A quick flashback to the simpler times of 1980 takes you to a place where 50 cents gets you a dozen eggs, $2.25 could purchase a movie ticket, and hip-hop was still in its commercial infancy. And then Kurtis Blow arrived.
A wide-eyed 21-year-old hailing from Harlem, Blow helped thrust rap into the mainstream for the masses with his second single “The Breaks,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Sunday (June 14). The seven-minute “progressive disco-funk” anthem — which is the sub-genre Kurtis Blow coined when crafting his signature sound — would go on to notch the Mercury Records artist a series of music firsts, as Blow entered the “dream world” that allowed him to live out his fantasy as rap’s first solo superstar.
“The Breaks” made history as the first rap song to ever be gold-certified by the RIAA — yes, he’s still got the plaque — and the second 12-inch single overall to go gold. Kurtis’ funky rhymes freed hip-hop from the shackles to infiltrate radio dials across the country. The domino effect continued for Blow to impact the charts, which led to “The Breaks” peaking at No. 87 on the Hot 100 and No. 4 on Billboard‘s R&B Songs chart.
One person in the studio that helped write and produce the salient “The Breaks” was the late Robert “Rocky” Ford Jr., who passed away at age 70 in May. The hip-hop pioneer played an integral role in Blow’s rise to stardom, as Kurtis looked at him as a father figure, who helped him shed his shy tendencies and turn into a more evocative performer on stage.
“He traveled with me for the first year or so, doing shows, live performances,” Blow told Billboard earlier in June. “I remember having many conversations with him, either on a plane or riding in a car somewhere or waiting backstage. He taught me how to become a man.”
With your boombox turned all the way up, dive into our nostalgic interview with Kurtis Blow, where he reminisces on 40 years of “The Breaks,” his friendship with Robert Ford Jr., why Michael Jordan stopped talking to him on the quest to his first NBA title, and more.
Billboard: “The Breaks” is turning 40-years-old this weekend. What do you remember most from that time in your life?
Kurtis Blow: I remember it being like a dream world. It was a series of miracles and blessings from God. I was in the right place at the right time and available for all of the promotion and press for the documentation of this birth of the culture. The record was the first certified-gold record in hip-hop.
Do you still have the plaque?
Yes, I do. It was the second certified 12-inch in the history of music. It was one of the first songs to have a hook that was a repetitive chorus and once you heard it, you were hearing it throughout the day.
“The Breaks” was one of the first rap songs to make the Hot 100. Were the charts something you were focused on?
It was something incredible. I was 21-years-old and the record actually peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard R&B [Songs] chart. I thought I hit the big time and had a hit record. The chart positions were proof. I’m 21, and I just made it into manhood and here I have the No. 1 record in the country. It was an awesome time for me.
With Robert Ford Jr. passing away in May, can you speak to your friendship with Rocky and him writing a portion of “The Breaks,” as well as being like a father figure to you?
Here’s a great story about that. Rocky and I were at odds in the studio over this song. I had developed a love for the piano, which is my favorite instrument. Denzel [Miller] comes in the studio — he’s one of the guys that helped me build my sound — we already cut the song and we’re at the part creating the solo.
Rocky loves Denzel Miller doing a solo with a synthesizer, which is an electronic instrument and the sound was called a clavinet. Of course, he did the piano solo first. I wanted the piano, but Rocky wanted the clavinet. So we were going back-and-forth and we decided to use both of them. So you’ll hear the clavinet under the piano and Denzel Miller played the same kind of solo and it matched perfectly.
How about Rocky urging you to become a better performer?
The problem I had was still being shy. Dealing with people after the show was always a problem. Of course, he gave me good pointers as far as eye contact and focusing on one person in the crowd, then move across to the next one with eye contact in the audience and smile and be happy. If you’re smiling, you’re projecting happiness and that’s gonna make people feel good inside when they leave. He explained the job of an entertainer is to entertain. You don’t want them to feel bad or be angry, you want them to be happy and that’s when they’ll come back to get more.
The performance aspect of it — we discussed crowd response, which was so very important. In the first shows of hip-hop, making the people in the audience part of the concert was very important. People love that, and want to go to the next club. That was a big feather in the cap of hip-hop. It gained so much popularity because of the crowd response, and Rocky was a big stickler for it. He was telling me to analyze my audience, because you’ll get caught out there without a response.
“The Breaks” really helped push hip-hop into the mainstream.
Yes, it definitely did — because it was a pop song. It was a huge radio record, and opened the door to radio for [hip-hop]. I think it was the seventh or eighth rap record ever made. So you had this possibility of careers happening. We opened the door for radio to say, “Okay, this is normal and not a flash in the pan — and we can support this thing.” I became a big radio artist for a couple of years after that. I was the only [rap] artist on the radio nationally between 1980 to 1983.
