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Kurtis Blow breaks hip-hop nationally with his 1980 debut

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hip-hop is 50 years old. An official anniversary is coming next month, so we asked cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald to identify some of the game-changing moments in hip-hop history. She starts with the first rap album to become a nationwide hit, the 1980 debut of Kurtis Blow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BREAKS")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) Clap your hands, everybody, if you've got what it takes. 'Cause I'm Kurtis Blow, and I want you to know that these are the breaks.

KIANA FITZGERALD: Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to sign a major label deal. He really showed all the aspiring MCs from the very beginning of hip-hop that permanence was possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BREAKS")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car, breaks to make you a superstar, breaks to win and breaks to lose, but these here breaks will rock your shoes. And these are the breaks. Break it up. Break it up. Break it up.

FITZGERALD: Prior to this album, hip-hop was a very in-the-moment, live, you-have-to-be-a-part-of-the-action-right-now kind of experience. The park jams and the parties that really were the breeding ground for hip-hop, where it took form, this album really took all of those elements and distilled it into one specific experience that made other hip-hoppers realize, like, oh, I can do this too. I can, you know, put something on wax and, you know, make money from it or tour from it or support my family with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BREAKS")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) If your woman steps out with another man - that's the breaks, that's the breaks - and she runs off with him to Japan - that's the breaks, that's the breaks.

FITZGERALD: Kurtis Blow had a single called "Christmas Rappin'" that was successful, and the label that he ended up signing with said, well, then you can do another single. And if that's successful, then you can do an album. And that second single was "The Breaks," which is one of the most celebrated hip-hop songs in the history of the genre. Kurtis Blow has said that, you know, the concept for this song was really a tribute for all the breakers around the South Bronx and Harlem in the early days of hip-hop. And he wanted to do a tribute song where he could kind of give as many breaks as possible, so they could get down and do their B-boying and B-girling and just show off their moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BREAKS")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) Throw your hands up in the sky, and wave them round from side to side. And if you deserve a break tonight, somebody say all right. All right. Say ho.

FITZGERALD: "Kurtis Blow" the album and Kurtis Blow himself were really the blueprint for the format of hip-hop that we know and love today from, you know, the cross-genre influence that he kind of explored with "Way Out West" - "Way Out West" was kind of indicative of a Lil Nas X coming up later and really experimenting with this country, hip-hop cross-experience. So he really gave his successors a lot of room to move freely and creatively.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY OUT WEST")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) Way out west from way back east, coming from the place you'd expect the least, there came a stranger dressed in black from a Harlem town a long way back.

FITZGERALD: His debut was exactly what hip-hop needed to catch fire and really become what it is today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY OUT WEST")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) By his side, just ready to be amplified. Rode into town on a big, black steed.

INSKEEP: Kiana Fitzgerald's new book is called "Ode To Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music." She breaks down another album next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY OUT WEST")

KURTIS BLOW: (Rapping) I can do the deed, and tonight I'm going to rock Ganamede. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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