As a genre, hip-hop hits the big 4-0 this September. That’s when the seminal 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” celebrates its 40th anniversary. Widely lauded as the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” opened the floodgates for a host of rap records to gain mainstream appeal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, The Sequence, Busy Bee, The Funky 4 + 1 and The Treacherous Three took hip-hop from the South Bronx parks to the recording studio. But of all the early hip-hoppers who broke that ground, no one crashed the mainstream quite like Kurtis Blow.
Blow’s musical legacy is without question. Born Kurtis Walker in 1959, Blow, who turns 60 on Aug. 9, was the first rapper to sign with a major label and the first to become a mainstream star. Signing with Mercury Records in 1979, Blow was managed by an up-and-coming Russell Simmons and had instrumentalists Orange Krush playing on his tracks. His charisma made him hip-hop’s first major solo star, and his hooky songs got him airplay in places most of hip-hop hadn’t reached yet. Before forming Run-DMC, a teenage Run got his big start as Blow’s deejay, and Blow would collaborate with rhythm and blues stars René & Angela and produce tracks for the platinum-selling Fat Boys. Between 1979 and 1985, Blow delivered classic radio hits like “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’,” “If I Ruled the World” and “Basketball” — songs that would be sampled and revisited by everyone from Nas to Next. With the possible exception of turntablist Grandmaster Flash, Blow is arguably the most famous of hip-hop’s pre-Run-DMC pioneers.
Flash turned 60 back in January 2018, and there wasn’t much celebration for the hip-hop legend. But that’s not an anomaly. Forty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” early hip-hop tends to be celebrated for its historical importance but not as classic music. It doesn’t help that the music born of the Bronx and spread via boutique labels like Sugar Hill and Enjoy had a fairly limited audience. Artists who laid the foundations in the days before Yo! MTV Raps and multiplatinum albums weren’t always visible outside of the 1970s and ’80s New York City, so acts like the Cold Crush Brothers and The Treacherous Three didn’t have the reach that their funk and disco contemporaries enjoyed — and so many of those acts can still sell tickets and enjoy major streaming numbers today.
But that’s why Kurtis Blow matters so much: He had the most mainstream appeal. He broke through to pop and R&B audiences at a time when rap music was still seen as a novelty. His signing with Mercury gave him a platform most of his peers didn’t have. Dubbed “The King of Rap,” Blow gained a much higher profile. As hip-hop is lauded for its ability to affect contemporary trends and tastes, it should also be recognized as a genre and art form that has a long history. This is no longer a “young genre” per se; it’s been four decades since the Sugarhill Gang and more than 25 years since The Chronic. Part of recognizing the maturation of hip-hop would be to acknowledge how rich its legacy is. That means celebrating the greatness of its pioneers, not just for “paving the way” for what came after but also for the merits of their actual music.
On April 30, Blow announced via Instagram his hospitalization for heart surgery. He explained that he would be undergoing surgery at UCLA Medical Center.
“I am preparing for an aortic artery repair procedure tomorrow morning,” read the post’s caption. “The procedure will stabilize the artery from further damage caused by the hematoma I contacted from my recent travels to China.”
And just three days later, Blow shared that he was on the road to recovery. “Hey everyone- I started physical therapy yesterday and occupational therapy today. I am on my way to a full recovery 100%. Thank you for all of your prayers and well wishes. I love you all and I will be back really soon!!God is most powerful in these times!!!! Please keep the prayers going up so the blessings will come down!!!To God be the glory Amen!!!”
But shortly thereafter, Simmons shared troubling news:
“F—, Captain Kurt damn!!! He just informed me that prayers are needed ..Please put @kurtisblow THE ORIGINAL ‘KING OF RAP’ back into your prayers. He has been called to second emergency open heart surgery. Kurtis Blow is a survivor, but this is not good. I say this to all who loved his music, his heart is bigger than his music. His family is a testimony to his goodness. His loving wife of at least 35 years and beautiful children are examples of his willingness to give. Let’s all give him the prayers and our blessings. Update from his wife Shirley ‘Kurtis’s heart is beating on its own. They are closing should finished closing in less than 2 hours. Glory to God Glory to God hallelujah hallelujah’ Shirley Let us continue to pray.”
Blow recovered from the ordeal and shared that he was recuperating, but his health scare was a reminder that hip-hop’s earliest stars are truly elders now. Those names like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, as well as even earlier pioneers like Kool Herc, Busy Bee and DJ Hollywood, deserve more than to be relegated to niche status.
It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. A Kurtis Blow tribute at a hip-hop awards show doesn’t sound all that impossible, does it? Couldn’t you see a cool little medley? With Nas flipping “If I Ruled the World” as a nod, Romeo milking the nostalgia with his cover of “Basketball” and maybe having Next remind everyone where “Too Close” originally comes from (that would be Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’”) — and close with the everybody-knows-this universality of “The Breaks.”
Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Or maybe it’s already on the radar — let’s be positive. But as hip-hop enters middle age, it’s past time we start treating it like a classic genre. And it’s time we treat its founding fathers like the music legends that they are. Give Kurtis Blow his flowers. The man who would rule the world.