By the late ’70s, a burgeoning art form and culture was reverberating through the boroughs of New York City. B-boying, breakdancing, DJing and rapping were becoming sources of entertainment at local park jams, clubs and parties.
After the success of The Sugarhill Gang’s song, “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, hip hop was introduced to a wider audience. Within the same year, a young MC named Kurtis Blow would become the first hip hop artist signed to a major label and release his landmark debut album. It was hip hop’s first commercially successful album, and would spawn three hit singles, including the genre’s first gold-selling record: “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’” and “Throughout Your Years.”
Under the guidance of pioneering hip hop producers J.B. Moore, Robert Ford, Larry Smith and Denzil Miller, Blow was given the platform to showcase his youthful exuberance over groundbreaking production. Using the sonic template provided by James Brown and Chic as their musical compass, Blow and company created an entirely new blueprint. For the album’s 35th anniversary, we spoke with Kurtis Blow about constructing this classic album.
What is the story behind you being discovered and being the first rapper signed to a major record label?
Well, the story goes back seven to eight years before Sugar Hill Gang’s first record was released in 1979. In New York, we were rapping, scratching and breakdancing before the first records came out. When “Rapper’s Delight” came out, everybody in hip hop who was unsigned and doing hip hop for seven to eight years, we were like, “Yo. This is the greatest thing.”
During that time, I was in college and partners with Russell Simmons. We had a club out in Queens called Night Fever Disco. So, Russell convinced these writers to come down and check me out. He also convinced them to do a record with me. These two writers’ names were J.B. Moore and Robert “Rocky” Ford. They were my producers. They produced my first five albums.
Robert Ford came down to check me out at the hotel along with Grandmaster Flash, Lovebug Starski and Eddie Cheeba. Flash and I really did well. Russell convinced them to use me over the rest of the rappers because I was a college student and he said because I was a good looking guy.
When “Rapper’s Delight” came out, we went into the studio in October 1979 to cut “Christmas Rappin’” which was my first song. Rocky Ford took the song to 22 different labels, but only two people liked the record. One guy named Cory Robbins loved it. He took it up the flagpole. He worked at Panorama Records. He couldn’t get it sold to his bosses, and he actually quit his job there. He started his own record label called Profile Records, and three years later he signed Run-D.M.C. The other guy who liked the record was a guy named John Stains. He worked for Mercury/Polygram Records over in London, England. I’ll never forget it. He loved the song. He said in his English accent, “I’m going to sign this kid up! We’re going to record this record in six months.”
So I got the deal. Actually, I was a British artist out of London. My song came back to America on an import, so it was a crazy kind of a deal. It was a 12-inch deal. I had the opportunity to do one single, “Christmas Rappin’.” There was an escalating clause in the contract that said I had to sell 30,000 records, and if I did, I could do another single. If I sold 50,000 records with my second single, then I could do an album. My song, “Christmas Rappin’” sold over 370,000 copies. It was a major hit, so I was able to do another single. My next single was “The Breaks” in 1980. “The Breaks” was the first certified gold rap song. It sold 840,000 copies. This allowed us to record the very first hip hop album 35 years ago, which is the one we’re talking about today.
It is fascinating to learn that a record executive in the UK embraced hip hop before the ones in America did.
Yeah. It was really strange. [laughs] Here’s a country 3,000 miles away that I get a record deal with, and then my records have to come all the way back from England to get on the radio in America. And that was most peculiar because I was straight out of New York City, and I’d never been out of New York City.
The significance of it all was that I was signed to a major label, and with it, came major press and promotion. We had offices in every major city around the world. Once I tapped into that network as a college student, I got on every major tour that they had. My whole thing was to work the system and travel as much as I possibly could. I went to Paris, Belgium, Japan, and everywhere I could. It was so strange because no one knew what hip hop was when I went to these places. I was the first rapper to perform in Paris. It was the first time they had seen anything like hip hop. That was the great thing about it.
The downside was I wasn’t a priority because Kool & the Gang, Cameo, The Gap Band and Stephanie Mills were all on there, and at the time, Mercury/Polygram Records was the biggest conglomerate of labels. It seemed like all of the R&B artists that were hitting in the early ’80s were on Mercury/Polygram Records. I wasn’t a big priority, but the fact that I was tenacious and worked the system, led to us being so successful.
Who knew that everyone was going to go smoke crack? If I had known that, I would’ve changed my name to Kurtis Green or Kurtis Blackman.
How did you come up with the moniker Kurtis Blow?
There are a few stories about this, but the truth is, it came from a joke. See, back in 1975 and 1976, a lot of famous DJs got protégés, and they would call them their sons. The Son of Hollywood was DJ Smalls, The Son of Bambaataa was Afrika Islam, and The Son of Kurtis Blow was Reverend Run.
