Blow by blow with Kurtis
A chat with the rap legend
Story by Gregg McQueen
When it comes to being a pioneer, Kurtis Blow has got it covered.
The Harlem-born legend was the first rapper signed to a major record label, the first to embark on a national concert tour, and notched the first gold record in rap history with The Breaks in 1980.
Several decades into his career, Blow is still forging new ground. He will serve as guest MC for The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a unique twist on the classic holiday ballet that combines Tchaikovsky’s famous score with modern hip hop dancing.
The show takes place at United Palace in Washington Heights on December 7, with a second show just added for December 13.
Blow will also perform a set of his classic songs, which include “Basketball” and “If I Ruled The World,” prior to the show.
Recently, Blow chatted with The Manhattan Times/The Bronx Free Press about the United Palace project, his musical legacy and the hip hop museum he hopes to see created in the Bronx.
How did you first get involved with The Hip Hop Nutcracker?
I got a phone call from Mike Fitelson (United Palace of Cultural Arts Executive Director), who said he had a great idea for this unique play, a spinoff of the classic Nutcracker ballet that is done with break dancing. I just had to be a part of this thing. I was so excited to hear that hip hop is still evolving and growing, and is malleable enough to take this step. It’s really a fun project.
What’s interesting about this project is that you have the chance to give younger audiences, who might identify more readily with hip hop, an appreciation of classical music and ballet. At the same time, you might turn some classical music buffs into fans of hip hop.
You’re right; it’s a win-win situation. We have the classic Tchaikovsky piece slipped into this hip hop presentation. We have the best of both worlds, fusing together to create some enjoyable entertainment. It will be something truly special for the audience to see.
You’ll be rapping an introduction to the show, and performing some of your famous songs as well?
Yes. I’ll get the people into the mood by going back in time to the old school. We actually recreate a New Year’s Eve celebration, and then the play opens up.
The intro is a new rap song that you wrote just for the show?
Yes, I wrote a new song called “New Year’s Eve Rap” and I’ll be debuting it this weekend.
As one of the iconic artists of old-school rap, how does it feel to see hip hop influencing all these other classic art forms?
I think it’s wonderful, and I think what hip hop was intended for is to be a part of culture. Whenever you have different art forms coming together, it transcends boundaries. We have come of age and we truly live in a hip hop generation.
When you first began your music career, did you ever think that you’d still be doing it all these years later?
Oh man, it’s a blessing to still be able to do it. Just to have good enough health to be able to do it is a blessing and I thank God every day for it.
About how many shows do you perform in a year?
I’d say maybe 100 to 150. I’m working a lot.
Who were some of the musical artists that you looked up to and were influenced by?
James Brown was my all-time favorite, my hero. Number two would be Jimmy Castor. I loved the Motown sound, Jackson 5. I’m a Seventies kid, so my influences come from the Seventies.
Could you talk about your role as a minister? I understand that you’re involved in something called the Hip Hop Church.
There are probably more than 60 hip hop churches around the country. It’s a musical youth ministry, and a great way to get the kids to come to church. It’s all in the presentation. The church is still all about Jesus, but it’s got a hip hop swagger to it. I think that’s the best kind of rap that you can do, is when you rap about God. When Jesus was preaching thousands of year ago, he taught sermons that people could relate to, much like rappers speak to people today. I think that if Jesus was around today, he’d be a rapper.
There’s an effort underway to build a Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx by 2017. I know you’ve done some fundraising shows for it. How else have you been involved?
I’m one of the founders of the museum, and we’re working hard trying to get this thing off the ground. Right now we’re raising awareness about the fact that there should be a museum where we can store some of our artifacts and keep the history intact, and support the future of this culture.
I’m working along with Rocky Bucano — he’s a great guy, a DJ from back into the old days — who will be the president of the museum, along with folks like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel and loads of supporters who are helping us. We’re trying to get funded and get the museum off the ground.
Are there still plans to house the museum at the ice center being built at the Kingsbridge Armory site?
That’s been the talk, but it’s still up in the air. We have another site in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium that we’ve been looking at too.
Can you talk about the importance of having a museum for hip hop, and about whether it should be in the Bronx?
Definitely. Hip hop was founded in the Bronx, so it needs to be there. We’re working very hard right now on the virtual form of the museum, which is currently a website [www.uhhm.org] where people can go and see what we’ll be offering at the physical location in the future.
Do you enjoy listening to modern rap artists?
Yeah, I’m a fan. I like the newer styles. A lot of older rappers don’t like the newer sound where they take the drums out and it’s just like hand claps or finger snaps. But I love it. And I enjoy people like Jay-Z, ASAP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa; I like a lot of things.
When you’re performing, how does it feel to see fans still responding so dramatically to your most popular songs?
I think it’s awesome. It’s incredible that after all these years, the songs never really get old. Just the other day, a friend of mine who’s a promoter was out with a hip hop artist over in Switzerland, and the DJ threw on “The Breaks,” and he said the crowd went crazy. After 35 years, it’s awesome that that’s still the case. For me, it’s an honor to still get that response. I was there when hip hop first started. I’m just honored that I’ve been able to see hip hop from its beginnings until now, and what it’s going to be in the future.
Where do you see hip hop going from here?
I see a fusion of styles happening. More rappers are singing, more singers are trying to rap. There is a huge rap culture in Europe now too. Back in the day, everyone rapped in English, and people used to come from Europe and tell me, “I learned how to speak English from listening to “The Breaks!” Now if you travel outside of America, they rap in their own language. Other countries have embraced hip hop and have made their own culture.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker will take place at United Palace, 4140 Broadway, on Sun., Dec. 7, at 6 p.m., and Sat., Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. Doors open one hour before showtime.
For tickets ($10-$100), go to at www.unitedpalacearts.org or call 866-811-4111.
General admission tickets are available on day of show for $25 and $15.