Hip-Hop Legend Kurtis Blow: The Interview
A timeless artist and hip-hop legend, Kurtis Blow blazed the trail for early hip-hop artists and continues to carry the torch for hip-hop music in new arenas.
Kurtis Blow was there at the beginning of hip-hop. Without him, the genre may never have become the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. To list off, Blow was the first rapper to sign to a major label, receive a gold record for rap, tour the US and Europe, record a national commercial, create a rap music video, and the first rap millionaire. Today, he is on tour with the production of the Hip-Hop Nutcracker as the show's - what else - emcee.
Blow, known for his songs, "The Breaks", "Basketball", and "If I Ruled the World", is generous in conversation. A man of faith, he speaks freely about his history at the birth of hip-hop as well as his time working as a minister, spreading religion. We caught up with the emcee-orator to talk about his origins in hip-hop, how the genre grew, and what he might have become hadn't it been for the truly American invention.
What was your relationship to music as a young kid?
I was motivated and inspired by my mom. My mom was an avid fan of music and the Motown sound, the Supremes and the Temptations and the Four Tops. Her favorite was Sam Cooke.
I remember even before I learned how to read, going to the record store in Harlem where I grew up. The record stores would have a speaker outside the stores and they would play music and I remember my mom going every week and getting the top-10 records that were in the store. Each record store had their own playlist and their top-10 and she would stay up on it -- she had to have the top-10. She was an avid, avid supporter and fan of music. I tell people all the time that I learned how to read by reading those charts.
When I got a little older, about eight or nine, I became the family DJ. My mom was a great dancer, she used to go out and we used to have house parties. People would come over on the weekend and holidays and birthdays and stuff like that, so I used to walk around the house with my pen and pad and take down requests from everybody there and I'd go to the record player and stack the records up and play the records for everyone.
It started that early?
It started very early, yes. I became a fan of, of course, soul music and, like I said, the Motown sound. My favorite group was the Temptations and I remember James Brown, when I heard James Brown, I just, he became my hero and my favorite of them all. Well, Sam Cooke is my favorite singer, but James Brown was my favorite entertainer. My mom, she didn't like James Brown too much. She said, "He screams too much!"
I studied James Brown in the '60s and when the '70s came around, I definitely supported his greatest hits and I knew all of his great songs. And I knew the revolution that he created and how he changed the drum patterns of music from, you know, the Motown song was predominantly the snare hitting on the 1-2-3-and-the-4. Pop, pop, pop! [Sings]. And then James Brown came up with this revolutionary sound that we now call "Boom-Bap", with the syncopation on the kick drum and the snare. Boom-shhh-bap-tibba-tibba-boom-bap! [Sings].
When I heard that sound, I lost my mind. I just became, like, a James Brown clone, trying to dance like him. My mom used to go out and she was a great dancer, everyone in the neighborhood knew that she loved to dance -- they used to also say, "Hey, Minnie" -- "come on dance for us! Dance for us!" She was humble and would say, "Oh, I can't dance, I can't dance. My sons can dance, look at them!" I had an older brother who used to dance and we used to just do our James Brown moves and everything.
Later on, a couple of years later, it became breakdancing. So, I became a B-boy, dancing to the breaks of James Brown, doing his splits and twists and turns and his footwork and I started breakdancing at an early age.
I remember when I was 13 in the neighborhood, I got a reputation, like, "Kurt can dance, he's good." I remember the older kids from up the block came and got me one time. They had a dance competition and they wanted me to join their crew, so I became a part of the very early first breakdance crew in Harlem, called the Hill Boys. We were from Sugar Hill on the west side of Harlem, so we used to go to the east side back in 1972 to a club called Chuck Center.
We used to dance and compete against each other and it was run by this guy, Chuck Griffin, who had this community center that he turned into a club for kids. He also had a football team and during that time, we all were in sports and stuff and they had this league called the UBA League and the football teams all around Harlem and the Bronx used to compete. And at nighttime it extended into the club situation that Chuck used to have for us. That's my early, early days of breakdancing at 13-, 14-, 15-years old.
Then I ran into DJ Kool Herc when I went to the High School of Music and Arts. I was a full-fledged B-boy by then and some friends of mine had told me, "You have to see this DJ up in the Bronx called Kool Herc." He played all the music that we loved from the '60s and the '70s that had funky breaks. He would play these songs that were obscure soul music but the special part of the music was that it had a break, a funky break, and when the break came that's when everyone did their best dance moves and that's how breakdancing started. Dancing to the breaks of Kool Herc and DJs like that at the Chuck Center and another club called The Factory West, the Twilight Zone up in the Bronx, Claremont Center, and places like that.
