music for the people, making sure that they came to the party and had a good time. Making sure they heard their favorite record. That was the only thing that satisfied me. I didn’t get into it for the money. I mean the money was coming, but the money and the girls, I didn’t get into it for that. I got into it because I wanted people to come to my parties and hear me play my music, have a good time and forget about work, the hard day you had at school or the week you’d had. Your parents probably stressed you out or whatever, your girlfriend stressed you out. I just want you to come to my party and have a good time and let me relieve your stress.

Were people aware that they were partying in a different way to the rest of the world?

No, they weren’t aware of that.

But they were. That’s the amazing thing.

The Sugar Hill Gang - Rapper's Delight

As time went by people were like, “Woah, this hip-hop thing is really taking off.” I mean, when “Rapper’s Delight” came out I was like, “Woah, they put this on vinyl! I think something is really about to happen.”

Was that the moment when you realized?

Yeah, once they put it on vinyl. Then they started playing it on the radio and everything and it really picked up. As time went by things started changing. They started coming in with the beat machines and everything like that. People started doing shows with DATs and it totally changed.

Do you agree that the DJ has been pushed to one side by the way that hip-hop’s gone? That it has become a producer-led, rapper led thing, and the art form of DJing, which is the thing that created it, has almost been pushed to one side?

To be honest with you, yes. Back when I first started, the DJ was the guy with the records. He had the amps, he had the speakers, he had the microphones ¬– he had everything. The MC or the rapper or whatever you wanna call him, all he had to do was show up at the party, jump on the mic and you’d play a beat for him. That’s it. That’s all he had to do.

When it was time to go home and pack the equipment up, the DJ would pack up his records, his amps, his turntables, his mixer, his microphone, his speakers and go home. All the rapper had to do was go home to his house and probably write some rhymes and go to the DJ’s house and practice. The DJ sets the tone for the party. If a rapper wants to throw a party, he doesn’t have any records, he doesn’t have any speakers, he doesn’t have any turntables, he doesn’t have any amps and so the DJ is the person who sets the tone for everything. That’s why I like today. I don’t care what anyone says, the best producer is the DJ. Like DJ Premier, he’s a DJ. Kid Capri, he’s a DJ, he’s a good producer.

What are the skills that cross over from being a DJ to a producer?

The skill that you need is to know exactly what the crowd wants. Because you’re a DJ, you sit there, you look at the crowd and you know exactly what you should play next. Another thing: you have to know how to keep the beat. You have to know how to keep the tempo going. You can’t mix records all night and skip a beat. If you skip a beat, everybody will walk off the dancefloor and then you’ll have to work your way back up to get everybody back.

That’s what makes a DJ a good producer, because he knows what the crowd wants and knows what the crowd wants to hear. He knows what record to play, how long to play it for and when to play it. See, I have my 12 o’clock music, which is music I only play after 12 o’clock. That’s when everybody’s had their beer and they’re hyped up. Everybody’s in the party and that’s when you start playing the really, really hot records. That’s why I say the DJ is the best producer. I can’t get around it. Like Dr. Dre, he was a DJ. Jermaine Dupri was a DJ.

Did you always have MCs?

No. The only time a person would get on the mic was to say, “Oh, we got so and so in the house,” and, “How y’all doin tonight?” Maybe, “Throw your hands in the air,” or “Clap your hands.” That was it. “Oh yo, the guy with the black van, you gotta move your car, somebody’s tryin’ to get out,” something like that. Those were basically the only things that were said over the mic.

When did that change?

Grandmaster Flash said, “The only thing you say on the mic is clap your hands and throw your hands in the air. This person over here, that person over there, this person’s in the house, that person’s in the house.” So he wrote a rhyme and tried to get everybody to say the rhyme, but nobody wanted to say the rhyme. I don’t care what anybody says, I think Grandmaster Flash was the first person to write a rhyme. He actually sat down in a corner, wrote a rhyme and tried to get his MCs to say it.

Can you remember it?

Oh yeah! “Dip dive, socialize, try to make you realize that we are qualified to rectify and hypnotize that burning desire to boogie y’all.” That’s exactly what he wrote. He couldn’t get anybody to say it, so he got on the microphone and he said it himself. Everybody was like, “Wow, wow”. I think it was incredible that he did that.

