Kurtis Blow & The Hip Hop Nutcracker

As the holiday hip hop tour heads to Portland, rap pioneer and show MC Kurtis Blow talks about his career, his faith, and his heart transplant.

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The holiday season begins in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, with a single live performance of The Hip Hop Nutcracker at Keller Auditorium, featuring one of the founding fathers of hip hop, Kurtis Blow as the Emcee and host. Directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, this Nutcracker is based in New York City. The story begins on New Year’s Eve in 1980 and follows Maria-Clara on her adventures with The Nutcracker Prince. It features Tchaikovsky’s music, a dozen all-star hip hop and contemporary dancers, a DJ, and a violinist, with visual effects that transform the stage into a vibrant city. 

Emcee Kurtis Blow is an American rapper, producer, singer, songwriter, actor, activist, and ordained minister. His most well-known songs are The Breaks (1980), Christmas Rappin’ (1980), and Basketball (1984). At 20, he was the first rapper to sign with a major recording label, and his single The Breaks was the first certified gold record rap song. Kurtis Blow was also the first rapper to tour internationally, the first rapper to record a national commercial, and the first rapper to use the drum machine and sample loop. He was the first rapper with a music video, the first rap producer, the first rapper featured in a soap opera, and the first rap millionaire. 

Photo courtesy of Kurtis Blow

As special guest MC, he bookends The Hip Hop Nutcracker by revving the audience up and getting them excited for the show, taking a musical trip down memory lane with a few old-school hip hop songs, singing and dancing in the aisles, and a countdown on New Year’s Eve, then closing with a performance of his song The Breaks. 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker has been touring annually beginning in 2015, and this year’s cast is in the midst of its Northwest swing: It played Eugene on Friday the 12th, is in Seattle on Saturday and Sunday, Olympia on Monday, and Portland on Tuesday before heading to Denver and other cities for performances through Jan. 2, 2022. A couple of weeks ago I had the immense honor and pleasure to interview Kurtis Blow over Zoom. He was warm, cheerful, upbeat, and open to talking about anything: During our conversation his faith was very much on his mind. I had just 15 minutes to ask him as many questions as I could, and this is what we talked about. 

Oregon ArtsWatch: This is a really long tour, with performances in 31 cities. How do you do that? Especially considering that you recently had a heart transplant? That’s major! A significant thing for you and a profound experience. How do you manage this?

Kurtis Blow: A lot of it has to do with training and diet and a lot of water and working out before the performance. That’s what dancers all need to do, is stretch before a show. It is pretty much a long tour, but I’ll tell you, I’ve been doing this for a long time. You know, 30-40 shows two, three times a year, but once I get through the first three shows, you know, no problem! Everything is, you know, copacetic. 

OAW: Would you mind talking about your heart transplant? I’m curious about what it was like for you, how it’s changed your life, and how it’s affected your artistry.

KB: Yes, no problem. We can talk about the heart transplant for days. (Laughing) Because, man, I am still overjoyed, grateful, and thankful for all my doctors over at UCLA. What an incredible team. I want to thank my wife of 37 years, praying for me and my family, and all my friends. Man, it was an ordeal the last four years of my life. I had four heart operations, and man, I’d say God is still in the miracle business. That’s it, you know? Wow. You know, I’m really fortunate and blessed to still be here.

Let me just tell you a quick story. So here I am. In the hospital, waking up to an operation, so I’m waking up opening my eyes. Oh my God. I see nurses all around, doctors all around me. Moving around and everything, and I’m like, “Oh my God. I’m alive. I just had an operation. Oh my God.” And I remember it. Oh, my God, it was a heart transplant. And so I started wiggling my fingers, right. I started wiggling my toes. “I’m alive; I made it, oh my God!” And so I touched my chest, and I saw like four big tubes coming out. And I said, “Oh, Jesus, I made it. I made it.” I had a heart transplant. I remember now. I wonder if it was successful. Right? I’m thinking to myself. So just then, the nurses and doctors saw that I was awake. They all came over. “Hey, yay, congratulations. You made it, you made it!” I said, “Oh my God. I had an operation”, right. They said, “Yes, yes!” I said, “Well, it was a heart transplant, right?” They say “Yes! Yes!” I said, “Well, was it successful?” [Laughing.] They all threw their thumbs up in the air, and I was like, Oh man, you know that feeling right there. I’m alive; Oh, Jesus, what a great feeling. What a great day. That was December 7, 2020. 

“The Hip Hop Nutcracker” on tour. Photo courtesy of the company.

OAW: So that’s how you spent your pandemic?

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KB: Yes, I got a heart transplant in the middle of a pandemic. So you know, God was by my side. Had to be! You know, I’m a walking, living, breathing testimony of that Bible verse, Second Corinthians 5:17, that says, “Those in Christ Jesus are a new creation. All the old things have passed away, all things have become new.” So I’m a changed man. I have the opportunity of a second chance in life. I’m an owner of a 34-year-old heart. Man! I’m running again. I haven’t run in three years. My God. So I’m ready for the tour. I have the energy and passion, and I can’t wait to get out there to see my people again in Oregon.

OAW: I’m curious about your choice to become an ordained minister, why you decided to go in that direction, and how it’s affected you and your life as an artist.