How did rapping start for you?
After the years went by, disco came out. Again, that's the kick drum doing four-on-the-floor, the kick drum Boom-boom-boom-boom! So, again, it was that monotonous sound that we call disco and it strayed away from the James Brown sound that we were used to, so a lot of the kids, it was a rebellion to disco.
Kool Herc, when a lot of DJs went to disco and started playing disco music, he stayed with the funky soul music that we grew up on. He enabled us to go off to a place where we could hear what we wanted. At that time it was old school music, everybody else was listening to the Village People - Y.M.C.A, you know. Donna Summer, Patrick Juvet and all the songs that were on the radio during that time and the whole country was going disco crazy. But we stuck with the sound. And it was just, I would say, a revolution to disco, a rebellion to disco.
So, here comes another DJ along that time, around 1976-77, and his name was Grandmaster Flash. Now, Flash understood about the breaks that Kool Herc played and the soul music and how everyone would go crazy when the break would come. They'd do their best dance moves and throw their hands in the air and make a whole lot of noise and scream and stuff when the break came. So, he wanted to find a way to extend that break, because the break was only 15-20 seconds long! We had to wait - Herc would play a whole song and you'd be standing there waiting for the break to come and when the break came then you'd lose your mind, right? But Flash had to figure out a way to extend his breaks.
So, what he did was he went and got the same songs that Herc was playing and instead of playing the whole song, he played just the breaks. He got two copies of the same song, right? And before it went to what we call the wack part, the singing part [Laughs], he would start over the break again and that was the most incredible thing. To hear this, what we call, turntable-ism and the evolution of the DJ. He started out playing the break and then before it ended, he'd play the break again, extending the break, now the break was lasting three-four minutes and that was most incredible. You could listen to the same record in the park for four-five minutes.
We as the emcees, at first, we were a dime a dozen. Emcees, at first, were hired and fired by the DJ. At first, we would go to the DJ's house, collect their equipment, take the equipment to the club, set up the equipment and then at the end of the night, break it down and carry it back to the house. The DJ would let us in free.
If we were good, he'd let us make announcements, like, "Joey you're mom's outside, it's 10 o'clock!" or "Yo, Sam, your car's getting towed!" But when Flash extended the breaks, he gave us the opportunity to make more than announcements. We had to find out something to do, like tell stories, tell jokes. We started rapping.
It was another DJ, by the name of DJ Hollywood, who was the first rhythmic rapper. In the same concept, having eight-ten songs and playing just the break, his DJ was Junebug would play just the break, and he would rap over these breaks with little rhymes, telling stories. It was rhythmic rap. The first guy I heard do it was DJ Hollywood.
He had stuff like, "Throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care! If you're not a square from Delaware or if you got on clean underwear, somebody say, 'Oh Yeah!'" And the crowd responds, "OH YEAH!" Man, he was incredible. I call him the first king of rap.
He was at a club called 371 and they had a line around the corner and everyone would just got and be a part of this thing. So, there was an evolution from the DJ. At first the DJ was the focal point of the party. Yes, he controlled the lights, he controlled the music, he controlled the tempo of the song, he hired and fired the emcees.
But when Hollywood came out, the emcee, there was a changing of the guard, you know? He just had people in stitches. Everyone was going to his club, just to be a part of that crowd response and to hear him rap in rhythm. That was great. Then we had about 25-30 emcees who started rapping.
A lot of the breakdancers, a lot of the B-boys, became rappers. Melly Mel, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, well those emcees were B-boys before they became emcees. And we all made that transition and started rockin' the mic, as they say. That was early, like, 1977-78, early '79. Hollywood got this job at the Apollo playing music in between the groups that were performing. And I'm telling you, he was selling out the Apollo by himself. Everybody was going to see Hollywood!
So, one time the Fatback Band was there and they heard Hollywood and how he rocked the crowd, how the crowd was going crazy, with his style and his rapping, his rhythmic rap. And they went back and did their homework and they got another rapper from Harlem from Lennox Terrace, which is on the east side of Harlem on 145th, a guy buy the name of King Tim III and they did a song called, "Personality Jock", in 1979 and that was widely known as the first hip-hop rap record. It sounded just like Hollywood, though, the same kind of rhymes, the same style. Then, of course, after that, the Sugar Hill Gang in the summer came out with "Rapper's Delight" and that's when it exploded, that explosion of hip-hop around the world. 17 million records, some people say.
