When discussing the true pioneers of hip-hop, certain artists instantly come to mind as founders of the music and the culture. Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Run-DMC are among the most widely known, recognized and influential figures in the game. However, when reflecting on the early days of rap music, one crucial old-school MC is often overlooked despite his undeniable impact and legacy of hit singles: Kurtis Blow.
Originally known as Kool DJ Kurt, the Harlem native got his start in 1976 performing at parties and rolling with a crew of promoters called The Force, which included a young Russell Simmons in its ranks. The following year, he began honing his microphone skills and took the name Kurtis Blow. Blow worked on and off at the legendary Dance Fever nightclub during '78 and '79, often performing with another soon-to-be star, Grandmaster Flash. In 1979, he came to the attention of Billboard journalist Robert Ford, who had written about him previously and wanted him to record a rap song that he had written. This collaboration became Blow's first official single, “Christmas Rappin'” (also known as “Rappin' Blow”).
Released shortly after the Sugarhill Gang bum-rushed radios with its signature party jam, “Rapper's Delight,” “Christmas Rappin'” became a hit, earning the young MC props galore and a much wider audience. While the burgeoning hip-hop scene was growing in New York and slowly spreading to other cities, record companies were wary of the strange new genre, and many considered it just an urban trend or a passing fad. Luckily, a forward-thinking A&R rep convinced the suits at Mercury Records to take a chance and sign the rapper. In 1980, Blow became the first MC with a major-label deal.
Soon thereafter, he dropped his second single, “The Breaks,” which was embraced as an instant classic. It sold more than 500,000 copies and became hip-hop's first Gold single. That same year, Mercury released his self-titled debut LP, featuring both tracks and a shirtless, chain-rocking Blow on the cover. (It also contained one of the first social-political rhymes on wax, “Hard Times,” which Run-DMC covered on its first full-length.) The album cracked the R&B Top 10, further spreading rap across the country and establishing Blow as the game's first superstar. He was the first MC to embark on major tours, both stateside and internationally.
Like many artists who debut with huge hits, Blow had a tough time duplicating his early success. His next several releases — Deuce (Mercury, 1981), Tough (Mercury, 1982) and Party Time (Mercury, 1983) — made far less noise than his first, and Blow eventually got into producing other artists and mentoring new talent such as the Disco Three, who were later known as the Fat Boys. In 1984, hip-hop exploded in New York, and some of the biggest stars of the moment were his old homies Run-DMC and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Both acts were embraced for their more advanced lyricism and production, and to some fickle fans, Blow's straightforward party rhymes were played out.
But Blow had other ideas. In addition to working behind the scenes with an assortment of up-and-comers, he scored two singles off his fifth album, 1984's Ego Trip (Mercury): “AJ Scratch,” a classic DJ dedication, and “Basketball,” the timeless ode to round ball. He also appeared in Krush Groove, one of the first films showcasing hip-hop music and culture. In the film, Blow performed what became his last major hit, “If I Ruled the World.”
He continued to release solo records throughout the '80s and collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including Whodini, Frankie Beverly & Maze and even Bob Dylan. However, with hip-hop's sound and style rapidly evolving and young cats like Rakim and Kool G Rap raising the bar for MCs, KB's reign as the world's most famous rapper was over.
In recent years, Blow has hosted an old-school show on L.A. radio; appeared in several hip-hop documentaries; compiled a triple album for Rhino Records titled Kurtis Blow Presents the History of Rap (1997); and helped put together Echo Park: The Hip-Hop Musical, a play chronicling the New York rap scene from '78 to '81. Blow continues to work with young artists such as L.A. MC Spontaneous and Canadian crossover band LEN.
Although he may not get name-checked as often as he deserves, Blow continues to inspire a new generation of artists. Nas and Lauryn Hill scored a major hit with their 1996 reinterpretation of “If I Ruled the World,” and R&B crooners Next flipped “Christmas Rappin'” into their saucy 1997 single “Too Close.” Just this past year, Jermaine Dupri, Fabolous and Bow Wow recorded an updated version of “Basketball.” Although his days of solo superstardom have passed, Blow's impact on hip-hop remains undisputable. He was instrumental in establishing rap music at a time when many doubted its staying power or commercial viability, and the classic material he released will forever be rocked by heads across the globe.