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todayNovember 22, 2022 5
To date, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” has been performed more than 200 times in 70 cities, reaching tens of thousands of audience members across the country. The live show celebrates love, community and the magic of the holiday season.
Who better to lead this cast in delivering that message than hip hop legend himself Kurtis Blow?
He is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record/film producer, B-boy, DJ, public speaker and he’s even a minister. He is also the first commercially successful rapper and the first to sign with a major record label.
His 1985 song, “If I Ruled The World”, was probably his greatest release to date. In the comments section under the video (below), a fan wrote “That was probably the greatest release of all time, because Kurtis crossed over two musical genres, and one was one of the first rappers to introduce the rest of the world outside of Washington DC to go-go music, which had already been out for decades. And most people, even in New York didn’t know about it. All we knew was that the song was a hit, and Kurtis was dope.”
It’s an incredible feat that almost 40 years later, people are still celebrating this hip hop icon.
Blow will be emceeing “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” at the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center on November 26th. When I spoke with him about being signed, he revealed something I never would have expected.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kurtis Blow: Hey, how’s it going?
Element Everest-Blanks: It’s going great. How are you?
KB: I’m mighty fine. Thank you. Thank you for asking. Yes-
EEB: I am so excited.
KB: The Hip Hop Nutcracker!
EEB: I know. I know. I am so excited. I actually could not sleep for the last three days. I was so excited to speak with you.
EEB: Back in 1979, at the age of 20, you became the first rapper to be signed by a major label, Mercury Records. Take me back to that time, tell me what it felt like.
KB: Wow. That was an awesome time for the young Kurt Walker, it was awesome. I tell you, we were in the studio in August of 1979, doing the song “Christmas Rap”. So my producer, Robert Ford Junior, “Rocky”, we called him, rest in peace, he went out to 20 different labels and couldn’t get a record deal. Now mind you, the Sugar Hill Gang was the number one thing all over at the planet.
Every bus, every car, every train, every boom box, every radio station was playing “Rapper’s Delight”. And so we tried to get a record deal, and two people liked the song. The one guy, he was from Panorama Records. He liked the song, he took it up the flag pole, to the vice president, and they turned it down. Now, this guy, he eventually left Panorama Records and started his own label and three years later signed Run DMC. And that was Profile Records, and Cory Robbins, right? The next guy was an English fellow all the way in the UK, his name was John Stains, A&R director. He loved the song. He said, “Man, we can recoup this record in six months, so let’s sign him up.” I got the deal. Now little did everyone know my first record deal, I was an import artist. I was a British artist living in Harlem, and my records came back to America on import.
EEB: That’s crazy. And you know what else is interesting? Given the fact that you said Run DMC was signed, most people don’t know that Run began his career billing himself as, “The son of Kurtis Blow.”
KB: Yes. Yes. And we were a dynamic duo. Yes. Yes. We would come out and I would DJ for him. He would come out and rap, and then he would go behind the turntables and DJ for me, and I would come out and rap. And the last song I was sing would be “Christmas Rappin’”. And that was amazing. And shout out to Reverend Run, because coming soon is a Disney extravaganza of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”, featuring the son of Kurtis Blow, Reverend ‘DJ’ Run.
EEB: Wow. Did I just get a scoop?
KB: Yes. Yes. It’s coming out. The air date is November 25th on Disney, everyone.
EEB: Look –
KB: You can stream it live.
EEB: … look at you. So let’s talk about this a little bit. So the label release, “Christmas Rappin’”, it sold over 400 million copies, becoming one of the first commercially successful hip hop singles. Did you know right away that hip hop was a thing that was going to be here to say?
KB: Oh yes. I banked on it early in my career, and I actually went to college and majored in Communications, which was the field I thought that was relative to hip hop being the oratory, and the way we danced, the way we sing its culture, entertainment. And I banked on the career way back then, and the rest is history, thank God.
EEB: Yes. So now, let’s fast forward quite a bit. In June of 2022, you celebrated the 40th year anniversary of “The Breaks”. What did that feel like? What did it feel like? 40 years.
KB: Wow. It’s just an awesome feeling. It’s so hard to describe the feeling of joy, and gratefulness of being the first. It’s actually the first certified gold rap song for the history of hip hop. And that is a major, major feat, you know?
KB: I tell people all the time, “These are the breaks.”
EEB: That’s right. That’s right. So let’s-
EEB: … right. Exactly. You broke an entire genre of music, and I was listening to quite a bit of your music recently. So let’s do this. In 1985, you released the album “America”, and you had this huge top five hit, of course, “If I Ruled the World”, which landed on the Billboard R&B charts as well. So take me back to that moment when you found out that this was a huge hit for you.
KB: Well, it was also on the soundtrack of the movie “Krush Groove” (1985). And during that time I was so busy, I was a hot producer. I was producing the Fat Boys’ second album. I was producing the “America” album as well, and I was producing the soundtrack for “Krush Groove”. So I was working in studios, and we had a deadline when we were filming the movie in three weeks, we filmed that whole movie. So I was in the studio every night, three studios going, and I had to make a set call at 6:30 in the morning. So I didn’t get any sleep at all for three weeks it seems like. And it was a whole lot of hard work, but it paid off. I thank God that the song was successful, and the albums were successful. They were three gold albums, and I thank God it was incredible, a monumental time in my life.
EEB: So we know that Nas and Lauren paid tribute to you when they reintroduced that song to so many people. And obviously it’s a classic hip hop song. So I’m on YouTube and I’m watching the video, I’m feeling all nostalgic, and I see this one comment, so I’m going to read this to you. Someone said that, “That was probably the greatest release of all time, because Kurtis crossed over two musical genres, and one was one of the first rappers to introduce the rest of the world outside of Washington DC to go-go music, which had already been out for decades. And most people, even in New York didn’t know about it. All we knew was that the song was a hit, and Kurtis was dope.” How does that make you feel? This was a recent comment.
