Blow, Kurtis 1959–
Kurtis Blow 1959–
Considered by some the “King of Rap,” Kurtis Blow is at the very least one of the genre’s leading pioneers. For many years rap’s best-selling solo artist, Blow was the first rap artist to release a major-label single, 1979’s “The Breaks,” and the first rapper to sell over a million copies. Blow’s profile dropped in the late 1980s and the hardcore hip-hop sound began to take over. Inspired by his role in the rap film. Krush Groove, he then sought to test his mettle as an actor. Blow’s career was revived somewhat in the 1990s as interest grew in the “old-school” rap of his heyday. He hosted a radio show called “The Old-School Show,” and organized a concert tour of some of rap’s pioneers called “The Old-School Reunion Tour.”
Born Kurt Walker on August 9, 1959, in New York City’s Harlem borough, Blow enrolled in the City College of New York in 1976, where he studied vocal performance. He became program director of the college’s radio station, and started hanging out with friends and City College fellows who would become rap legends. His circle in those days included Grandmaster Flash, Mele Mel, and future rap producer and co-founder of the Def Jam record label, Russell Simmons, among others.
As early as 1976, Blow was rapping in Harlem clubs, including Small’s Paradise and Charles Gallery. Blow borrowed heavily from his inspirations, including Cool DJ Herc, a Jamaican who has been described, according to the Los Angeles Times, as the “Godfather of Hip-Hop,” and “blatantly copping rhymed lines from an originator of rap, Deejay Hollywood (Anthony Halloway),” according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Blow began his career with Russell Simmons as his manager and Simmons’s younger brother, Joey—who would become Run of Run-DMC—on the turntables.
In 1979 Blow recorded the single “Christmas Rapping,” which was co-written by Billboard columnist Rocky Ford. The song became an underground hit, and attracted the interest of the Mercury record label. Blow was the first rap artist to sign to a major label and released “The Breaks,” from his forthcoming debut album, 1980’s Kurtis Blow. “The Breaks” made it to Number four on Billboard’s R&B chart and was certified gold for sales over a million. The single brought Blow up from the underground and placed him at the forefront of commercially successful rap.
At a Glance…
Born Kurt Walker on August 9, 1959, in Harlem, NY; married; children: three sons. Education: City College of New York, studied vocal performance, 1976.
Careen: Worked as a club DJ in Harlem, began rapping, c. 1976; changed his stage name from Kool DJ Kurt to Kurtis Blow; released hit holiday single “Holiday Rapping,” 1979; signed a record contract with Mercury Records, becoming first rap artist to cut records for a major label; released single “The Breaks,” 1979; released first LP, Kurtis Blow, 1980; toured United States and Europe with Davey D, 1980-81; Deuce, 1981; Party Time?, 1983; appeared in the film Krush Groove, 1983; Ego Trip, 1984; appeared in commercials for Sprite, 1986; organized all-star King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew to record the Martin Luther King tribute, “King Holiday”; Kingdom Blow, 1986; recorded anti-drug song, “Ya Gotta Say No,” 1987; wrote rap segments for the soap opera One Life to Live, 1991-92; hosted radio program “The Old School Show” on KPWR-FM, 1995; organized “Old-School Reunion Tour,” featuring rappers Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, Sugarhill Gang, and Kool Moe Dee, 1999.
Awards: Named Producer of the Year in New York for his work with Sweet G, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Fearless Four, 1983-85.
Addresses: c/o Allied Artists Entertainment Group, 1801 Avenue of the Stars, suite 600, Los Angeles, CA, 10067.
As the 1980s wore on, Blow’s career began to wane. Rap was becoming increasingly harder-edged and began to outgrow its innocence. Blow’s 1983 five-song EP, Party Time?, deserved more attention than it got, according to critic Ron Wynn in the All Music Guide, but failed to make waves beyond peaking at Number 67 on the UK charts. 1984’s Ego Trip produced the novelty single, “Basketball,” which made it to Number 71 in the United States, but failed to win critics’ favor.