When I first got into the business in college, I got with Russell [Simmons] and the city college crew, and they told me I needed to change my name. My name was DJ Kool Kurt. I said them, “I love my name. I’m good.” They responded, “We need for you to have another name. You have to be the Son of Eddie Cheeba. We’ll introduce him to you.” Eddie Cheeba was a hot MC at that time. Eddie Cheeba told me, “What is your name going to be? Kurtis Blow?” Everybody started laughing and said, “Yeah. We love that!” I responded, “No. I’m not Kurtis Blow.” I hated the name. So Russell and the rest of the crew started calling me Kurtis Blow, and I would tell them, “No. I’m not Kurtis Blow.” Then, the name Kurtis Blow started to spread like wildfire around the college.
One day, I looked up the word blow in the dictionary, and I knew blow was a slang term for cocaine and I didn’t want to be associated with that. So I looked in the dictionary and saw that there were 28 different meanings for the word blow. It was a fascinating word. I read that it was a force of power, so I thought it was pretty cool. Then, I read that it meant to blossom like the creation of life. Because of that and its many meanings, I felt like I had to change my name to Kurtis Blow. I’ve been fighting that cocaine thing for a long time. [laughs] Who knew that everyone was going to go smoke crack? If I had known that, I would’ve changed my name to Kurtis Green or Kurtis Blackman. [laughs]
We started talking about doing a song about Christmas that would be played every year like Nat King Cole’s song.
Let’s rewind a bit. I want you to take me back to the first meeting that you had with J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. How did you meet them?
Well, they were writers for Billboard. They wrote an article on hip hop in 1975 and did a follow up article about it in 1978. In the article written by Robert Ford in 1978, the last paragraph of it mentions a young Kurtis Blow Walker. He put me alongside the rest of the legends like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and the rest of those guys.
When Russell convinced J.B and Robert to work with me, I went to J.B. Moore’s house. J.B. Moore was a middle aged white guy and an account executive. Robert Ford was a columnist. He went to J.B. and J.B. was a blues musician that played bass and guitar. He knew J.B. from Billboard, and he told him, “Let’s go make this record.” So they called a young nineteen-year-old Kurt Walker to come down to J.B. Moore’s apartment. This is where we had our first initial meeting. I took the train down to 42nd Street. He lived on 45th Street and 9th Avenue. I arrived at his building and I had to go up a flight of stairs, then I entered his small apartment.
He was sitting there with Robert Ford, Larry Smith, who was a musician and bass player and a friend of Robert’s, and a young Denzil Miller, who was a young, incredible classical piano player. Denzil was the leader of a band in Queens called Creative Funk alongside Bernard Wright, Donald Blackman, Omar Hakim and Marcus Miller. I went to High School of Music & Art with Marcus and Omar. Nevertheless, I sat down with J.B., Robert and Larry, and we started talking about doing a song about Christmas that would be played every year like Nat King Cole’s song.
All of us thought it was a good idea, so we started vibin’ out on the music. Larry Smith asked me, “What kind of sound do you want?” I didn’t know what he meant. I said, “What do you mean? A sound?” He replied, “Yeah. What style of music do you like? James Brown? I love James Brown. He’s my hero.” I thought about it for a little while. During that time, in 1980, the popular music of the day was Chic. Their song, “Good Times” was the #1 song and it was the bassline to “Rapper’s Delight.” I told him, “Well, Chic is #1, so I want a sound that is a cross between James Brown and Chic.” And that is the Kurtis Blow sound.
Can you describe the collaboration process and the creative synergy that you had with these producers during the making of this album?
J.B. and I worked closely together and vibed on this whole project. I wanted to have a variety of lyrics, not just telling stories or talking about myself. Why not do a record about history or a country western record? I knew that hip hop was malleable and it could be shaped into any form. It was like water. I knew it could be fused with other forms of music. I was the first to do a rock & roll rap and a country western rap, which was entitled “Way Out West” on this album.
My first rock & roll rap song was a do-over of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s song “Takin’ Care of Business.” I had the political and motivational raps, too. The song that I released in 1981 after “The Breaks” was a motivational song entitled “Throughout Your Years.” When I did “Hard Times,” I was talking about what was happening in our society back then. Run-D.M.C. did the first do-over in the history of hip hop with that song. And of course, I made an attempt at singing, [laughs] on a song called “All I Want in This World (Is to Find That Girl), which actually motivated and inspired the “I Need Love” song for LL Cool J. So that first album served as the basis for the format of hip hop, in terms of the different ideas and styles of rap that an artist could use. When you talk about flow, J.B. was an excellent writer. He wrote stuff that was way ahead of his time.
Did you guys record this album in New York or mainly in the UK?
We recorded the whole album in New York at a place called Greene Street Recording Studios.
What were those recording sessions like in this studio?