KB: Oh, wow! That’s a long story. But I’ll tell you, the short version is I became a minister because I reached the mountaintop and I just got greedy. I just realized, you know, is this life? Is this what life has to offer? You know? I had money, the more money I wanted. The more drugs I got, the more I wanted. The more sex I got, the more I wanted. All these things just made me greedy. So I started to pick up the Bible. And I read the whole Bible. It became a mission of mine to complete and finish this book. And it was the most incredible thing I did. I went through the Old Testament and found out that, you know, I have an old soul, and I love these old stories like, you know, Samson (and Delilah). Samson is in the Bible! Oh my gosh, and, you know, people like Solomon and David, King David, Adam, Eve. Of course, Moses and Noah and the ark. I remember I loved all these old-school movies when I was a kid.

I have an old soul. You know the 10 Commandments, the robe, you know? So I went on and completed the Bible, got to the New Testament, and read about Jesus and how incredible he was as a healer and preacher and a teacher to so many. Just a miracle worker walking on water, feeding 5,000 people with, you know, five fishes and two loaves of bread, you know, incredible! Incredible stories. And then I got to Revelation. When I got to Revelation, that really changed me. That’s the most incredible book that I’ve ever read. And, you know, I just came to the conclusion, look, I got to get my act together. Before the end of times, before Jesus comes back, before we have his tribulation period, and everything. So I started going to church, got saved in 1992. Went back to school for ministry, became ordained in 2004, and have been loving and preaching the gospel of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ ever since then. And I say to God be the glory. 

OAW: You’ve had a long and prosperous career, and you’re still going. What do you attribute your longevity to?

KB: Hmmm. Wow, I gotta say God. It’s gotta be God. [Laughing.] My first song was about Christmas. I’m the Christmas rapper. The birth of Christ. That’s crazy. But just those classic songs will live forever, like Christmas Rap and Basketball, and The Breaks, you know. Just incredible songs. Of being around incredible people. Like Run DMC and LL Cool J and all of my peers back then, man. These guys are incredible, incredible talents. But just to be amongst all of the talent and all of the blessings. You kind of think, you know, inside, you know, oh my gosh, God gave me this talent. It’s a gift. It’s really a spiritual gift. And I am so thankful and grateful for that. So, like I said before, you know, every, every morning when I’m waking up, I’m thanking God because any day above ground is a good day. 

From left: Ann-Sylvia Clark is Maria-Clara, Gabriel Emphasis is The Nutcracker, and Lisa “L-Boogie” Bauford is Drosselmeyer in the national tour of “Hip Hop Nutcracker.” Photos courtesy of the company.

OAW: I watched Krush Groove last night just to refresh my memory, and I was wondering what it was like for you to make that movie?

[Krush Groove is an American musical comedy-drama film based on the early days of Def Jam Recordings and the up-and-coming record producer Russell Simmons (renamed Russell Walker in the movie), played by Blair Underwood, who made his feature film debut. Krush Groove was filmed in The Bronx, Manhattan (including at least one scene in the Marble Hill projects) and Queens in 26 days in April 1985. The film was distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, written by Ralph Farquhar, and directed by Michael Schultz, who also produced the movie, along with George Jackson and Doug McHenry.]

KB: The movie Krush was great! It is one of those great moments in my life that I’ll never forget. You know, I was producing the soundtrack to the movie Krush Groove. I was producing my own album, the America album, and I was producing the Fat Boys’ second album. So I was in the studio producing three albums and had deadlines in a month. And so I’m going to three different studios every night. And staying up to the wee hours of the morning, and then I had to go to the set of Krush Groove and film this movie. We did this for three weeks, and I’m telling you after the movie was over I took a long vacation. [Laughing.] But it was a lot of work, but it was really, really fun. And being on the set. I mean, it was our first movie. I’m there with the Fat Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Blaire Underwood, and Sheila E; ahhhhh! It was incredible. You know, just to be amongst the other talented people, and we’re doing something together as a team. And I’ll tell you that opening night we had a big opening night party at Studio 54, in its heyday. And we had like 5,000 people outside who couldn’t get into this club.

Man, I’ll never forget I was there with the great radio DJ Donnie Simpson, who was also in the movie. And I’m hanging out with Rick James and Earth Wind and Fire, gosh, all these people were at this. Man, it was such a special night. What a special movie. What a special time. And I thank God that I was a part. I thank all the producers and the director Michael Schultz and Doug McHenry, and Ralph Farquhar was the writer; he’s writing now. He’s such a hot writer right now. And yeah, yeah, what a great team. Marie Schultz. Michael Schultz’s wife taught us how to act. She was our script coach. And she came in and taught us all how to act. We were all rookies, but she made it happen for us.

OAW: I read that you have three children? Were they around during this time? What was it like for them to grow up in this environment?

KB: Yes, three sons. Curtis Jr. was born in ’84. So Krush Groove was ’85. So yeah, he was one year old. Mark in ’87. Mike in ’91.

It was a glorious time for me raising children. And that was during the time when I really kind of took that vacation I was telling you about. [Laughing.] And so we had a lot of fun, fun times. You know, Christmas parties and birthdays and holidays were incredible. And my wife is such an incredible mother. You know, she was the school mom taking them, I remember every morning. I’m the wake-up guy, but she’s the designated driver to take them to school. (Chuckling.) I would pick them up, though. And so you know, we went through that for years but 15-16 years well, yeah, they’re still around. We love them. And yes, we have this thing we call ourselves The Empire. The family business.

About the author

Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.

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