Hip-hop at 50: How DJs evolved as creative force shaping music and culture

Fifty years ago, during a party at an apartment building in the Bronx, hip-hop was born. That seminal night sparked a globally respected genre that has touched almost every aspect of popular culture – and it all started with a technique created by a DJ.

Through the decades, disc jockeys have evolved from background figures to a creative force shaping hip-hop music and culture.

As hip-hop marks its 50th anniversary, ABC News is taking a look back at the history of the culture through the lens of some of its most recognizable aspects, including the emergence of West Coast rap, breakdancing and graffiti art.

But for pioneering DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, whose real name is Theodore Livingston, it goes much deeper than that.

PHOTO: Scratching is demonstrated by legendary Grand Wizzard Theodore, the DJ widely credited as the inventor of the technique.

Scratching is demonstrated by legendary Grand Wizzard Theodore, the DJ widely credited as the inventor of the technique.

ABC News

“The way people talk, the way people walk, the different slangs and stuff like that, the music that we listen to. I realized that I was born into a culture and to an art form that we call hip-hop,” Livingston told ABC News.

As a 12-year-old kid in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, Livingston created scratching – moving a record back and forth on the turntable to produce the sound that is now one of the most recognizable DJing techniques.

“My principal played music in the loudspeakers. So a friend of mine’s convinced my principal to let me make a cassette tape. So I went home, took my big boombox, put in front of the speaker, press record, and I started making my cassette tape. And the music was so loud in the house to the point where my moms came and banged on the door and said, ‘Either turn the music down or turn the music off,’” Livingston said.

“So when my moms came in the room, that’s what my scratch was. And I said, wow, I can incorporate that into other things that I’m doing,” Livingston said.

The introduction of scratching became a defining moment for hip-hop and paved the way for future DJs to explore and innovate. Through the 1970s, iconic DJs expanded on Livingston’s techniques by experimenting with new ways to manipulate vinyl records on the turntables. There’s the faster scribble scratch and the slower dragon scratch – both of which incorporated and solidified elements of rhythm into the music, according to DJ Dirty Digits, instructor at New York’s Scratch DJ Academy.

Scratching joined other iconic techniques like the merry-go-round, which looped the instrumental breakdown in records, made popular by hip-hop founding father DJ Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash’s “quick mix theory” used scratching, back spinning and beat juggling – as demonstrated in the 1986 documentary “Big Fun in the Big Town.”

Grandmaster Flash circa, 1980.

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Flash’s innovation eventually attracted a few MCs. Together, they formed one of the first rap groups in hip-hop history – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

As hip-hop gained popularity in the 1980s, the art of the DJ spread beyond the Bronx and found its way into mainstream culture. DJs were no longer just playing records, but also took center stage and added their unique flare to the genre.

Nyla Symone, the youngest DJ on Power 105 in New York City, is part of a new generation carrying the torch and seeing the latest evolution in the art form.

“Shoutout to technology for digital music and Serato [DJ production software], because if I had to carry crates, I wouldn’t be a DJ. Like, I don’t have time to do all that. No, carrying all that – no thank you,” Symone said.

PHOTO: DJ Nyla Symone is shown during an interview with ABC News Live.

DJ Nyla Symone is shown during an interview with ABC News Live.

ABC News

“My downloading music process and discovering new music process is definitely just searching. I don’t really care about it having the thousands of views or, you know, x amount of followers. If the song is dope, I’mma spin it, you know what I mean?” Symone said.

DJ Ebro Darden, who emerged in the 2000s at the legendary New York radio station Hot 97, spoke to ABC News about the importance of radio in hip-hop’s emergence.

“I think you have to start with culture first. Black folks, we didn’t see ourselves on television, and the mainstream news isn’t covering our neighborhoods and covering our stories. The DJ was still a part of that kind of curation, taste-making, you know, moment,” Darden said.

Modern technology helped to usher in the art form known as turntablism for people like DJ Perly, who is the first woman to win the annual U.S. DMC DJ battle twice.

”It gets me speechless in a good way, because I never thought I was going to be the one to be that woman to do the groundbreaking, glass-ceiling shattering moment, for sure,” DJ Perly told ABC News.

The Bronx native credits the women who came before her with paving the way to the turntables, like Jazzy Joyce, Cocoa Chanelle and Spinderella.

Now, the focus is on the future, as legends like Grand Wizzard Theodore give lessons at Scratch DJ Academy, inspiring the next generation.

“I think I’m the oldest employee here. It just feels good to be able to come here and people see me and learn how to scratch from the person that invented the scratch. So, it feels real good,” he said.

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