Incredible. When I was coming up, I had been DJing and MCing. Because of those experiences, I saw a lot of sound systems. They were mostly bad sound systems like the ones at the community center, block parties and park jams. Some really trashy stuff and sounds. But when I first worked in this studio and put my headphones on and heard the fidelity of the music we had just recorded, it was so clean that it felt like heaven to me. It felt like this was what I was meant to do with my life. I finally got to Alderaan, which is the planet in Star Wars. Russell and I’s dream was to get to Alderaan. Alderaan, to us, meant success.
The engineer we worked with was an Asian cat by the name of Roddy Hui. Roddy was a really cool guy. I became friends with him for years. Roddy hipped me to something in the studio. It was the first time I’d ever had General Tso Chicken and Pan Fried Dumplings. Roddy would make them in the studio. He had a portable frying pan. It was electric. He would make these dumplings, and we would dip them in soy sauce and it was the best thing that I ever had in my entire life. I still eat dumplings all over the world wherever I can find them.
Roddy’s ear was so precise. The guy could hear a pin drop in a crowded room. He was incredible. The one thing I remember about him is when we started the mixing process, he took the longest time to mix the record. He was the only one who took more than ten hours to mix one song. I worked with other engineers, and it would take them four to six hours maximum to mix one song. It took Roddy Hui between ten to 12 hours to mix one song, but you could hear it in the mix. It had depth and fidelity.
The instrumental of “Christmas Rappin’” was the B-side to the original. When we would release a single or 12-inch, we would put an instrumental on the B-side, so that I could rap it live and it wouldn’t sound like Milli Vanilli. The instrumental of “Christmas Rappin’” became the norm in the clubs through the end of 1979 to the summer of 1980. In the early days, we did our own handclaps in the studio. Seven or eight people had to clap for a minute. [laughs] We did our own background and party noises. Actually, you can hear Russell Simmons in the background of both “Christmas Rappin’” and “The Breaks.” We didn’t use any drum machines. It was all live drums being played.
What was your studio routine while you were recording your debut album?
We had six to eight hour sessions. We didn’t do any all-night sessions. We would usually work on these songs from six in the evening to midnight, or sometimes to two o’clock in the morning.
Earlier you spoke of the quality of the live instrumentation on this record. Can you explain the creative dynamic that existed between the great musicians like Larry Smith and Jimmy Bralower and yourself on this album?
On “Christmas Rappin’,” I wrote the second half of the song on the train on my way to one of our studio sessions. I was just writing down some stuff and playing around with ideas. I laid it down in the studio pretty quickly because I wrote some crowd response stuff. It was the first time you had somebody at a party scene say, “Say ho! Everybody scream!” on a record. The big hit of the record was the fact that you could play that record in the club and people started calling back with the crowd response. Every time I said, “Oh yeah!” the crowd at the club would respond, “Oh yeah!” So, the DJs would love to spin this record because the people were having a lot of fun with it. Crowd response was an important thing that helped to spread hip hop across the country and made it become successful, as opposed to the other genres of music like rock & roll, R&B, and country western.
Getting back to your question, I was only 19, so all of this was new to me. I was really vibing with everyone, and it was the happiest time of my life. They knew nothing about hip hop. They just knew that we wanted to create this sound that was a cross between James Brown and Chic. This was the mission. The actual format for the album was done in the studio. We were recording and creating strictly in the studio.
As far as the lyrics for the songs, J.B. wrote a lot of them on the first album, and I did, too. Whatever I contributed, I wrote it in the studio while vibing with the music that was already there. The vibe was something indescribable because it was all fresh and new to everyone. Everyone was just trying to figure things out, but at the same time, we knew this music was going to play in the clubs and become successful. It was a great feeling.
We knew we were at the forefront of a new movement, a brand new culture... I banked on hip hop being a part of my career goals.
Your groundbreaking style as a wordsmith really impacted the MCs of that era. Looking at the credits, a young Joseph Simmons is featured on one of your records. When you were making this album, did you feel like you all had something that would change the game for this genre?
Yes. We knew we were at the forefront of a new movement, a brand new culture. We were doing hip hop seven to eight years before my first record came out. I banked on hip hop being a part of my career goals. I went to college and majored in Communications, which I thought was the most relevant to hip hop. To see the genre become a success was not only unbelievable, but it was the icing on the cake. Now that I’m a minister, the feeling was equivalent to someone feeling the Holy Spirit when it knocks them down to their feet and they start shaking. It was God giving us those creative juices at a time when nobody had a clue. What is so special about it is that we were the first.
As you look back 35 years later on the significance of this album, not only on popular culture, but in hip hop, what are your feelings about your contributions in launching a genre of music?
Well, I feel honored and blessed by God to have been in the right position at the right time with the right skills and talent to get this thing done the way that we did. For the most part, I’ve lived in a dream world. My dreams have come true. I just thank God for that. I was privileged enough to be at the place to see hip hop from its conception. I was at Pete DJ Jones’ parties and Kool Herc parties, and I know the difference between the two. It is something that I hold dear to my heart and no one can ever take that feeling away.