Happy birthday to Kurtis Blow, the original ‘King of Rap’ ‘The Breaks,’ ‘Christmas Rappin,’’ ‘If I Ruled the World’ made him rap’s first major solo star

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.

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.

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.

The 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time

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.”

Kurtis Blow performs during an old-school hip-hop show on Day 3 of the NAACP’s 108th Annual Convention at the Baltimore Convention Center in July 2017.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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.

Today in black history: The Dominican Republic is free; happy birthday, Marian Anderson and James Worthy; and first black woman becomes lawyer The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 27

1844 — The Dominican Republic gains its independence from the border nation of Haiti. The countries share the island of Hispaniola, and both had been under Haitian rule for more than a couple of decades, first by the Spanish and then by the French.

1872 — Charlotte Ray, the first African-American female lawyer in the United States, graduates from Howard University School of Law. Ray was also the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Sadly but predictably, her practice could not withstand discrimination and prejudice, so she packed up and moved to New York, where she became a teacher and got involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

1902 – Happy birthday, Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Born in Philadelphia, Anderson became a world-renowned opera singer and the first African-American soloist to perform at the White House and also performed at major music venues.

1961 – Happy birthday, James Worthy. Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, Worthy played 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers and was a seven-time NBA All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and the 1988 NBA Finals MVP.

Today in black history: W.E.B. Du Bois is born, a black woman is elected Manhattan borough president and Gen. Frank Petersen is put in charge The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 23

1868 — Happy birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whom the world would come to know as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he lived until heading off to attend college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Du Bois’ experiences in college opened his eyes to the severity of racial discrimination in the South. After graduating from Fisk, he returned north to attend Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first African-American to do so.

1929 — Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard is born in St. Louis. Howard led an active life as a child, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he was taken seriously as an athlete. While playing baseball, Howard was approached by Frank Tetnus Edwards, a former Negro Leaguer and St. Louis Braves staff member. After persuading his mother, Howard played with the Braves over the summer. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest-paid player in the history of baseball at the time.

1929 — Joe Louis knocks out Nathan Mann in three rounds to take the heavyweight boxing title.

1965 — Constance Baker Motley is elected Manhattan borough president. Motley was a civil rights lawyer who became involved with the movement after being discriminated against while attempting to enter a public beach. Motley began her studies at Fisk University, then went on to New York University before earning her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman elected to the New York Senate. Motley broke barriers once more when she was elected the first female president of Manhattan borough the following year.

1979 — Frank E. Petersen Jr. is named the first black general in the Marine Corps. Petersen was determined to serve his country despite racial discrimination. Petersen attended school in Topeka, Kansas, before attempting to join the U.S. Navy. In his first attempt, Petersen was asked to take the entrance exam over again because administrators believed he’d cheated. In 1950, two years after the desegregation of the armed forces, Petersen enlisted in the Navy. Two years later, Petersen, now a Marine, completed flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Petersen also became the Marines’ first black aviator. He served as commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and in 1988 retired as the first black three-star lieutenant general. Petersen died on Aug. 25, 2015, of lung cancer. He was 83.

Today in black history: Dr. J is born, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith win a Grammy The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 22

1950 – Happy birthday, Dr. J. Julius Winfield “Dr. J” Erving is known for dunking from the free throw line and leaping above the rim. Erving won two ABA championships, one NBA title and four MVP awards. He spent time with the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, the Virginia Squires and the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

1989 — DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (aka Will Smith) get the Grammy. The rapper/DJ duo of Smith and Jazzy Jeff was the first rap group to win a Grammy for best rap performance for the hit single “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The best rap performance category was first presented at the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in 1989. They beat out J.J. Fad for “Supersonic,” Kool Moe Dee for “Wild Wild West,” LL Cool J for “Going Back to Cali” and Salt-N-Pepa for “Push It.” Jazzy Jeff and Smith boycotted the Grammys that year because their category wasn’t televised.