Was your ability to emcee a party innate or did you have to develop it?
That was something I developed over the years. Like I said, being a B-boy in '72 and then seeing Herc in 1974, becoming a DJ myself and playing all around, then an emcee around '74-'75 and just studying all the great emcees who were around during that time like Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba, that was my education into becoming an emcee.
So, I was doing seven-eight years before I made my record. Finally, when I got the opportunity to reach the crowds and the masses, it wasn't like I was scared. It was just something that was a part of me already and thank God that I did go through that experience. It enabled me to be successful when I actually started making records.
How did you get the name "Blow", as in Kurtis Blow?
Well, it was something Russell Simmons and I came up with. I came up with this name as a joke, because during that time everyone who was famous or popular during that time had their sons, their protégés, but they called them their sons. The son of Hollywood was DJ Smallz, the son of [Afrika] Bambaataa was Afrika Islam, and so when I went to college and got with my college crew, they wanted me to come out and be the son of Eddie Cheeba, who was a very well known, popular DJ during that time. And we didn't hit it off too well. He didn't want it and I was like, "Well, forget this guy! What am I going to be, Cheeba?"
Cheeba is marijuana, it's a slang term for marijuana. So, what am I going to be, Kurtis Blow or somebody? And everybody laughed and they all started calling me Kurtis Blow. But I was like, "I'm not Kurtis Blow, my name is Kool DJ Kurt - like Kool Herc."
When I went back to the college, everybody started calling me Kurtis Blow and it spread like wildfire. So, I sat down one day and I looked at the dictionary and the word blow. Of course, I didn't want to do it, because, of course, it was a slang term meaning cocaine, but when I looked in the dictionary I found there are 28 meanings to the word blow. Like, blow your horn, blowing with the wind, I'll blow you away. It's a force of power. It actually means a force of power, like a blow to your jaw or your midsection.
Here's one that really, really excited me: to blow means to, like, the flowers, when they blow pollen out of a flower, have you ever seen a flower on TV when it explodes, the creation of life? It means to fertilize, fertilization. And I found out the Egyptian God Osiris was the creator of fertilization, the creation of life. And I was like, "Wow, that's incredible!"
So, that's why I did it. Because of the multiple connotations of the name, not just one. I said, "Okay, I can always fall back and tell this story later on if anyone." But who knew? I never knew that blow would be cocaine and that cocaine would be this crazy, crazy detriment to society. I didn't know. If I knew that back then, then I definitely would not have done it. But there is a really good, positive side to the name and most connotations. To fertilize, to blow, to be successful!
It reminds me of the 1940s when people would play instruments and they'd yell, "Blow!" like keep playing!
Right! "That cat can blow!" Saxophone, trumpet. For sure.
Do you remember what emotions, fears or jubilations were going through your mind when you signed the first major label record deal for rap?
Oh, it was like a dream world during that time. I tell people all the time that it was a series of miracles. Here it is this kid from Harlem who is signed to a major label and it was awesome, incredible! Being a college student and majoring in Communications, it was very, very incredible, special to me.
It was huge for hip-hop because being on a major label means major press, major publicity, major offices in every major city. I just went and worked the system. Being in communications, I went to the publicity and promotions department and my thing was, "Send me everywhere! I'll go anywhere and everywhere."
I was traveling to places for the first time where people haven't seen hip-hop and I was representing. I get to places like Paris or London or Belgium and sit up in the office in the conference room from 12-5pm and press was coming through, all the papers, newspapers and magazines and radio and television and everyone's coming through and it was all documented. In 1980. Early in my career and early in the birth of hip-hop. A lot of the promotion was done by me. I was the first to tour the United States and Europe - a lot of people said they were, but actually I have the stats.
I went out on tour with the Commodores, Benny Ashburn, rest in peace. The manager of the Commodores actually gave me a break and let me open up the show for the Commodes and we did this all-platinum tour, man, it was incredible. About 120 shows. And I went to places I'd never even heard of like Tupelo, Mississippi. Coteau, Louisiana. My God, I was everywhere, going everywhere.
