This song is about John "Mr. Magic" Rivas, who ran the "Rap Attack" show when he was a disc jockey on the radio station WBLS in New York City starting in 1982. The story of the song is also the story of how Whodini formed.
In 1979, before coming to WBLS, Rivas started "Mr. Magic's Disco Showcase" on the Newark station WHBI, where he paid for the airtime and made money by selling commercials on the show, which aired twice a week at 2 a.m., but developed a following because it was the only show playing Hip-Hop in the area.
At WHBI, an upstart rapper from Brooklyn named Jalil Hutchins interned on the show, mostly helping Mr. Magic by answering phones. He wrote a song for Rivas called "Magic's Wand," but wanted another voice on it. He asked a rival rapper called Ecstasy (John Fletcher) for help with the song, and when they were finished, Rivas not only played the song on his show, but made it his theme song.
After running on Mr. Magic's show for about two years, "Magic's Wand" got the attention of Jive Records, a London-based record label looking for rap acts in America. They signed the duo and had them re-record the song with Thomas Dolby - the same guy who did "She Blinded Me With Science."
Jive named the act Whodini because of the song (Harry Houdini did magic - get it?), and they added a DJ for the sake of live appearances - a frequent caller to the Rap Attack show who went by Grandmaster Dee (Drew Carter). Thus Whodini was born.
"Magic's Wand" was co-written and produced by a young Thomas Dolby. He told us how it came together: "In the early days when I first came into the States, I used to go clubbing a lot in the New York area. And I'd become aware of a new sort of crossover sound that Afrika Bambaataa had started when he sampled Kraftwerk. And Kraftwerk had always been one of my electronic heroes. It just seemed very bizarre that clubs in the south Bronx, people were dancing to these German aristocrats, and I just thought that was a great connection there. So it was exciting, there was clearly something exciting going on there."
Dolby hooked up with Whodini after sending his demo tape to the music publisher Zomba, who had launched the label Jive Records. Whodini was one of the acts on the label, and Zomba put Dolby together with the New York rap trio.
The video for this song was the first one Jive Records made for one of their American acts. It was predictably ignored by MTV, which was avoiding rap at the time, but made an impact on local shows like New York Hot Tracks and Video Music Box. The first Hip-Hop videos were made by Sugar Hill Records for a few of their acts, including The Sugarhill Gang ("Rapper's Delight") and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five ("The Message"), but this may have been the first rap video produced by a different label. Note that only two members of the group appear in the video: Jalil and Ecstasy. Grandmaster Dee hadn't joined yet.