Today in black history: Malcolm X assassinated, John Lewis, Barbara Jordan and Nina Simone are born The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 21

1936 — Happy birthday, Barbara Jordan. A lawyer and educator and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, Jordan became the first African-American woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She is known for her opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment process against then-President Richard Nixon. She was also the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. Jordan died in 1996 at age 59.

1933 — Happy birthday, Nina Simone. Born Eunice Waymon, Simone was a singer, songwriter and musician who became a civil rights activist. She owned a broad catalog of music, as her talents represent styles in jazz, classical, gospel, folk, and rhythm and blues. She was born in North Carolina and enrolled in Juilliard School of Music in New York. She recorded influential records such as “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Put a Spell on You.” She died in 2003.

1940 — Happy birthday, John Lewis, a civil rights leader and political activist who was an early member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He has served as the U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987 and is the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. While chairman of the SNCC, he was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was a key contributor to the civil rights movement and still moves the needle for equality today. Lewis has received a number of awards, including the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

1961 — Otis Boykin patents the electrical resistor. Boykin invented the electrical resistor, U.S. patent No. 2,972,726, the electrical device used in all guided missiles and IBM computers. Boykin’s noteworthy inventions include a wire precision resistor and a control unit for the pacemaker. He graduated from Fisk College in 1941 and took a job with the Majestic Radio and TV Corp. When he died in 1982 of heart failure, he had 26 patents in his name.

1965 Malcolm X (1925-65) is assassinated in Audubon Ballroom. Born Malcolm Little, the minister and human rights activist was shot in New York just before delivering a speech to his newly founded Organization of Afro-American Unity. After becoming El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X was known as a prolific orator and one of the most influential people in history. His life was chronicled in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to by Alex Haley, and in the movie Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee.

Today in black history: Happy birthday, Charles Barkley and Sidney Poitier, first black umpire certified, RIP Frederick Douglass, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 20

1895 — Abolitionist Frederick Douglass dies in the District of Columbia. The famous abolitionist, lecturer, orator and writer died in his Anacostia Heights, Washington, D.C., home at 78.

1927 — Happy birthday, Sidney Poitier. Born in Miami, Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).

1936 — John Hope dies at 67. Hope was the first black president of Morehouse College (1906) and Atlanta University, the first graduate school for blacks (1929). Hope was also a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

1937 — Nancy Wilson is born. Wilson won Grammys for best rhythm and blues recording for “How Glad I Am” and best jazz vocal album prizes for R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) in 2004 and Turned to Blue in 2006. In 2002, the singer won a George Foster Peabody Award for her NPR radio show, Jazz Profiles. She died in 2018.

1951 — Emmett Ashford becomes the certified first black umpire in organized baseball.

1963 — Happy birthday, Charles Barkley. At the conclusion of his 16-year NBA career, Barkley was one of four players in league history with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone. Barkley is now a TNT NBA analyst.

1976 — Muhammad Ali knocks out Belgian boxer Jean-Pierre Coopman in five rounds in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a fight sometimes referred to by fans as a “glorified sparring session.”

Today in black history: Smokey Robinson is born, John Singleton nominated for an Oscar, Tuskegee Airmen are here, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 19

1940 – Happy birthday, Smokey Robinson.William “Smokey” Robinson is born in 1940 in Detroit. Robinson iss ranked 20th on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers, and was once called America’s “greatest living poet” by Bob Dylan. He wrote some of rhythm and blues’ most classic love songs by groups such as The Temptations and The Supremes. He sang hits such as “Cruisin’,” “Tears of a Clown” and “Ooo Baby Baby.”

1942 – Tuskegee Airmen are initiated into the armed forces. They were the first African-American flying unit in the U.S. military, and flew 1,578 missions and won more than 850 medals.

1992 – John Singleton is nominated for an Oscar for Boyz n the Hood (1991). He was the youngest African-American and, at 24, the youngest person to be nominated for the Academy Award for best director. Singleton was also nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay.

2002 – Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers wins gold. Flowers becomes the first black person to win a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Flowers started as a track and field star, but eventually retired from the sport and switched to bobsledding.

