One year after heart transplant, rap icon Kurtis Blow returns to stage with 'Hip Hop Nutcracker'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As families across the country sit down to give thanks this Thanksgiving, one item will be at the top of hip hop pioneer Kurtis Blow's list: his new heart.

A year ago in December, Blow, dealing with heart failure that left him so tired he could barely walk up stairs, underwent a heart transplant. Now fully healed and back on the road, the New York rapper said he's so grateful to be back performing again as part of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker," a new take on the holiday classic. It arrives Dec. 5 at the Detroit Opera House.

"I’m just so happy to be out on tour," said Blow, 62, speaking by phone earlier this month during a stop in Eugene, Oregon. "Last year, I was thinking about funeral arrangements. And now I’m back out on tour. And it's such an amazing feeling."

Hip hop legend Kurtis Blow is the MC and host of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker." Blow was the first rapper to be signed by a major label, Mercury, which released his hit, "Christmas Rappin."

Blow will actually be performing in Detroit on almost the exact one-year anniversary of his transplant, which was Dec. 6 last year. After suffering a heart attack several years ago and then going into heart failure, it wasn't just the stairs that were hard for Blow pre-surgery.

"I remember it was hard for me to do anything," he said. "So I made the decision to do the heart transplant. It was the best decision I made."

And now he's back doing what he loves. As the MC of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker," he describes it as a "holiday extravaganza" that's a new twist on the Tchaikovsky ballet. 

Zuce Morales, Dustin Payne, Lily Frias, and Jon “gifted” Jimenez perform in "The Hip Hop Nutcracker." The show arrives Dec. 5 at the Detroit Opera House.

Blow said the show is set on New Year's Eve in the 1980s and features hip hop dancers, a DJ and a violinist who fuses classical musical with hip hop. As the host and MC, Blow performs some of his hit songs and gets the crowd amped up. The show is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber.

For "Nutracker" fans, there are some similarities to the classic, said Blow, including the character Maria-Clara and a Mouse queen. But in the "Hip Hop" version, it features grafitti and is set in New York City.

Ballet legend Upon Mikhail Baryshnikov said "The Hip Hop Nutcracker" combines athleticism and artistry in a way he's never seen before.

"It's deeply moving, ingeniously modern and pure magic," said Baryshnikov in a press release.

The show, which will travel to 34 cities this holiday season and is now in its seventh year, has already won an Emmy for best live performance.

"It’s unbelievable and amazing to be a part of this team," said Blow.

Bryan Longchamp, Dustin Payne, Lisa “LBOOGIE” Bauford, Lily Frias and Jon “gifted” Jimenez perform in "The Hip Hop Nutcracker," an Emmy Award-winning take on the classic holiday ballet.

In 1979, Blow was the first rapper to be signed to a major record label, Mercury. His single, "Christmas Rappin," which sold 400,000 copies, is considered one of the first commercially successful hip hop singles.

Blow has fond memories of Detroit, calling it "his home away from home" and giving a shoutout to Eminem during an interview ("That's my buddy," he says). He remembers opening for iconic punk rockers The Clash in the city in the early 1980s. Waiting to go on stage with the band to perform "The Magnificent Seven," he listened from the wings while they sang their hit, "Rock the Casbah."

"It was so powerful," remembers Blow. "I actually created a band after that because of the power I felt. It was such an amazing feeling."

Now, as a part of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker," Blow says he's honored and grateful to be part of a show that's about being thankful and spreading the spirit of joy this holiday season.

"It's our time to be thankful and grab hold of our loved ones and remember all of our lost loved ones — and to thank God for all our of blessings," he said.

'The Hip Hop Nutcracker'

6:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Detroit Opera House

featuring Kurtis 'The Breaks' Blow

Tickets start at $29; go to