Young hip-hop fans may know Kurtis Blow by his 1980 smash ”The Breaks” on the retro soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. But Blow (who’s now hosting the classic-hip-hop show Backspin on Sirius Satellite Radio), is a key figure in hip-hop history. Among his milestones, “The Breaks” was the first rap single to be certified as gold, selling more than 500,000 copies. As hip-hop celebrates its 25th anniversary as a mainstream force, Blow shared his five favorite early rap songs with EW.com senior writer Brian Hiatt.
“Rapper’s Delight,” Sugar Hill Gang (1979) It was the kick-off to the whole hip-hop culture, the mega-hit of 1979. It was playing every hour on every radio station. They still don’t know how many records it sold — some say 17 million. Before 1979, hip-hop was going strong locally in New York. But the scene had died down because of a gang called the Casanovas. If a fight broke out, they usually started it — they’d snatch your chains. But what saved it was ”Rapper’s Delight” — people started going out again.
”The Breaks,” Kurtis Blow (1980) It came out in April of 1980, so the summer of 1980 was mine. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. It was the first big major hip-hop hit after ”Rapper’s Delight,” and it was the first certified gold rap song. B-boys, the people who used to go to those hip-hop parties, like with Grandmaster Flash or Kool Herc, they used to dance to the breaks of songs, the breakdown. That was the most important part of the song. When ”The Breaks” came out, I designed it to be a breakdance record, with eight incredible breaks in it. After that song, that’s when they started calling it ”breakdancing.” It was my biggest hit. It enabled me to see the world, to travel to distant places I never could have imagined growing up in Harlem.
”Planet Rock,” Afrika Bambaataa (1982) The electro-funk sound from that record is still going around, from house to drum & bass to hip-hop. All of that stuff came about because of ”Planet Rock” and the fusion between Afrika Bambaataa and [dance producer] Arthur Baker. Afrika Bambaataa is a true pioneer in the game. The creation of [Bambaataa collective] The Zulu Nation was the salvation of hip-hop. The Black Spades was the most feared gang in the Bronx in the ’70s, a lot of kids getting killed. But ‘Bam was one of the divisional leaders of the Black Spades, and he said, ”Let’s stop killing each other, and form the Zulu Nation,” and they went for it. And the bulk of the fighting stopped. ”Planet Rock” was the essence of the Zulu Nation ideology: love, peace, unity and just plain old having fun.
”The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982) ”The Message” was the most significant, meaningful song in hip-hop. ”Planet Rock” had inspired a whole nation to follow that up-tempo electro-funk sound. [This song] was a trendsetter because it went back to the slower traditional rap tempo. And the lyrics just revolutionized the whole hip-hop game, about social issues, relevant stuff that went on in the ghetto. The true meaning of hip-hop is self-expression, reaching out to people and saying, ”This is how we live, man.” ”The Message” created a consciousness for rap.
Doug E. Fresh, ”The Show” (1985) When Doug E. came out. he swept the whole nation with his new sound called the [human] beat box. The beat box had only been around since 1980, but now a lot of people call it another true element of hip-hop. Mind you, the Fat Boys had been around for a year, so a lot of people heard beat-boxing from them first. But then Doug E. came out and everyone learned that he was the originator. He’s a legend — he’s like a James Brown, for real.
Do you agree with Kurtis’s picks? Post your own list of hip-hop classics below.