Today in black history: Toni Morrison is born, first all-black Broadway musical debuts, Shani Davis wins gold, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 18

1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies is held. Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”

1896 — Razor-stropping device is patented. Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.

1903 — First all-black musical opens on Broadway. In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theatre and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison. Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.

2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black person to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympics history. Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.

Today in black history: Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and Huey P. Newton are born, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 17

1891 —Butter churn is patented. Inventor Albert Richardson created the tall wooden cylinder with a plunger handle to improve the butter-making process. Richardson realized the up-and-down movement caused oily parts of cream or milk to separate them from the water portions.

1902 — Opera singer Marian Anderson is born in Philadelphia. Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial in an open-air recital after her concert at Constitution Hall, which was controlled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, was canceled after they refused to allow her to perform. At the age of 17, Anderson placed first over 299 other singers in the New York Philharmonic competition. In 1930, she traveled to Europe after she was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, allowing her to study abroad for a year. Three years later, she debuted in Berlin and performed 142 concerts in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Anderson signed with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

1936 — Happy birthday, Jim Brown. Over the course of his nine-season tenure with the Cleveland Browns, Pro Football Hall of Famer Brown enjoyed four MVP seasons. The St. Simons Island, Georgia, native was a staunch civil rights activist and the founder of a plethora of organizations aimed at helping the disenfranchised.

1938 — Activist Mary Frances Berry is born in Nashville, Tennessee. Berry became the first woman to serve as a chancellor of a major research university at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has been active in the fight for civil rights, gender equality and social justice. During four presidential administrations, Berry served as chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Berry was also the principal education official in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

1942 — Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton is born in Monroe, Louisiana. As a response to police brutality and racism, in 1966, Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther group. The organization was founded to build self-reliance for the black community. At its peak, there were approximately 2,000 members in city chapters across the nation. In 1971, Newton proclaimed that the Black Panthers would dedicate themselves to providing social services to the black community and adopt a nonviolent approach.

1963 — Happy birthday, Michael Jordan. Jordan, considered by many the greatest of all time, was a six-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, five-time NBA MVP, 14-time NBA All-Star, three-time NBA All-Star MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and more. He retired with the NBA’s highest scoring average of 30.1 points per game. He owns the Charlotte Hornets and created the Jordan Brand for Nike.

1967 — Happy birthday, Ronnie DeVoe. He was the fifth member of New Edition, and was introduced to the group by his uncle, their former manager. DeVoe later became a founding member of rhythm and blues group Bell Biv DeVoe with two other New Edition members, Michael Bivins and Ricky Bell.

1973 — First naval frigate named after an African-American is commissioned. Ensign Jesse L. Brown was the U.S. Navy’s first African-American pilot and was killed in combat during a mission in Korea. Brown earned his pilot wings alone while in the Navy, unlike his Army aviator colleagues, who broke the color barrier with the Tuskegee Airmen. Brown, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who used to steer mules in cotton fields, saved his money up so that he could attend Ohio State like his idol, Olympic track superstar Jesse Owens.

Today in black history: Joe Frazier wins heavyweight title, Magic Johnson’s jersey retired The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 16

1957 – Happy birthday, LeVar Burton. Burton is known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He also had a recurring role in the Star Trek: Next Generation series and movies and was host for more than 20 years of Reading Rainbow.

1958 – Happy birthday, Ice T. Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice T, is mostly celebrated for his rap songs concerning street life and violence. He has been an influential figure for the gangster rap genre. Highly controversial songs such as “Cop Killer” brought him much fame. He also pursued a career in acting, his most noteworthy character being that of a police officer on the show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

1970 – Joe Frazier knocks out Jimmy Ellis. Frazier, a 6-1 favorite, fought Ellis for the heavyweight title in front of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Ellis was knocked down at the end of the fourth round and trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him go back out, making Frazier the undisputed heavyweight champion.

1992 – Magic Johnson’s jersey is retired. A tearful Johnson thanked Larry Bird and the fans at the Great Western Forum as his No. 32 jersey was retired by the Los Angeles Lakers.