So before that, it was just people hyping up the crowd?


But what about DJs like Hollywood and Eddie Cheba?

They were doing rhymes like, “It’s on, it’s on, it’s on, it’s on, like a hot buttered oven say what the popcorn.” Another was like, “Ladies over here, fellas over there, hotel, motel, you won’t tell, I won’t tell, Let’s go y’all.” It was stuff like that. “Let’s take a ride in an OJ.” An OJ was a cab service, if you wanna ride around in a really nice cab you would call OJ and they would pick you up in a nice Chrysler, or a nice Chevrolet, or a Cadillac.

Was that named after the radio DJ, Eddie OJ?

I wouldn’t know. We used to take OJs down here to midtown Manhattan to see the karate movies. They had three karate moivies for like a dollar 50. So we used to ride down here and just walk around and watch karate movies. Take an OJ ride through Central Park and just come down here for like 15 dollars.

Your point about their rhymes was that they were very simple, yes?

Very simple. “Clap your hands and stomp your feet, move to the sounds of the disco beat.” If you see all your friends there in the party, they’d be like, “Oh Joey’s in the house. And Susan’s in the house. And Mary’s in the house,” and just do that all night long. And “clap your hands to the beat,” stuff like that.

Were you using disco breaks as well as funk breaks?

The Commodores - Brick House

Oh yes. Like Van McCoy records, Salsoul Orchestra records, Barry White records, so many. Who else? The Commodores “Brick House,” Mass Production, Brass Construction, Rick James, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, George Benson. There were so, so many.

To take you right back, who was your inspiration?

Well, there weren’t too many DJs when I was starting out. There was Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Flowers, DJ Kool D, Disco King Mario and Mario’s brother Boogie Man. But my inspiration was Afrika Bambaataa, because his record collection was just incredible. It didn’t matter what he played. He would play the B52s and everybody in the party would be going crazy. He would play Rolling Stones records, Aerosmith and Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz records, rock records, Quiet Riot… he would just play so many records until there’s no limits to the breaks.

So I would say my inspirations were Afrika Bambaataa and my brother Mean Gene, because he’s really the person who got me into this. And my mother, because I had the type of family where we would all get together, either in my uncle’s house, aunt’s house or grandmother’s house, and just listen to music. My uncles and my grandfather, they would just sit around and drink their beers and play cards. As kids we would just be dancing and having a good time. I mostly grew up listening to music.

What kind of records did your parents listen to?

My parents listened to a wide variety of records. They listened to Van McCoy, a lot of jazz, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, all the Motown records, stuff like that. My family liked mostly blues.

Is your family from the Caribbean?

No, my family is from the Carolinas. A lot of people ask that.

A lot of DJs had Caribbean roots. Flash’s family is from Barbados and DJ Kool Herc is Jamaican, for example.

I think Afrika Bambaataa’s family is from the West Indies, too.

Do you think those roots were an influence on them as DJs? The sound systems were very big in Jamaica…

I remember when I first went to a DJ Kool Herc party. I heard the bass bottoms, I mean… He would play a record that you listened to every day and you would be like, “Wow, that record has bells in it?” It’s like you hear instruments in the record that you never thought the record even had. And the bass was like, “Whumm!” Incredible! So it made you listen to a record and appreciate it even more.

Herc says that he remembers the sound systems in Jamaica and they were his inspiration.

The sound systems they have in Jamaica, I couldn’t begin to explain to you… These guys, they could play Yankee Stadium and they’d be told to turn the music down, because the sound is so intense. They like a lot of bass in their music and that bass will make the hairs on your skin just stand up.

Did people in New York know about reggae and reggae sound systems?

No, only a small amount of people knew. Only the people that were actually Jamaican knew about the sound systems. But as time went by and people started to see guys playing Jamaican music in the park, they’d be like, “Wow,” because all reggae music has that heavy bass. It’s like people didn’t know unless they were exposed to it.

Who thought of hooking the sound systems up through the light poles?

