Here’s one from my old-school hip-hop phase, a period that’s both incredibly fascinating and a little frustrating. You may have picked up Afrika Bambaataa’s stellar Looking for the Perfect Beat compilation or one of Grandmaster Flash’s dozen “best ofs” and wonder where the great deep cuts or classic albums are, only to find that there really aren’t any. You can’t really blame them though, as much like rock n’ roll in the early-60’s, it was a singles game back then. Certainly the albums were there but they were often crammed with filler written by hired hands, or extended cuts of things that were already working as singles. As it turns out none of these guys really had long careers, outside of a year or two of success. Some of it was self-inflicted (see the Grandmaster Flash/Sugarhill Records saga) and some of them just got replaced (Run DMC, Beastie Boys, etc.), but the real issue was that barely anyone had a bag of tricks deep enough to fill a whole LP at once. At the end of the day even the almighty Bambaataa didn’t have more than a handful of great singles.
That said, I reckon Kurtis Blow did fairly well. He released one of the first hip-hop LPs and had its first certified gold record with “The Breaks”, plus he had a lot of influence on the next generation of rappers (one of whom, Nas, took “If I Ruled the World” all the way to #1). Recorded when the man was only 21 years old, Kurtis Blow is almost certainly his best LP, and one of the few early hip-hop discs that’s worth listening to beyond the singles, though exactly how much is up for debate. I mean nowadays it’s almost worth hearing just to hear all the lines that would probably get your ass laughed off the stage today – “Throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care”, “You got to say ‘ho’ if you’re ready to go”, “If your name is Annie, get up off your fannie”, “I make you want to catch the bugaloo flu”. I mean the very first track “Rappin’ Blow (Part 2)” is practically an encyclopedia of old-school rhymes, one after another.
Still, what really makes this album work is the music. While a lot of early hip-hop sounds remarkably plastic today, the music on Kurtis Blow is all performed by a very live sounding funk band that gives some dimension to the whole thing. It works so well that you wonder why more rappers didn’t take this approach. It’s not like this stuff is really complicated; it’s mostly just uptempo jamming, some call-and-response, frequent instrumental breakdowns, and a lot of frantic drumming. With a lot of hip-hop reliant on canned beats and digital sampling, it’s awesome to hear a band just go at it like this; maybe it’s the constant crowd noise, maybe it’s the way the band starts and stops on a dime, maybe it’s Blow careening from one line to the next, but there’s some palpable energy on this record. It’s the kind of album that makes me wonder if “Planet Rock” really did more harm than good, as the band is just so much fun. Outside of Kurtis himself (who is a blast), a lot of the credit should go to J.B. Moore, producer and primary writer, and Jimmy Bralower*, drummer and arranger.
Things work fine so long as the grooves keep coming. Side one is just non-stop party – the kickoff track “Rappin’ Blow (Part 2)” is the second half of “Christmas Rappin'”, and it’s a shame they didn’t put on both halves, even though they’re both mostly the same, based off Larry Smith’s legendary bass riff that would later become “Another One Bites the Dust”. “The Breaks” follows, with its immortal guitar riff and endless wordplay; it still sounds great today, and probably always will. Then “Way Out West”, another upbeat tune, not too much different than the first two tracks, but with a few more instrumental breakdowns. Side two is where you start to run into trouble. Sure, it begins well – the funky, soulful “Throughout Your Years” is probably my single favorite KB jam, and “Hard Times”, another single, is fine, though this is the point where you start to wonder where the crowd went. The final two tracks fall firmly into the “bad idea” folder; “All I Want In This World (Is To Find That Girl)” is an attempt to brand Kurtis as a slowjam R&B singer, and the finale is a confounding take on BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business”. I wouldn’t quite say they ruin the album; hell, they sound so much like parodies that they’re almost endearing in a way, but it’s probably best to just turn it off after “Hard Times”. In Kurtis’s defense, you’d stuggle to find any hip-hop LP in the early 80’s that didn’t have something awful on it.
So all together, Kurtis Blow is a pretty good LP, and the only one of his I’d want to listen to today. He never quite lived up to his early singles, though Duece (1981) and the EPs Tough (1982) and Party Time? (1983) all contained some good material. Later albums did garner a few hits (“8 Million Stories”, “Basketball”, probably “AJ Scratch” too) and he did wind up releasing about an album a year throughout the 80’s, which you couldn’t say for a lot of his contemporaries. One of them (1986’s Kingdom Blow) even managed to get guest verses out of Bob Dylan and George Clinton, I kid you not. But hip-hop didn’t really take after the funk/soul/disco/rap hybrid that characterized this album; Kurtis started to play catch-up soon after, and wound up way behind the game. I mean he’s not exactly the most clever or technical rapper around, and I suspect that once Run DMC and the Fat Boys started to run things that everyone forgot about Kurtis Blow (it’s hard to think of a less accurate title than that of his 1988 album, Back by Popular Demand). But Kurtis Blow still remains one of the most fun hip-hop albums around; hell, if you sub in the full version of “Rappin'” at the start and kick off “All I Want In The World (Is To Find That Girl)”, you got a pretty solid disc. I realize that rappers had more important things to do – Kurtis himself touched on a lot of inner-city issues throughout his career, and hip-hop as a whole got a lot more socially conscious throughout the 80’s (though this trend was kicked off by “The Message”, and probably Blow’s own “Hard Times”). I’m just wishing they’d held onto that sense of groove a bit longer; though his style, image, and even a lot of his specific rhymes would get co-opted repeatedly over the next couple decades, not a lot of it had the swing and soul of a tune like “The Breaks”. While Kurtis Blow wasn’t the first hip-hop LP (Sugarhill Gang had him beat by a full year), I reckon it’s the first one that was any good.
*For what it’s worth, Bralower had quite an interesting career, working with everyone from R. Kelly to Eric Clapton to Celine Dion to Ryuichi Sakamoto. For a relatively unknown drummer, he sure has kicked around a long time, and it looks like he’s still plenty active today. One can only imagine the sort of royalties he’s accumulated over the years.