Hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow has a little tip for all those aspiring young music minds out there.
“You take a classic song, and you flip it and modernize it,” he says. “If it was a hit back then, it will be a hit today. That’s the basic strategy of ‘The Breaks’ [the first-ever certified gold record rap song].”
In the case of “The Breaks,” Blow was actually pulling from “an old philosophy record” from the 1920s, which he took and made his own. Now nearly four decades after the release of his 1980 classic, the esteemed New York City emcee is still spreading the good word of hip-hop, just in a slightly different way.
On Friday, Dec. 7, Blow will appear as emcee of The Hip Hop Nutcracker—a re-imagined rendition of the age-old holiday show. A contemporary dance spectacle set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music, the touring presentation includes a dozen all-star dancers, an on-stage DJ, and an electric violinist. Digital graffiti and visuals also alter the setting of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale from traditional 19th century Germany to a vibrant and contemporary New York City.
Before The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s stop in Indianapolis, our Seth Johnson chatted with Blow about Drake, Rum-DMC, and the divisive times we currently live in. Read their full conversation below.
NUVO: What was it like being a rapper when you first started out in the late ‘70s?
KURTIS BLOW: Back in the day, meeting people was really a joy and a pleasure. You had to have the right attitude. We were coming from the South Bronx and Harlem. We got this opportunity to meet people and travel all around, so it was a great time.
Most of the time, I was met with open arms. Everyone loved hip-hop. It was fresh, new, energetic, vibrant, and from the hood. So everyone wanted it to succeed it seems like. We had the naysayers, of course, but they were few and far between. Nine times out of 10, it was all good.
NUVO: I know you were pretty important to Run-DMC’s success. Can you tell me about the relationship you had with them in those early days of hip-hop?
BLOW: Run actually started his career as a Son of Kurtis Blow. He became my protégé. During that time, if you were well known, you had a younger protégé, and we called them the Son. Like, the Son of Hollywood was DJ Smalls. The Son of Afrika Bambaataa was Afrika Islam. So I was looking for my protégé and ran into Joey Simmons, who was the younger brother of Russell Simmons. Russell and I were friends during that time, and that’s how I met his younger brother. His younger brother became incredibly good. He was very talented as an emcee.
The story is…I made him my DJ when I put out “Christmas Rappin’.” We were traveling around and just rockin’ the crowds. And then, Joey breaks his arm. He was playing basketball down the street with one of his friends from the neighborhood. This guy named Jason Mizell, who later on turned into Jam Master Jay. He broke his arm so he couldn’t go out on tour with me. I was going out on tour with The Commodores in 1980. It was this big, humongous tour with 100 shows all around the country.
He wanted to go, and his dad said, “No, you can’t go on tour. You broke your arm.” So I went out on tour and came back four months later. Joey had started his own rap group with the guy who helped break his arm, Jason Mizell, and this other guy Darryl McDaniels. They formed this group Run-DMC. So the truth of the matter is there would be no Run-DMC if Joey didn’t break his arm. [laughs]
NUVO: There are now so many different styles and sounds that make up the hip-hop genre.
BLOW: That’s one of the things I figured out in college. I majored in a field that I thought was relative to hip-hop, which was communications. Being a rapper [is like] speech broadcasting. In all of these speech classes, I came up with the analogy that raps are like speeches. You have your intro, body, and conclusion. And then, I put them in categories.
A demonstrative speech is one that’s informative. It explains different subjects like basketball or Christmas. Then, you have political speeches. You have your inspirational speeches, inspiring people to have a good time, like party time rap. An extemporaneous speech is one that’s not prepared. It’s off the cuff, and that’s the same as a freestyle rap. So I took raps and put them all in these boxes. That became the rap philosophy that still stands true to this day.
NUVO: What current hip-hop artists are you excited about?
BLOW: I love so many rappers of today. Kendrick Lamar, Future, Chance the Rapper, Common, Nas. Big shout out to Drake. Drake is doing his thing. I think he is the top rapper of today. Of course, I’ve gotta shout out Jay-Z. He’s a great businessman and an incredible rapper as well. Everybody is doing their thing, and I just want to show love. We live in a generation where hip-hop is the No. 1 music of the world. It’s an incredible hip-hop nation that we live in.
NUVO: You had your famous song “Basketball.” Are you still a big fan of basketball today?
BLOW: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m a sports fanatic. We have fantasy basketball now. I don’t play for money. I just play for the fun and the love of the game. I’m into stats and have many teams that I like now instead of just one or two.
NUVO: Are you particularly fond of any Indiana Pacers?
BLOW: Oh yeah. Myles Turner is on one of my [fantasy] teams. Doug McDermott is pretty cool too.
NUVO: We live in a very divisive time right now. Being that you’re now a minister, what message do you hope to spread with fans, whether you’re up on stage or not?
BLOW: We need to spread love. With music, film, television, and politics, we’re all being sucked into this big vat of immorality. I think we need to fight and struggle within ourselves to get back to what we were taught by our grandparents. That’s my message.
I have a message to all of my people, African-Americans, out there. We see the war that we are faced against. Racism is at an all-time high, and it’s being exposed now more than ever because of cellphones. I just want to send a message that we need to stand firm with our way of life as a people and choose love. Maybe there is hate out there, and you see hate against you. Don’t let other people’s actions and other people’s way of life dictate your way of life. Because you are hated on doesn’t mean you need to hate back.
NUVO: How did you get involved with The Hip Hop Nutcracker?
BLOW: We have mutual friends. This friend of mine came to one of my shows. After the show, he came up to me and said, “You would be great as a host of The Hip Hop Nutcracker.” So he introduced me. I went over to the rehearsal and saw all the breakdancing and ballet mixed with the DJ and classical music. I said, “Oh my gosh. I have got to be a part of this. This is a good look for hip-hop. It’s a good look for music in general.”
NUVO: What can people expect from the show?
BLOW: People can expect to have a really good time. It’s something for the whole family. It’s something that parents can bring their kids to when they brag about hip-hop and how it was really fun, good, and wholesome back in the day. The play is set in the 1980s. As the host, I come out and get people ready for the play. I take them back in time to those good times of the ‘80s when hip-hop was fun. That’s the whole theme of the play. So get ready for that spirit of joy this holiday season.