Though his own star was fading, Blow increasingly became known for his talents as a producer, guiding the sounds of such acts as Sweet G, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Fearless Four. He was named Producer of the Year in New York for three consecutive years, 1983-85. In 1985, Blow appeared on a single by René & Angela called “Save Your Love (For Number One),” and on the Artists United Against Apartheid single, “Sun City.” Though it produced what would be his last, albeit lukewarm, hit, “I’m Chillin’,” Blow’s 1986 album, Kingdom Blow, was a “commercial and critical flop,” according to a review found on RollingStone.com, as was 1988’s Back by Popular Demand. In 1987 Blow wrote and recorded the anti-drug rap “Ya Gotta Say No” with funding from President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign.
Blow made an appearance on the big screen in 1985’s hip-hop drama, Krush Groove. The story is based on the life of Russell Simmons, and stars pop artist Sheila E., Run-DMC, The Fat Boys, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Blow. In the movie, Run-DMC has a hit record on their hands, but no money to press copies of it. The fictitious young record producer, Russell Walker, played by Blair Underwood, borrows money from a shady character while attempting to woo Sheila E. Though it won only lukewarm reviews, the film has become something of a cult classic—a visual piece of rap history. Blow has also appeared on the small screen on the soap opera One Life to Live, and wrote some rap segments for the show in the early 1990s.
After the moderate success of Krush Groove, Blow moved to Woodland Hills, California with his wife and three sons to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. His acting career didn’t take off beyond an appearance in a Sprite ad, but Blow found himself back on the radio airwaves. As a weekend DJ and Sunday host of “The Old-School Show” on Los Angeles’ KPWR-FM, Blow revisited the music of rap’s early days and played the soul, funk, and R&B standards that inspired rap’s pioneers. A renewed interest in “old-school” music in general had breathed a little life into Blow’s waning career. When Blow started hearing some of his old hits on the radio, he saw it as an opportunity for a comeback. A variety of guests made appearances on the weekly four-hour show, including pop singer Jody Watley, rappers Tone-Loc and Ice-T, and Blow’s old pals Run-DMC.
Blow’s radio show evolved into 1999’s “Old-School Reunion Tour,” featuring rappers Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, Sugarhill Gang, and Kool Moe Dee. The tour played dates across the United States, but “What could have been an enjoyable evening of old-school hip-hop,” wrote Soren Baker in the Los Angeles Times. “…turned into a showcase for a group of narcissistic artists who seemed more concerned with celebrating themselves than their music’s achievements.” The aging rappers appeared to be moving a little slow, Baker noted. She did add, however, that Blow’s performance—backed by the New York City Breakers break-dancing crew—was the “most enjoyable” of the show.
While Blow respected the work today’s hard-core rappers have done to succeed, he lamented that rap and hip-hop have evolved into such a negative stereotype. “I have mixed feelings,” he told Crowe in the Los Angeles Times, “I hate it because you work so hard … to build something positive… and it turns out to be negative. And that’s not cool.” While commercially successful rappers like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and the late Tupac Shakur’s rhymes are peppered with expletives and other controversial lyrics, Blow never even so much as uttered a single curse word on any of his releases. The rapper himself believed that his cleaner, more philosophical rhymes were the reason his career took a downturn. Blow told the Los Angeles Times, “The sacrifice was I didn’t sell a lot of records [after his initial success], because a lot of people thought my stuff was corny.”
Kurtis Blow, Mercury, 1980.
Deuce, Mercury, 1981.
Tough, Mercury, 1982.
Ego Trip, Mercury, 1984.
Rapper in Town, Mercury, 1984.
America, Mercury, 1985.
Kingdom Blow, Mercury, 1986.
The Breaks, Mercury, 1986
Back by Popular Demand, Mercury, 1988.
The Best of Kurtis Blow, Mercury, 1994.
Only the Strong Survive, Mercury.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Pareles, Jon, and Romanowski, Patricia, editors, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd, and Crampton, Luke, Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK Publishing, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, February 21, 1992, p. 52.
Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1995, p. 76; September 14, 1999, p. 2.
Time, November 18, 1985, p. 94.
Washington Post, January 4, 1987, p. G3.
AMG All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 10, 2001).
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (August 21, 2001).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (August 3, 2001).
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