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Features

Kurtis Blow: The Prototype

How a Harlem-born multi-hyphenate became the blueprint for the modern MC.

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Kurtis Blow Photo Contact Sheet
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

If you tried to build a rap star in a lab, your result would be something close to Kurtis Blow.

Today, it’s commonplace to have a rapper that can also hold a note, but add good looks, charisma, legitimate street credibility, and an encyclopedic knowledge of music and business, and you’d have the perfect ambassador for hip-hop culture, which is exactly what Kurtis Blow came to be.

Listen to Kurtis Blow on Apple Music and Spotify.

Born Curtis Walker in Harlem, NY, there was no part of the culture that this trailblazer didn’t touch. He started DJing in the early 70s at just 13 years old, and even spent a brief time in one of the notorious Bronx gangs that heavily divided the borough, The Peace Makers, where he befriended fellow pioneer Melle Mel. But his singular focus on becoming an entertainer would guide his steps away from the street life. Evolving from Kool DJ Kurt to Kurtis “Sky” Walker and finally Kurtis Blow (thanks to prodding by his former partner in party promotion-turned-manager Russell Simmons), Curtis was barely 20 years old when he made music history as the first rapper signed to a major label.

Kurtis Blow’s first single, “Christmas Rappin,” was rejected by over 20 label executives before being released on Mercury Records in 1979. Blow was a college student at the time and only thought about how many copies he’d have to sell to pay off the remainder of his tuition. The song was so successful that he left school to go on tour and promote it.

In addition to being the first rap single released on a major, “Christmas Rappin’” was also the first import. (Blow was signed through Mercury’s London office in the UK.) “Christmas Rappin” led to the recording of his self-titled debut album, which contained the hit single “The Breaks.” All of Blow’s skills and charms were on display in this nod to the b-boy dancers who had taken over the parties and streets with their gravity-defying moves. The clever wordplay and bass-driven groove earned Blow the first certified Gold plaque for a rap song ever.

While even Blow will credit Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” as one of the greatest rap songs of all time, he also helped lay the foundation for what some consider “conscious” rap with songs like the motivational “Throughout Your Years,” an affirmational track encouraging kids to set goals, from his debut.

Blow went on to release eight albums on Mercury Records, but saw the biggest success with singles like “Basketball,” from his 1984 album Ego Trip, and “If I Ruled The World” from his 1985 album, America. The latter was featured prominently in the hip-hop film Krush Groove, with a performance by Blow.

But what made Blow even more of an outlier was his production for other artists during this same period. Along with the late Larry Smith, he co-produced the music for an up-and-coming trio known as the Disco Three. Their song “Fat Boys” became such a hit, the group made it their new name. Blow went on to produce The Fat Boys’ 1984 self-titled debut album as well as its follow-up, The Fat Boys Are Back in 1985. Blow also produced the soundtrack to the aforementioned Krush Groove; and “King Holiday,” a young, hip, “We Are The World”-esque tribute featuring New Edition, Whitney Houston, plus a young Ricky Martin and his group Menudo, celebrating the first national observation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 1986.

Blow also ghostwrote Run-DMC’s 1985 track, “You Talk Too Much,” on a $200 dare. The bet was that he couldn’t write a song in two hours. He did it in just 30 minutes, giving his former DJ, Joseph “Run” Simmons, and his crew a lead single for their sophomore album King Of Rock.

Around this same time Blow added another first to his growing list of accomplishments by appearing in a TV spot for Sprite years before the soda launched their hip-hop centered “Obey Your Thirst” campaign. His family-friendly voice and international recognition made him an ideal pitchman for just about anything, but soda was a perfect product pairing for his bubbly persona, as he declared the “limon” taste of Sprite the chosen flavor over rival 7-Up.

Perhaps the biggest nod to Kurtis Blow’s continued relevance and timeless appeal, however, is the amount of times he’s been sampled and covered. “If I Ruled The World” was sampled by Queens MC Nas for his 1996 song of the same name with Lauryn Hill singing the hook. (Lauryn and the Fugees previously referenced the hook in their hit “Ready or Not”). The Trackmasters, meanwhile, combined Blow’s hit with that of his partner Larry Smith’s production for Whodini’s “Friends,” giving the young’n from Queensbridge his first Top 20 R&B hit.

Less than a year later the R&B trio Next sampled “Christmas Rappin” for their libidinous “Too Close.” Not to mention, the ubiquitous “Hold it now!” phrase from the intro to “Christmas Rappin” has been sprinkled across too many compositions to count; from the Beastie Boys (who turned the sample into a song title), to junior rap stars Another Bad Creation. Kurtis’ reach even extended to southern conscious rap and Arrested Development’s hit “Tennessee,” which interpolated Blow’s “Tough.”

Blow’s most enduring contribution to hip-hop culture and the music business, however, was proving that someone born of the former could succeed in the latter without compromise. In fact, it was his organic and authentic participation in the various elements that made Kurtis Blow such an impactful performer from top to bottom. Every MC who has taken their art from the stage to the screen – and everywhere in between – owes him a debt of gratitude.

Black Music Reframed is an ongoing editorial series on uDiscover Music that seeks to encourage a different lens, a wider lens, a new lens, when considering Black music; one not defined by genre parameters or labels, but by the creators. Sales and charts and firsts and rarities are important. But artists, music, and moments that shape culture aren’t always best-sellers, chart-toppers, or immediate successes. This series, which centers Black writers writing about Black music, takes a new look at music and moments that have previously either been overlooked or not had their stories told with the proper context.

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