A lot of radio supported the major label. For years, I was the only one played on radio from, like, '80 to '83. Kurtis Blow definitely my songs would be on the radio.
You were one of the originators of hip-hop in New York. Is there a memorable conversation or hang you had with your contemporary artists discussing the genre's early challenges?
I had a lot of memories like that. It is because of my wish, like I said, of being a college student and a Communications major, an orator. I had to get out and talk to people. I became a people person. What I did was I went to the publicity department and not only did I tell them to send me around the world everywhere, I wanted to do all the promotions, anything, but I also asked them to hook me up with promotions with my heroes, like the Motown sound.
And they did! One time I did something with Aretha Franklin. We sat down and had a lunch at Hitsville Studio in Detroit, they flew me to Detroit. I did something with the Jacksons, with Latoya Jackson, we did a thing where we went out to a party. I did things with Prince. I met Michael Jackson, he invited me to a party where he actually shut down the Museum of Natural History in New York City and I went to this party and he took me in the back room and we sat and we talked for about a half an hour. He was really, really nice to me. I also met Carly Simon that night.
Do you remember something in particular that Michael [Jackson] said to you?
Yeah, he said that being who I am and this hip-hop thing, to always be real with myself and never forget where I come from. And that's one thing I try my best to do. The Jackson 5 were my favorite group after the Temptations. When they came out, I think it was 1974-75, they had the whole country in the palm of their hands. They had their own little cartoon, it was incredible. I won a couple of contests singing a Michael Jackson song called, "Ben". He did this song, it was the soundtrack to a movie about rats. But I won a contest. I owe him so much.
He was one of my heroes, as well. James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince. I met Prince when I produced my most meaningful production as a producer, which was the "King Holiday" song. It was a song about Martin Luther King Jr. and making his birthday a holiday. So, when we finished a song, it was incredible. The record company supported it and paid for everything but we needed a music video and so Prince put up $90k for the music video. That was my buddy.
We also did a co-promotion. It was an autograph-picture taking session at a club one time. The club was sold out! We had, like, 1,500 people in the club, right? And so Prince signed about 1,000 autographs and took 1,000 pictures and I took maybe 15-20! [Laughs]. Everybody loved him, what a guy. He was very, very special. He was a good guy, for real.
Is there something that Prince told you that you remember specifically?
It was just a mutual affection. He was a great sports fan and during that time I was into basketball and he loved basketball. He wanted to play me some basketball, I remember that, but we never got a chance to.
You're also a minister. At their most essential, how are music and ministry connected for you?
Well, that's a whole thing. That was a transition for me. I went back to college, studying at Nyack University in New York. I remember in one of these philosophy classes I took, there was a word called the Telos. It's a Greek word, meaning, "Your purpose." We all live life trying to find our purpose. What's the meaning of life? Why are we here? The purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree, the purpose of a little caterpillar is to become a butterfly. But men and women, we don't know our Telos, we have to find out.
God gives us free will, choice, and, of course, his son, Jesus Christ. But we need to find -- everyone wants to be happy. No one wants any pain, of course. We all are trying to find happiness.
So, what makes you happy? Is it money, is it drugs, is it sex, is it women? I had all these things when I got to the top. The more money I got, the more I wanted. The more drugs, the more I wanted them. The more sex I got, the more I wanted. It just made me greedy. I was sitting at the top, like, "Is this all life has to offer?"
So, I just started reading the Bible one day. And it just floored me that. I have this old soul and I remember all the movies like Ben-Hur and the King of Kings and 10 Commandments and all these movies, Samson, I'm seeing all these movies are in the Bible. In the First Testament. Samson is in the Bible. It's crazy!
So, it became a mission of mine to read the Bible completely. That's all I did in the time between my shows and stuff and being home, I was just reading the Bible. I got to the Gospels and learned about Jesus and all his miracles and how great of a preacher he was and just his parables and healings and all that. And then I got to Paul and the incredible Gospels and then I got to Revelations.
I was just telling my friend today about Revelations. I'm going to sing a song tonight in Hip-Hop Church called, "Heaven", and it's straight out of the Bible. Revelations, Chapter 7. The whole chapter, I rap the whole chapter in the song.
When I got to Revelations, that was like, "Wow!" All the imagery. It's the most incredible book I've ever read. The imagery and the stories and the visuals are just there, it's incredible. So, I said, "Look, I got to get my act together before Jesus comes back and all these things start to happen and tribulations and everything." So, I started going to church and eventually I started a Bible study at my house for a couple of years, that was in '94. So, yeah, I become a Christian, born again.
