The best thing one can do in life is to make history. That is what Kurtis Blow learned in elementary school growing up. And he ultimately made history, doing so twice. In 1979 when he signed with Mercury Records, he became the first rapper to ink a deal with a major label. The following year, after the release of the song “The Breaks” from his 1980 self-titled debut album, it sold half a million copies and became the first gold rap single.
Blow would go on to make tremendous contributions to music, inspiring music greats like Run MC, Nas, Jay-Z, and working with artistes like Whitney Houston, Stephanie Mills, James “JT” Taylor of Kool & the Gang, New Edition, and others. Here’s the story of one of hip-hop’s founding fathers.
Born Kurt Walker, the Harlem native started out as a break-dancer and later became a DJ in the 1970s. When he was 13 years old, he gave his first party as a DJ at a friend’s birthday party. He was so in love with music that even before he could read as a child, he would visit record stores in Harlem and the South Bronx.
“The record stores were known for having speakers outside…and they would play continuous music all day. So we would go to the corner record store, and each record store would have their own charts, like their top ten songs of the week,” he recalled in an interview with PBS in 2013. “And it was my job to go get that chart, and look at those songs and pick those songs. I actually learned how to read by picking those charts. My mom loved the Motown Sound, and of course, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. I remember going to the record stores and getting those. So I became like the family DJ.”
As a child, his favorite artiste was James Brown. He and many other boys in his community loved the singer’s beats and incredible drum breaks. Soon, break dancing or B-Boying started “because everybody wanted to be James Brown and repeat his moves; his splits and his fancy footwork—we tried to repeat that,” Blow said.
In the mid-1970s when Blow went to The City College of New York to study communications, he decided to focus on rap than DJing. A student he met at the college, Russell Simmons, became his manager. Blow started performing at shows in Harlem and the Bronx, making a name for himself in the hip-hop genre that was now gaining recognition.
In 1979 when hip-hop finally became recognized nationally after the release of “Rapper’s Delight” by SugarHill Gang, a Billboard magazine writer, Robert Ford, wrote a story about hip-hop and featured Blow. Soon, Blow’s manager Simmons and Ford started talking about writing a song. Simmons said it wouldn’t be bad asking Blow to perform it. Ford and his partner J.B. Moore eventually co-wrote the song “Christmas Rappin”.
After recording the song, Tidal reports that 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.”
When Blow released “Christmas Rappin”, he was just 20. The song was commercially successful, selling 400,000 copies, according to Tidal. He told PBS that the song was inspired by the drum breaks that he and other B-Boys danced to. He said he wanted to do a song with a lot of breaks in it for the B-Boys to get down.
“A song that we can dance to with a lot of funky breaks that we can just do our B-Bboy moves! … So we took those good things and bad things in one’s life as a break, a good break or bad break in one’s life. So that became one of the connotations of the song,” he explained.
Blow soon started earning acclaim and began touring in the U.S. and Europe in the early 1980s. Releasing other hit songs such as “The Breaks” and “If I Ruled the World”, Blow would throughout his career release 15 albums. He became a producer, working with Run-DMC, Fat Boys, Lovebug Starski, and Full Force. A pioneer in the world of rapping, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame featured Blow in a hip-hop display in 1996.
Today, he is an ordained minister and founder of the Hip-Hop Church in Harlem, where he is not only a licensed minister but a DJ and worship leader. Artistes at his church preach the word of God through rap music.
Blow in 2016 appeared in a documentary on the evolution of hip-hop, Hip-Hop Evolution. Recently, he was made chairman of the board for the upcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum which is dedicated to the celebration and preservation of hip-hop music, dance, art and culture. The museum will be housed in the Bronx and will be home to some donated relics, including Blow’s gold plaque for “The Breaks.” It is expected to open in 2023, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.
“As time winds down on a lot of our careers, we think that it’s an important plea that our legacies and our histories can be in one place for the whole world to see,” Blow told Forbes in 2019.