KB: Wow, that’s awesome. And my shout out goes out to all of those go-go bands, from E.U. Freeze to Trouble Funk, to even the godfather of Go-Go Music, Chuck Brown. Man, rest in peace to Chuck Brown. And that whole style of music was so very funky to me, I loved it. And it is the percussion, the drums, the beat, and the cowbell and rototoms, and all of these tomtoms, the percussion. It just goes back to what I think my theory is of, “Hip hop is the innate love of the drum.”
EEB: That you know what? I agree 100%. You have children nowadays listening to hip hop to learn their alphabet, to learn how to act, to learn the days of the week. It is really a universal sound. And I think you’re right, I think it drives that excitement that need to move, the need to be a part of this type of music, you’re absolutely right. Now you have always been an innovator, right? You’ve always been a-
KB: Thank you.
EEB: … you’ve always been ahead of the curve, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”. So how would you describe “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” to our listeners, or someone like me who will be attending this year for the very first time?
KB: Well, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”, we’re coming up on our 10th season, and it is one of a kind holiday experience that brings the whole family together with that love. That message and our theme is, “Love conquers all.” And it’s much needed now, during present times with all of the things that are going on. We need to experience and exercise, and communicate, and show love, everyone. It’s much needed.
EEB: What’s your role in the show?
KB: Well, I am the host and MC of the show. So I come out in the beginning, and I get everyone prepared for the show that they are about to see, and take them back to the old school hip hop, and seeing a medley of old school songs and everyone is dancing in the aisles, and throwing their hands in the air, and just having a good time. And I sing a song at the end of the intro called, “New Year’s Eve”.
And in the middle, I have everyone count down from 10 to one. And when we get to one, we scream really loud, “Happy New Year!” And that’s when the show starts. And then I come back at the end, and I sing “The Breaks” with the whole casting crew. And again, we are having a great time, a lot of fun on stage, doing solos and representing our styles, and everything. And the audience is cheering, and having a great time, and singing, and dancing in the aisle, throwing their hands in the air. And it’s just a special time. So audiences will leave feeling good inside, and feeling revitalized, and that spirit of love for the holiday season and love conquers it all.
EEB: Now, clearly that is a totally different version of “The Nutcracker” that we’re used to. And I went to an arts high school, so I have a certain love for classical music, and I’m a hip hop artist as well. How would you say classical music has influenced hip hop and hip hop artists?
KB: Oh. That’s the whole idea. That’s a good question. That’s the whole idea in seeing the contention of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” is that we are remixing this classical timeless music of Tchaikovsky, and classical music, and the fusion of hip hop beats under the classical music is incredible, unbelievable to witness. And so the classical music, again, is the basis of what we call music theory. When we learn about music and how to write songs and scientists of sound, we study music theory. And the basics of music theory is classical music. Learning how to count beats, learning the different instruments when you pursue your career. So it’s the basics of music, is to learn about classical music, and that’s how we talk.
EEB: So you talk-
KB: Write songs.
EEB: … yeah. You talked a little bit about at one point in the show you bring out all the dancers, and everyone has this joyous moment on stage. Tell me a little bit about the dancers and the cast that you’re working with.
KB: Well, these dancers are the most talented dancers in around the world. I actually called them The B-Boy and B-Girl Dream Team.
KB: They give 100% every night. They are so passionate, and energetic, and you will feel, and see, and witness the love that they bring to every night, every show, and every stage. It’s awesome to be working with so many talented young individuals that love hip hop.
EEB: So this is the 10th year anniversary of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”, so I know there has to be some evolution in production. If you came year one, and you’re coming this year, what would be the difference?
KB: That’s a good question. Well, I have to shout out our creator, and founder, and main lead choreographer, her name is Jennifer Weber. She has done an amazing job every year with different add-ons, and adaptations and transitions from the choreography, to the story itself. The story is about two young people that fall in love, and their love creates a special magic that can defeat evil, and they do it. And we need that now more than ever. So that is it, I can’t wait to see what Jennifer Weber comes up this year because she always comes up with some new adaptations that are amazing to see. So I’m getting ready to go to rehearsal two days from now and I’ll see once she comes up for and I know it’s going to be great.
EEB: So the evolution of the show is even a surprise to you each year. It changes yearly?
KB: Yes. Yes. There are a couple of changes every year.
KB: Whether it be in the actual lineup of dancers, but we have an incredible, awesome lineup of talented dancers that I say. We also have a DJ, DJ Boo is incredible, mixing the hip hop beats under the classical music. And we have our own violinist, who comes out and rocks the house with a DJ playing hip hop beats under his classical violin solos. And that’s incredible to see as well.
EEB: This sounds so amazing. I have one last question for you. So you’ve had a heart transplant, and how has this changed your life, and your performance career?
KB: Okay. My heart transplant, I’m so grateful, and overjoyed to still be alive. And I’ll tell you, my heart transplant gave me a change of heart. I am a walking, living, breathing testimony of the power of God, and the fact that God is still in the miracle business. And what God did for me, God can also do for you. God is able. So that’s my spiel, and I tell everyone that I meet. I love God, and obviously God loves me, because I’m still here. And God loves you too. And I love you too.
EEB: Well, I love you. I love me some Kurtis Blow.
Written by: Element Everest-Blanks
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HYFIN is a media movement from Radio Milwaukee.
Dedicated to playing the full spectrum of Black music and connecting the culture.