The breakout track that put “Christmas rapper” Kurtis Blow on the map as the first rapper signed to a major label in 1979 is the gift that keeps on giving.
His Mercury Records song “Christmas Rappin’ ” helps set the stage for the “Hip-Hop Nutcracker,” a seasonal production that transports the classic tale with Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score to “ghetto NYC,” as the Harlem native and host of the play puts it.
The show, a mash-up of hip-hop, classical music, breakdancing and ballet, keeps the original character and plot elements of the holiday tale (Maria-Clara and the Mouse King are still there) and places it in contemporary Manhattan where “poor people are using the magic of the holiday season to fight the evils that plague society,” the rapper says.
Though “The Breaks” performer started out as a breakdancer on the streets of Harlem and the Bronx in the early ’70s, the 58-year-old won’t be showing off his moves onstage when it comes to NYC this winter. He will, however, rap a verse or two from his holiday track to kick off the evening.
The fourth annual New Jersey Performing Arts Center-produced “Hip-Hop Nutcracker” begins its national 37-stop tour in November and will hit the United Palace in upper Manhattan Dec. 14 and Kings Theatre in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn Dec. 16.
We caught up with Blow to find out how his early days as a groundbreaking city artist helped him bridge the gap between hip-hop and classical music for the holiday production.
How did you get involved in the “Hip-Hop Nutcracker”?
Actually, I have a friend in the music industry in NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center]. This friend saw me perform [four years ago] and he said, ‘Wow, you’d be incredible to be the host of this new play.’ At that time, I was producing some rap music and it was just by chance I was using that style of music. The fusion between classical music and hip-hop is what I was working on at that time and I thought, ‘Wow, it would be incredible just to see.’ I went to the rehearsals and found out they were working with b-boys and there’s a soft spot in my heart for b-boys being that I started out as a breakdancer.
How far back do your breakdancing roots run?
I’ve been breakdancing since 1972. We had a dance crew [and] we used to go around at what we’d call competitions at the community centers. I was a part of a summer youth program and the coaches got together and opened up a couple of clubs around Harlem and the Bronx, where we started dancing in competitions after we would come from our track or swimming meets. It kept us off the streets in the ’70s. The coaches put together small clubs where we’d compete against each other and that’s how breakdancing started and there was the gang aspect as well. Instead of fighting, we used to have these battles.
Where did you perform in the city in the ’70s?
The 24-hour town, the city that never sleeps. I got my MC and rap experience and my skills from actually having hands-on experience and just practicing in and around New York City. They say, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. At 152nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, there was an old police station that was turned into a community center in 1974 called WHAM. A lot of people don’t know that place but it was three floors. That’s the first place I picked up a microphone. Later on, when I got to college, I was at Smalls Paradise, a place down in midtown Manhattan on 43rd Street and Disco Fever up in the Bronx. Russell Simmons and I, out of college, we started a club called Night Fever Disco over on 201st Street and Hollis Avenue [in St. Albans, Queens] and I was the house DJ.
How does rap music today compare with your early sound?
We went straight from original music, like real bass and real guitar and drums, to the digital world, keyboards and synthesized sounds. It’s definitely modernized to the digital world. We used to record in the ’70s on a system called analog, which means you had an 8-track recorder and used analog tapes to record each instrument’s sound. Nowadays, you can have a computer at your home and have digital software with 256 tracks that are all digital, so it sounds cleaner, but the warmth and soul are gone. The analog sound is just a preference, a taste.
What genre are you listening to today?
I still love my old-school ‘70s funk. There you go.