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Rap pioneer Kurtis Blow a natural for ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’

Mary Chapman
Special to The Detroit News
“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” as an up-to-date hit of the classical ballet. It features a dozen dancers, an on-stage DJ and an electric violinist.

Just as Kurtis Blow’s pioneering 1980 megahit “The Breaks” was a riff on an old tune about the vicissitudes of life, the Masonic Temple’s holiday mashup, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” re-imagines Tchaikovsky’s time-honored score through charged hip-hop choreography and a contemporary storyline.

“‘The Breaks’ was from some old philosophy song that came out in the 1920s,” said Blow, in town for his performance as the production’s special guest MC. “We did a flip of that record. That’s the same idea of ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’ — taking an old classic and making it an up-to-date smash hit.”

Celebrating love, community and the magic of the holidays, the show features a dozen dancers, an on-stage DJ and an electric violinist. The tour includes 28 stops nationwide, including Detroit on Thursday night.

“I like this version because it modernizes it,” said Blow, who recalled seeing the ballet iteration as a youngster growing up in Harlem, New York. “This is what the kids need. We live in a hip-hop generation and a hip-hop nation.”

Legendary rapper Kurtis Blow, the first commercially successful hip-hop artist.

The same concept, he said, applies to his ministry. After receiving a degree in theology from Nyack College, Blow, born Kurtis Walker, became an ordained minister in 2009. He’s co-founder of Harlem’s Hip Hop Church, where he not only serves as minister, but as rapper, DJ and worship leader. 

“I use hip hop to present God to the kids, to spread the Gospel,” said Blow, 59.

His religious conversion was a decade in the making.

“I started reading the Bible, and that became a mission — I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “I started going to church and then had Bible study at my house. Then, someone told me I should be in ministry. So, I went to seminary. I was like, 45. And I loved it. Then, I got ordained.”

Blow is a pioneer of rap music. He was the first commercially successful rapper with the hit “Christmas Rapping” in 1979, followed by “The Breaks,” the first gold-certified hip-hop song in 1980. 

After “The Breaks” blew up, Blow dropped out of City College of New York, where he was studying communications and acting. 

Reflecting on his life, Blow said he’d always been a student.

“Way back when I was a kid, I studied the history of African-American music, going all the way back to the 1920s. We need to study and educate ourselves in anything we want to do, whatever your dreams are. Look at what someone else did to achieve their success, and repeat those steps.”

Paul Robeson was a role model

After a Career Day at school in 1972, Blow realized he needed to decide what he wanted to do in life. Since he’d read a lot about legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson, he decided on entertainment. 

“Robeson was multi-talented, so I plotted my life to be like that,” he said. “I told myself I’d make 10 albums, do 10 movies then write 10 books.”

But life was tough. His father, a Navy veteran, began hanging out and gambling, his behavior often turning violent. Blow also had to deal with a drug-drenched Harlem. “Watching all that trauma, it was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said. 

School and music became his escape.

“I recall going to a club and holding my head to the speaker, and the bass would rumble down to my toes, sending me to Never-never Land,” Blow said.

He credited his mother with keeping him in line, enrolling him in all manner of after-school programs. He ran track, played tennis and was an up-and-coming boxer before bad eyesight nixed that. During summer, he worked government-backed youth jobs.

In the mid-’70s, Blow began working in the clubs as a breakdancer before switching to DJ-ing, using the name Kool DJ Kurt. He’d become expert at mimicking radio disc jockeys like New York’s Hank Spann and Gary Byrd and wanted to make comical, obscure records.

“That’s what hip hop is, really — talking on the mic and playing music,” Blow said. 

A sign honoring hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow hangs from a lamp post as part of the Bronx Walk of Fame in the Bronx March 7, 2017 in New York.

A call to Motown 

To make a name in show business, Blow —who grew up jamming to James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Motown hits — had the temerity to contact Motown’s promotions department and explain his ambitions.

“I told them I wanted to meet all my heroes,” he said. “Surprisingly, I was told Aretha Franklin would be at Hitsville and that they’d try to hook me up. At 21 years old, I had lunch with Aretha Franklin, man. I bowed down to her, too. The Queen. And that was it. That was the start of my career.” 

Blow, who was signed to Mercury Records, decided early after surviving the streets, he wasn’t about to fall victim to fame.

“It was one of the happiest and best times of my life. It still is. And I thank God that I was chosen,” said the married father of three sons. “I’ve seen miracles and what the other side looks like, too.

"As I kid I never traveled outside of Harlem, but thank God I finally got the opportunity to travel and meet people."

“The ’80s man, I survived them. Before I even got the record deal, I had studied and seen that most of our super-duper stars — (Janis) Joplin, Elvis, (Jimi) Hendrix, and now Michael and Prince — died of drug overdoses. So, I vowed that that wasn’t going to happen to me.” When you make it, everybody wants to give you drugs, buy you a drink. I was no angel, but I knew my limits,” said Blow, a name which, contrary to popular opinion, refers to “blossoming” rather than cocaine. 

After winding up the “Nutcracker” tour, the rapper, minister, singer, songwriter, record and film producer, DJ and public speaker will be busy soliciting funds for the Universal Hip Hop Museum to be located in the Bronx. So far, $20 million has been raised. Construction is slated to start next year, with a planned opening in 2022.

“It’s the most important project for hip hop today,” said Blow, who made rap’s first music video (“Basketball”), was the first rapper to use a drum machine, the first rapper to tour the United States and Europe.

Rap sounds a lot different than it did when he was topping charts. But then, he saw that coming.

“I knew that when it became internationally accepted, it had the potential. ... I was the first to do rock and roll rap. I did a country and western cut. I did a blues rap, and a reggae rap with The Fat Boys. So, I knew it had the chance of fusing and changing with time. That, too, is like the ‘Nutcracker.’ ”

Like Robeson, Blow churned out 10 albums. Is he still planning the goal of doing 10 movies (he’s filmed four) and writing 10 books? 

“Next, I need to go write those books,” he said with a chuckle. 

Mary Chapman is a Detroit freelance writer.

"The Hip Hop Nutcracker" will be performed Thursday at the Masonic Temple. It is touring 28 U.S. cities this year.

‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’

Featuring Kurtis Blow 

8 p.m. Thursday; doors open at 6:30.

Masonic Temple

500 Temple, Detroit

Tickets are $35 and $45

(313) 832-7100