There's another type of temple you're involved with: the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which will open in New York City in 2023. What does that work mean to you?
Right. That's like a church almost -- everlasting light, you know! We need this. This culture, hip-hop, is so incredible and awesome and so important to society. We changed the world. We live in a hip-hop nation, a hip-hop generation. And the history needs to be documented and it needs to be in brick and mortar and in a location where everyone in the world can come and see and be a part of this thing. It's very, very important.
It's essential to not only the history but the future, as well. So, we want to support that and big-ups to Rocky Bucano and Adam Silverstein and Reggie Peters and Paradise Gray [of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum]. All of these people, we have about 35-40 people working hard, sacrificing their time, working pro bono, trying to get this thing done. Hat goes off to them. We'll see. Pray for us! We need a museum!
You're on tour now with the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, coming to cities like Seattle, Oakland and Atlanta across the country. Tell me about your involvement with that production?
Big shout out going out to the creators of the play. This is, like, my sixth year I think I'm doing this. Jennifer Weber was a great choreographer and Michael Fitelson, who is a writer, and they put together this incredible presentation of the classic from Tchaikovsky and it's just been awesome working with the dancers who come from all over the world and we all come together to put this thing together. It's just awesome, being around these people. They give 150%.
It's the holiday season when love is in the air and this play just brings forth those good vibes into a situation for everyone, all ages, all races. It's incredible to see three generations, grandparents bringing their children and their children's children, and it's most incredible to see that happen. It reminds me of hip-hop, real true hip-hop. It's a great look for hip-hop, a great look for music, as well.
When you step back and think about how universal hip-hop is today, and how integral you were in its origins, what thoughts do you have, positive or complicated?
I think it's a blessing. Being a Christian, the first thing I think is that God has blessed us. We all were at the right place at the right time. I think God created hip-hop so that a lot us can, basically, number-one have an income but also to give it back to him. I'm working with a lot of Gospel rappers now and I have the hip-hop church.
I'm working with Kanye West, an incredible man of God. God has got a hold of him. He is doing something most incredible, something I could never do, which is bring the masses together. I think he has the potential of changing the world for the better with his Sunday Service. I don't know if you've heard of that, but it's incredible. He has a new album out called Jesus Is King. It's great.
But just being in communications, going back to my college days and studying communications and the oratory - I studied the greatest speakers of our time like Winston Churchill, JFK, Barbara Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. The greatest speakers during that time, the greatest orators, who were the most passionate were the preachers and the reverend. I studied a lot of Martin Luther King's speeches and it was just awesome. Learning how to bring the oratory and the art of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, to get people to agree with your point of view, is a whole other thing that I learned in college.
In learning that the most passionate were the preachers, I knew that we as rappers, communicators, we have these options. Of course, we can go into journalism, we can go into broadcasting, television, radio, we can be public speakers, politics, all these different windows that we have that are open for us, but when it came to being a preacher and a teacher, I'm like, "I don't know about that one right there!" You know what I mean? So, I've been running for years but God had a plan that I didn't even know about and here I am, I'm preaching all over the world, praise the Lord.
It's a blessing, it's totally a blessing. I live a dream world and just knowing all of these people and that I can shake their hands, DJ Hollywood, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Chuck D and the new kids, as well, who are doing their thing like Jay Z and Nas, who is an incredible guy who supports the Hip-Hop Museum. And working with Kanye is going to be something really, really special. I thank God that I could do it and that I was chosen, like Moses, Amen! It's a blessing, a total blessing.
I'll say this last thing, I thank God for hip-hop because hip-hop saved my life. I could have been a thug or during those times when they had the drug wars of Harlem when Frank Lucas, of course you've heard of him, when he went to jail there was a big war in Harlem and the Bronx, cats were fighting for his territory. And people were dying every day.
So, I survived all of that. I survived the gangs of New York. The movie, The Warriors, that stuff was real!
I remember going to the store for my mom, like, "Oh, mom! Please don't make me go to the store!" I had to look over my shoulder. And going to school, like, "Here they come, they're coming!" I'm running from the bus stop, running home. It was crazy. A lot of violence. It was not safe, not cool.
I just thank God because hip-hop saved my life. I could have been any one of those things but I chose to be in hip-hop, thank God.