What Ever Happened to… Kurtis Blow
Hip-hop trailblazer Kurtis Blow morphed into a superstar when he became the first rapper to sign with a major label, Mercury Records, in 1979. Throughout the ’80s, the Harlem native, born Kurtis Walker, had many hits, including “The Breaks,” the first rap song to be certified gold. Today the 54-year-old ordained minister explains how he is still rooted in music and discusses his new projects.
JET: When did you first get interested in music?
Kurtis Blow: As a kid, I learned how to read looking at the music charts at the corner record store. Years later, I became the family DJ at 7 years old. I’d write down the requests on my pad and stack up the 45s on the component. My first paid job as a DJ was when I was 13 for Tony Rome’s mom on 96th Street. (Tony became a tour manager for Whodini, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.) I put two component sets together for continuous music. I earned $50. I started at about 14 or 15 as a breakdancer. By 1974-75, I had started rapping. I would mimic the voices of radio DJs— Gary Byrd, Frankie Crocker, and Hank Spann of WWRL, that was my hero. I tried to imitate their way of speaking, entertaining the crowds in between the records.
JET: How did you get the name Kurtis Blow?
KB: The name came about in college in the late ’70s when I was a DJ popular in the Manhattan and Bronx club scenes. Famous DJs like Hollywood, Afrika Bambaataa, Lovebug Starski and Eddie Cheeba had protégés, whom they would refer to as their “sons.” My crew, including Russell Simmons who I met back in college, loved the name “Kurtis Blow,” as a variation of Cheeba. I didn’t like the name, but it spread like wildfire. I had wanted to stick with the name Kool DJ Kurt. But soon after that, I decided to look up the word blow in the dictionary and found about 28 different definitions. I was fascinated. There was blow your horn, blowing in the wind, a force of power and a knockout blow. (I used to box in my teens). It also means to blossom, as in a flower before it spits out the pollen.
JET: What were you studying in college?
KB: I enrolled in CCNY (The City College of New York) in 1976. I was a communications major, focusing on speech and broadcasting. I was going to break into the music industry by going into radio. I had to major in something relative to hip-hop. In 1977, I got the record deal. But I didn’t leave college until 1980. Looking back, being a speech major, another option was to become a preacher. God had other plans.
JET: How did you get discovered?
KB: Back when I was a DJ, I realized that the rapper was important. You couldn’t DJ and rap at the same time. MCs had DJs behind them. I had to figure out a way. I got with Grandmaster Flash. At that time, we did shows together. We were at a hip-hop party at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street in New York during the summer of 1979. We rocked the house that night. Two writers from Billboard magazine— JB Moore and Robert Ford— were there doing a story on hip-hop. Russell Simmons convinced them to put me in the article and to use me in a record. Moore and Ford wrote my first song “Christmas Rappin’.”
JET: How did you feel when your track “The Breaks” became the first certified gold record rap song?
KB: It was a dream world. It was awesome. The best time of my life. I was a kid coming out of the ghetto, 19-20 years old, traveling the world on a promotional tour doing interview after interview. I was the first rapper on a major label, which had offices in cities around the world— like Rome, Berlin and Paris. It was an incredible time for hip-hop, the newest sensation rocking the nation.
JET: What are you thoughts on today’s hip-hop?
KB: There has been a bona fide evolution in all of the elements— in the lyrics, music promotion and business. Whether you like it or not, we live in a hip-hop nation.
JET: You were born again in 1994. What was that experience like?
KB: It was a transition of three to four years. One day I was bored, and picked up the Bible. I got so interested in the stories of the Old Testament. It became my mission to read the entire Bible. I realized that I’m an old soul; I used to love watching classic movies like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. I was intrigued reading about Abraham, David, King Solomon and Moses. Then when I got to the Gospels, there were so many fascinating stories about Jesus as a healer, preacher and miracle worker. When I got to Revelations, that was it. The colorful imagery— it was the best writing that I’d ever read. I started going to church and fellowshipping with people. It’s been a wonderful journey. In 2006, I started classes at Nyack College, where I majored in theology and minored in pastoral ministry. God is awesome. I’ve seen miracles.
JET: What is your Hip-Hop Church about?
KB: It’s a format for any nondenominational church that caters to the youth and the hip-hop nation— worship, praise and prayer. Sermons with swagger. You can find in it in 60 to 70 churches around the country, including Rev. Dr. Stephen Pogue’s AME Zion Church in Mount Vernon, NY. We teach about Jesus, the Good News and the Gospels. People come to church looking for Kurtis Blow, but they leave with Jesus.
JET: What is your documentary series on hip-hop going to cover?
KB: It’ll be a 13-episode cable TV series on the legacy of hip-hop. I’ve been traveling all over the world— the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, etc.— to meet and fellowship with different nationalities who have embraced hip-hop, from DJs to breakdancers. We’re still in the process of editing and researching.
JET: Are you recording any new music?
KB: I recently collaborated with the Christian hip-hop/rock band Bride Dressed in Black. We have a new song out titled “Hip Rock.”
JET: Have you stopped performing secular music?
KB: No. In fact, I still sing “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’” and “Basketball” in church. People request it. It’s good, happy stuff.
Follow Kurtis Blow on Twitter @KurtisBlow1.