I’m not an electrician and even today I don’t mess with no light poles, but it’s very simple. If there is electricity coming out of something, all you have to do is just open it up, look for the main wires, hook a main socket up to it, screw the socket in and a socket has two outlets on it. Sometimes it would blow the light pole out because it wouldn’t be hooked up the right way. Sometimes, if you hooked it up wrong, and you plugged the turntables in, the turntables would go backwards. That meant that you’d done it wrong. You’d have to go back in and do it over again. Switch the wires around and your turntables would go round the right way.

Did the cops ever come?

Of course. They’d say, “You’re stealing from the pole, you’re stealing from the city, cut the music off!” It got to the point where people would do it and they would cut the music off at a certain time. So the cops were like, “If these guys are in the park playing music and the streets are quiet and there’s nothing going on, let them stay in the park.” Once they come and break the party up and everyone goes back onto the streets, that’s when they start getting the calls again about guys on the corner smoking reefer, playing dice or selling drugs. But whenever there was a block party in the park, it was nice and quiet for the police officers.

People said it was at that time when the guys died down.

A lot of guys were going to jail and a lot of guys were getting killed. A lot of people were getting mature, having kids. So it was like you gotta change your life. Once you have a kid and once you see all your friends go to jail, or get shot for gang activity, sooner or later you’re gonna wake up and say, “Hey, if I don’t try to do something with my life right now, I’m gonna end up like my friends.” So a lot of guys were trying to get a job and trying to do the right thing in life. People mostly matured, they matured and finally had to take charge of their life.

Even now, you have young DJs that are practicing, they live with their moms, and they be practicing a whole eight hours. We’ll probably be at work because we have to pay our bills. So we’re at work getting money to pay for our kids and these guys are at home practicing eight, nine hours a day. When they get exposed to a DJ contest these guys are incredible. My son is 14 years old now. I told him, “You don’t want to be a DJ because you won’t want to go through what I went through.” I went through a lot man, to be where I am now. It’s like 23 years for me now. I’m 35 years old, I’ll be 36 in March.

Does your son want to be a DJ?

I think he’s learning to be a producer, because anyone can be a DJ. Ray Charles could be a DJ, you know! I never thought, not in a million years, that this would turn into this.

Did you feel that you were a musician, that you were creating music?

Cheryl Lynn - Got to Be Real

Yes, because there came a time where I would play the instrumental of a hip-hop record and play the vocal of an R&B record. I’d mix them together and everybody would be like, “Wow!” I had these two records locked together where you could snap your fingers to it. I would play Cheryl Lynn’s “To Be Real,” because when it gets to the middle it has the musical part for about a minute and a half, and I would probably play a Chaka Khan record that had mostly vocals to it and mix them both together. Everybody would be like, “Wow, how is that possible?”

Did DJs at the parties quickly get respect for being creative people that weren’t just playing other people’s records?

I learned from other people’s mistakes and it made me a better DJ. It made my crowd broader and when I started playing at Danceteria, I started playing Pat Benatar and Queen and all that.

Did you play regularly at the Danceteria?


When was that?

It was in the early 1980s.

Was that before the Roxy?

It was mostly the same year. We went to the Roxy, Negril, Danceteria, Octagon – all of the places down here in midtown Manhattan. Once I experienced that, I didn’t want to experience anything else, because the crowd was incredible. They really appreciated it. Everybody came to party. There were no fights. I mean, step on somebody’s foot, they’d say, “I’m sorry.” Back where I’m from, if you stepped on somebody’s foot, they’d want to fight. If you looked at somebody’s girlfriend, they wanted to fight you. Aw, come on, that’s petty.

How long did you play at Danceteria?

I did it for four or five years off and on, then we just started playing at different places. More and more clubs were opening up and we started circulating throughout the city.

Did you go on any of the early hip-hop tours?

The first tour I went on, we took the Funky Four Plus One More on Sugarhill. They were the first rap group on Saturday Night Live. They did a record called “Rappin’ And Rockin’ The House.” When they went on Saturday Night Live, we took their place on the tour. We went to Savannah Georgia, Washington DC and somewhere else.

What was the reaction like?

Oh my goodness. That was the first time I ever played for 5,000 to 6,000 people. I was really amazed. I had a really good time. Each group came on and it was really nice.

Did the people outside of New York have any idea of what to expect? Did they know what you were going to sound like?

