Photo via Up North Trips
In 1980, Kurtis Blow stood astride a freshly minted genre like a good time goliath. He was the first rapper to sign with a major label, and the first to achieve a gold record with his single, “The Breaks”. In that sense, there will always be a touch of disappointment associated with Blow’s wider career, but the speed of evolution in rap music was too fast for even his impressive charisma to keep up with. Still, Blow made a successful move into production and in the last ten years has become something of a renaissance man via his collaborations with British breakbeat producer, Krafty Kuts. I chatted to Blow on behalf of Scene Magazine in Brisbane, and the man turned out to be both candid about his past and refreshingly positive when discussing the state of modern rap music. Quarter page word counts are a bitch, but not round here. –Matt Shea
Where’s home for you at the moment, Kurtis?
Home is California. Woodland Hills, California. It’s outside of LA – about a half hour outside of LA.
How long have you been there?
Oh, I’ve been out there for about 25 years.
How’s the tour been going?
It’s been incredible. We just played at this big festival, down in Switzerland. There were, like, 20,000 people out there, but on our stage we had about 5,000. It was just incredible. Incredible.
Does it amaze you to a certain extent that The Breaks and that whole debut record has had such longevity with fans? Particularly in the last ten years it seems to have really come back popular consciousness.
It is amazing. Just to see how people know the songs and play ‘em. They like their old school. There’s still a market out there and I still gig all around the world. It’s incredible.
One thing that really interests me about that early period: after that first record you quickly segued into production – what was it that got you behind the boards?
(laughs) That’s a pretty good question. Well, I guess – I want to keep this positive – but I guess it was the dissatisfaction with my own stuff in being produced by other people. J.B. Moore and Robert Ford who did my first five albums, they taught me everything I know, and I would not be here without them, but there was a point in my career where I said, “I need to do this by myself.”
So you just outgrew them, I guess?
Yes, that’s the way it was. For sure.
What do you enjoy more – particularly these days – the production side of things or the MCing side?
Hmmm, that’s pretty good. Both are pretty much fun, and at the top of my list just in terms of satisfaction. But MC-ing, I guess, being out there with the people: that’s what it’s all about; that’s what it’s really all about. We are entertainers and we need to be out there entertaining and making people feel good.
But you’re still heavily involved in the production side of things?
Yes, yes. I’m working on this new album right now, and we’re in the studio today, right now.
You’re now a Christian minister involved in a hip-hop church. How’s that been going?
It’s been going very, very well. I sort of stepped down from ministry this year, just because I wanted to concentrate on my family. My youngest son, who just started college – I had to get him off to college and that was a whole big ordeal, because he’s going to Stanford.
Yes, top notch school! He has a full scholarship and everything, so we’re very, very happy for him: Michael Steven Walker is his name – Michael. And then there’s my oldest son, Kurtis Jnr., who is releasing is own CDs. He has a new one out called Californication – it’s his mix CD that’s out right now (released January 7). His first video he shot just last month, and his second video he shot last week. So he’s really making a name for himself and that’s why I wanted to support him. He’s a hardcore secular rapper, with lyrics that are, ah, different from mine (laughs). Then there’s my middle son, Mark-Anthony Walker, who is attending MIT, which is the top music school in California: he’s going there, taking up studio engineering, and also video editing and everything. He’s really doing his thing. So I wanted to support my guys and just sit back, because they’re getting older now and they need to leave the nest and go out on there own. I wanted to help so I’ve been concentrating on that. But I’ll be back in ministry, I guess by 2012, full time.
Has religion always been a big thing for you, Kurtis, or has it come on in more recent years?
I realise that now more than ever, but back in the day I never knew. As a matter of fact I was running from it. When I was in college I studied communications – I was a speech broadcast major. In hip-hop and rap we’re like orators, you know, we’re public speakers, and I wanted to major in a field that was most relevant to hip-hop, and that’s communications. So, I did a lot of speech courses and stuff, and studying in school I just learned that that greatest orators of our time – the most passionate – were reverends and preachers, and I read a lot of sermons, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X. Of course, JFK and Winston Churchill and Barbara Jordan and people like that: politicians were also passionate. But the greatest politicians were former reverends and so it’s like, “Wow! The most passionate orators in our history were religious people.” So, I knew that there was a big time connection between rap and preaching. Ultimately that was one of the avenues or one of the careers that I could go down and actually seek out. But at that time I was in college and I figured it out that was like, “Oh no. No way!” (laughs) I’d rather be on TV, dude! (laughs) Even politics: I didn’t want to be a politician because I’m too militant and I’d be like one of those Malcolm X guys – I’d probably get assassinated (laughs), so that was a no-go.
You talk about your sons getting involved in hip-hop. Are you happy with the modern trajectory of rap music?
Hey, listen. I’m one of the elder spokesmen of hip-hop so I want to keep it positive and support all of the young cats that are out there doin’ their thing. So, I say this: the raps nowadays are faster, wittier, they’re more complicated. It’s a challenge for an old schooler to keep up. But there’s mad flavour, there’s a lot of variety. We’ve got the dirty south, the west coast, the traditional New York east coast. It’s crazy: there’s a lot of different styles, but the most incredible thing about hip-hop now is that if you travel outside of America and you go to Germany, they rap in German. You go to France, they rap in French. You go to Spain, they rap in Spanish At first everyone was rapping in English, but it seems like the world has embraced this culture, hip-hop, and made it their own culture. Rapping in their native tongues, and they have become the top pop artists in their countries as well. It’s amazing, just to see it go down, and I was there from the beginning – we changed the world.
You were the first rapper to get a major label deal. What do you think of the relationship between labels and hip-hop in the digital age – is the major label system in tune with the future of rap music?
That’s a very, very good question, Matt, and I will tell you: I do not have a clue! I’ll be honest, this is a territory that I have not ventured down (laughs). I have no idea; I can not. I can speculate and say that, you know, of course we all need to adapt to the technology and now the digital age is the thing, and we have downloading on the internet and iTunes to every different website from dattpiff.com to Hip-hop 4 Life, and it’s incredible to see how it has changed, and the relationship between the record company and the artist has changed as well. I remember going up to Sony and Universal and the energy, the spirit, was gone: it was like a ghost town, everybody was quiet, nobody was playing music in their offices, the conference room wasn’t bangin’. You know, like really quiet – low-key – as opposed to being a vibrant, passionate, over-the-top music industry, you know what I’m sayin’? And here’s another thing: the record deals have changed dramatically. And now: could you imagine that record companies want a percentage of the artist’s live show? The money they make from touring? You know what I mean? That’s a big, big change – a big change. ANNNND publishing! (laughs) So, it’s changed a lot.
You’re known for your live energy Kurtis…
Is hip-hop for you personally something that works best on the stage?
For me, I guess the answer is yes, until I slow down. At 51 and still breakdancing, it’s kinda like amazing. I mean, I’m pretty much in shape, you know, but I don’t know anybody my age still doin’ it. All of my old breakdance buddies have stopped. But it’s a good feeling just to be out there onstage – I love it and I will continue to do it until I can’t.
Plans for the rest of the year? You’re working on an album, yes?
Working on a CD, yes, with DJ Tomekk here in Berlin. He’s a very well known DJ here in Europe. We have incredible songs, and I’m also supporting my oldest, Kurtis Blow Jnr., with his new Califonication mix CD. He’s going to do some more projects: he’ll be rappin’ for the rest of his life as well. We’re gonna do something together next month, a project together, called The Legacy – you’ll see father and son real soon.
MP3: Kurtis Blow-“The Breaks”