With Andre Harrell also passing away in May, I was wondering if you had any stories to share about your time working with Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde?
I had a great time working with Andre Harrell and his partner Alonzo. They came along at the time I was really a hot producer. I put together this song for them that signified success in creating hit songs. They put out “AM/PM” and it was just a beat and that went to No. 1 in New York City. I remember hearing that on the radio and thinking that we had arrived. I had a team of writers and we’d go into the studio and knock out these songs like an army.
How does it feel when artists sample your work — like “Basketball” on the Like Mike soundtrack?
Whenever that happens, it’s a straight honor. My appreciation goes out to all the artists that covered my songs. The best form of flattery is doing a cover to their songs. Next went triple-platinum with that “Too Close” song.
There was a band called Queen, who did a song called “Another One Bites the Dust,” and that uses the “Christmas Rappin'” bassline. They just did Bohemian Rhapsody, and they talked about creating that beat and they asked them where’d they got the bassline from, and the dude was silent in the movie. I’m not mad, I have a lot of songs that did get credit. It lets you know that it’s a real classic.
Are there any artists now that remind you of yourself?
I see a lot of myself in Nas. I say that because his lyrical content is really conscientious. At one point, I was like that myself. I see a lot of myself in Drake. His melodies and that’s one thing I can say that I was doing back in 1980. I like his stuff. He’s taking it to the next level and I wish we could’ve done something together.
What did you think of the backlash disco was receiving around 1980 and were you happy to see hip-hop break away from those roots?
It takes me back to a story I have about this. When Russell introduced me to two producers in J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. They decided to make a record with this “Christmas Rappin'” record. I’m sitting at J.B.’s house and they ask me what kind of sound I’m looking for with this record. I said, “James Brown.” I was thinking that — and the No. 1 group was Chic. I said, “I would like a style of music that’s a cross between James Brown and Chic.” I actually gave it its own box with “progressive disco funk.”
I want to get your opinion on the protests against police brutality going on right now following the murder of George Floyd.
My condolences go out to the family of George Floyd and all of the families who have lost someone to police brutality and racism. This oppression goes back 400 years that we’re now standing up and saying, “Take a look!” Thank God for the cell phone because it’s finally being exposed after all these years. There are so many things about systemic racism that are now being exposed.
There’s a lot of pain coming to the forefront. There’s a lot of mental health issues Black people have been faced with for 400 years. There’s racism in religion, institutions, and it’s something that’s infiltrated society for 400 years. I think the encouraging thing about this is to see all the multicultural protestors out there fighting for equal rights. I see white people out there saying, “Black lives matter.” I think there’s hope for this country and we’re ready for change.
What did you think of ESPN’s The Last Dance docu-series?
Yes, I relived all of that stuff. I was hanging out with Charles Oakley, that was my buddy. He actually called me when he got traded to the Knicks and I gave him all the telephone numbers to all the DJs in New York. I wrote a song for Michael Jordan called “Jordan.” It was a crazy good song, but we never put it out. I was hanging out with Jordan when the Bulls finally got to a Finals against the Lakers when I was living in Los Angeles. The press got a hold of me before they got to the Finals during the playoffs, and I was asked about the Bulls chances about getting to the Finals.
I was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they get to play L.A.” I was a big Lakers fan. So Michael got wind of that, and I haven’t talked to him since. That was a local interview in L.A., but it hit the AP. Oakley called me and said, “Michael’s pissed at you, don’t come to the game.” I went to the game and [Jordan] did not acknowledge me. I was hollering at him like, “Mike, Mike.” He just walked away. I did end up seeing him 10 years later after he retired at a function with Russell Simmons and he grabbed us both and gave us big hugs.
What’s the update on the Universal Hip-Hop Museum coming to the Bronx in 2023?
That’s been a dream for the last eight years. This Universal Hip-Hop Museum, we open the doors in 2023, but we start construction in July. The location is 65 East 149th St. across from the Bronx Terminal Market. It’s a dream brick-and-mortar location that everyone can come and learn the history, legacies, stories, and see the memorabilia of this incredible culture all in one place. It’s also going to support the present-day hip-hop as well.
Do you care about getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame one day?
It’s so painful at times, because I see artists like Run D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash [getting in]. Of course, it’s a little frustration, pain, jealousy, and envy. Bottom line, the Bible says you store your treasures up in heaven, so I’m not concerned with that. I’ve experienced so much love and joy being in hip-hop while traveling the world. I’ve met all my heroes and told them I love them. I met Michael Jackson, Prince, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. That’s big for me, just getting out there and showing love. I know I’ve done many great things, and I’m secure in that.