Un-unh. We were the only artists on the Sugarhill label that didn’t have a record, so we opened up for everybody. When we opened up, they were like, “ These guys are good.” They were shouting our name out, to put us back on again. They didn’t know that we were one of the original old school groups, because we never had a record out. They saw that we got up on stage and were doing dance steps and routines. We were dressed with white gloves and tuxedos and our little gangster hats on. They were like, “These guys, their show is really, really tight.”

Our show was just as good as the shows of those guys that had records out. The crowd was like, “We want these guys to come on again – their show was really raw!” When Flash and them came on, you knew what record they were gonna do. When Sugarhill Gang came on, they were gonna do “Rapper’s Delight” sooner or later. But when we came on, they didn’t know what we were gonna do. We just came on and did our routines. We had so much experience. We practiced all the time and our show was really, really tight. We were always thinking of ideas, dance steps.

Let’s go back to the Cold Crush Brothers battle. On the tape, you can hear what everyone was saying on the mic, but what were you guys doing on stage?

At that particular place, Harlem World, the DJ booth was apart from the stage. The DJ couldn’t really play behind the MCs. The MCs were on the stage there and the DJ booth was like way up there on top. So if you had a show, you had to make sure your show was really tight, because…

You couldn’t communicate very easily?

The MC couldn’t say, “Turn the music down,” or anything like that. I knew when to turn the music down, I knew when to bring the next record in, and everything came together perfectly.

What were they doing on stage?

T-Ski Valley - Catch The Beat

When I dropped a certain record by the Commodores, they would do a dance step off that record. I would play “Catch the Beat” by T-Ski Valley and they would do more dance steps. Once the whole group was on the stage, I would play instrumental breaks that had different instruments in that they could do their dance steps to. Then once we did that, the whole group would do a song together, and then two members of the group would do a chant, and the other three members of the group would do the rap. And then the chant comes in and then the rap, and the chant...

What were they wearing that night?

We had tuxedos on, with the bow ties. Three guys had sky blue tuxedos and two guys had burgundy tuxedos. The two guys in the middle would be wearing sky blue, the guy in the middle would be in burgundy and the two guys on the end would be wearing burgundy. Everybody was wearing white gloves and the way it blended together was really, really incredible. Before that we went through a phase where we were wearing leathers and spikes.

The tuxedo thing: did you get that from the old street corner doo-wop groups?

One of the members of my group, his father sang for the Chi-Lites. So he used to go to all the shows. He said, “My pops and them, they used to do dance steps on the stage, they used to wear tuxedos and gloves. We can’t just get on the stage and just rap, we’ve got to give them a show.”

Who was that?

Kevvy Kev, Waterbed Kev and Master Rob, they were brothers. And their father was down with the Chi-Lites. They used to go to all the shows and do all of our dance steps. Everything came together beautifully. It was really incredible.

Can you remember the first time you went to DJ overseas?

We went to Japan when we did Wild Style.

To promote Wild Style?

Yes. I wanted to live there. That was my first experience and I was like, “I’m staying.” That was my first time on a plane, too. I never thought that being a DJ would take me around the world.

Where did you play in Japan?

It was like a civic center, a big round dome. It had a stage in the middle and when the groups got on the stage, it would revolve around 360 degrees.

How did the crowd react?

The crowd went crazy. They wanted to break the barricades. I felt like the Beatles or some shit. And the girls, they were wild! They were all over the place.

Changing tack, are there still block parties in New York?



It depends on the area. You can’t just put on any block party in the Bronx. Tenant associations can sponsor a party for their block and use the money to give kids school supplies, stuff like that. But most block parties, you can’t do it unless you have a permit. If you don’t the cops will come and lock you and your equipment up, and when you get your equipment back it wouldn’t be in the same condition as when they took it. I only do licensed block parties now.

Do you think that old school stuff is coming back?

Yeah, because you can’t know where hip-hop is going until you know where it’s been. People have to be educated in what happened in the early days before people started making records. See back in the day, we never said, “That girl’s a bitch, that girl’s a ho.” That was a no-no back in the day. What are you calling a girl a bitch for? That’s like calling your mother or your sister something like that. We never got on the mic and said we’re gonna shoot somebody.

This interview was conducted on October 2, 1998 at the Olive Garden restaurant in Times Square, New York City. © DJ History.

By Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton on March 3, 2017

On a different note