Kurtis Blow, One of Hip Hop’s Founding Fathers, Turns 60
Rev. Run of Run D.M.C. owes his life to Kurtis Blow — and that’s not hyperbole. Not only did hip-hop’s founding father make his career, Run met his wife, Justine Simmons, after performing with the older rapper. Not bad for a fledgling MC.
“I was just absorbing things, being on the road with Blow,” Run told TIDAL. The two met when Blow started working with Run’s older brother, Russell Simmons. The younger Simmons, who was still in high school at the time, was already rapping and DJing in and around his native Queens and Blow brought him along to perform with him around town as his profile started to rise in the late ‘70s.
“He wasn’t like ‘hold the microphone this way,’” Run continues. “It was just being inspired by watching what he was doing and being blessed to be able to get on the microphone and kick rhymes whenever they would allow me to come to a show.”
Run isn’t the only rapper Blow inspired. Nas sampled “If I Ruled the World” in 1996, and a host of other rappers sampled his landmark single “The Breaks”: KRS One for his song “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” in 1995; De La Soul for their song “Brakes” in ’96; and, in the last decade, JAY-Z for 2013’s “FuckwithmeyouknowIgotit.”
Blow turns 60 today (August 9), entering yet another decade of musical innovation and inspiration. Rap’s founding father, his career has been a blueprint for generations of younger rappers to come.
Born Kurt Walker, Harlem native Blow was heavily involved in the budding hip-hop scene in New York in the ‘70s. Back then, it was an underground scene born out of the Bronx that spilled over into the other boroughs. While disco ruled the mainstream, hip-hop in its fledgling years was popular among African American and Latino youths. In 1973, DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell created the building blocks of the genre at parties in the Bronx by eschewing the vocals on funk records and extending and looping the drum break beats for crowds to dance to. From there, a master of ceremonies (MC) would get on the mic and showcase his rhymes.
According to All Music.com, Blow started out as a break-dancer and later became a DJ. He told VladTV in 2016 that he became fascinated with music as a child and his favorite artist was James Brown. Fascinated by the syncopated drumming on Brown’s most famous hits, Blow and his fellow Break-Boys (B-Boys) danced to the JB’s drum breaks at parties years later.
Blow went to The City College of New York to study communications in the mid ‘70s, where he met Russell Simmons, who was studying sociology. He decided to pursue rapping instead of DJing and Simmons became his manager. Blow performed at shows in Harlem and the Bronx, raising his profile in hip-hop’s then-underground scene. Hip-hop reached national recognition in 1979 when the single “Rapper’s Delight” was released by the Sugarhill Gang.
Around this time, a Billboard magazine writer named Robert Ford wrote a feature story on hip-hop and featured Blow. Shortly thereafter, Simmons and Ford talked about writing a song and Simmons suggested getting Blow to perform it. From there, Ford and his partner J.B. Moore co-wrote the song “Christmas Rappin.’” The idea was to create a new holiday classic.
After recording “Christmas Rappin’,” Ford and Moore shopped it around at different labels and Mercury Records eventually bit, making Blow the first rapper to be signed by a major label.
On Mercury, Blow released “Christmas Rappin’” when he was just 20 years old. The single was commercially successful, selling 400,000 copies. Its follow-up, 1980’s “The Breaks,” sold half a million copies and became the first gold rap single.
Blow told PBS in 2013 that he made the song in ‘79 after being inspired by the sought-after drum breaks that he and other B-Boys danced to. He also took that concept and flipped it, rapping about all the good and bad things that people experience in life, IE “The Breaks.” The pair of back-to-back successful tracks helped bring Blow to the forefront and allowed him to tour in the U.S. and Europe in the early ‘80s.
After the success of Kurtis Blow’s self-titled 1980 album, he released almost an album per year for most of the decade. Ego Trip, released in 1984, yielded the successful tracks “Basketball” and “AJ Scratch.” The latter was a tribute song to his longtime DJ, Kool DJ AJ who hailed from the South Bronx.
In 1985, he performed the song “If I Ruled the World” in the hip-hop film Krush Groove. The single, which also appeared on the 1985 album America, became his biggest hit since “The Breaks” and was one of the last hits of his career. He also built a name for himself as a producer, crafting tracks for the Fat Boys, Lovebug Starski, Full Force and Run-DMC.
In the ‘90s, Blow garnered accolades as a new generation of hip-hop fans embraced his music. In 1996, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame featured Blow in a hip-hop display. Despite his status of being an early pioneer of rap, he has never been formally inducted. This year, a Change.org petition was started to have him included in 2020’s list of honorees.
With all of his contributions to the music world, Blow also wanted to give back to the world as a whole. He told the Village Voice in 2009 that he turned his life to God in ’96 and became a rap evangelist. “The only time I really got happy in my life was when I picked up the Bible and read Revelations,” he said.
As such, he founded the Hip-Hop Church in 2004, a nondenominational sanctuary with services at Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church in Harlem and in other cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Oakland. At the Hip-Hop Church, artists deliver their messages about God through rap music.
These days, Blow divides his time between The Hip-Hop Church and performing across the globe — while remaining a stalwart in hip-hop culture. In 2016, he was tapped to serve as an associate producer of the 2016 Netflix show The Get Down. Although the hip-hop drama was cancelled by Netflix after one season, the show was innovative for its display of hip-hop’s birth in New York in the ‘70s.
Blow also was tapped to serve as a chairman of the board for the upcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum. Housed in the Bronx, the museum will highlight hip-hop’s history and also celebrate its present state with interactive exhibits, including music and graffiti art. The museum, which will break ground this year, is slated to open in 2023, coinciding with hip-hop’s 50th birthday.
Blow’s unstoppable force slowed a bit in May, as he had to undergo heart surgery. But weeks later, he posted on his Instagram account that the surgery went well, and he was leaving the hospital and starting physical therapy. Since then, he’s continued to tour, host events and spread the hip-hop gospel.
Blow is used to bouncing back from the tough times in life in exchange for all of the good things. After all, those are the breaks.
(Photo credit: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Art For Life Gala)
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