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Kurtis Blow on Telling the Whole Story of Hip-Hop

At 60 years old, the rapper-turned-minister takes on a new challenge: Running a museum

Kurtis Blow

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

En españolYou were the first hip-hop superstar and for you, watching the thing grow and grow and grow after your records were hot, what has that been like?

Oh, it’s like a dream, a dream come true just being around and witnessing all of the success. I go all the way back to those Kool Herc parties. I’ve seen it grow from there with all the other groups that came by and the success that jumped off. It’s been a miraculous ride.

You come from a different era. Is there any jealousy or bitterness that you were in an era when rappers were not making a lot of money?

No, I’m not jealous of that. Why? I saw success come to people like the Fat Boys. I remember them saying, “Hey, Kurt, all I want is to buy a car.” Then they bought three houses. Our mission and our dream was to make this thing successful and turn it into a business, a hip-hop business. I knew that we had all of these different categories of rap that could come out, be successful and make money in the markets. I was one of the first creating that whole ideology and contention that you can talk about anything. That is communication. Rap is communication on steroids.

You’re currently a minister, is that right?

I’ve been ordained as a minister for 10 years now. A lot of Christians you meet would say, “I was hit by the Holy Spirit. God came down and boom, I started shaking. Things just changed in my life all of a sudden.” But for me, it was more like a transition period. 

For me, when I got to the top, the more money I got, the more I wanted. It just made me greedy. I wanted more. The more drugs I got, the more I wanted. The more sex I got from all these women, the more I wanted it.

I just sat down one day and said, “Wow, is this it? Is this all that life has to offer?” I started reading the Bible. I became born again in 1994. I started doing Bible studies for a couple of years. I had my own ministry and went back to school at Nyack College. I learned more about the Gospels in college. It was just an incredible ride. 

"Just changing the world, being one of the guys who was a pioneer, like Davy Crockett. A lot of people experienced hip-hop by seeing me early in the 1980s. It was just a blessing."

— Kurtis Blow on his early success

What are the similarities between being in the pulpit and being on stage MCing?

It’s controversial, as a matter of fact. I get some traditionalists that holler and say, “This is not a show. When you’re in church, this is not a show, buddy.”

But it is a show.

If you ask me, it’s the greatest show. It’s God’s show. It’s the greatest show on earth, amen.

I was thinking I’d never go down that road. I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to get out there and entertain people and be an entertainer, but the similarity is there. It is communication. As a matter of fact, the most passionate parts of communication that you can ever get into is being a preacher and delivering that word, amen.

I remember I went to Ecuador to do a concert. We had about 6,000 people out there. I was onstage and went into my gospel raps. I recorded five gospel albums. I’m doing some gospel rap out there and then I break into a whole sermon and start preaching and asking the people if they wanted God in their lives. 

This is Ecuador. I had to have a translator do this for me. The translator said, “If you want God in your life, throw your hands in the air.” Everybody in the crowd threw their hands in the air. Now that’s an altar call.

What does it take to be a success in life at a later age? I feel like it’s different than finding success when you’re in your 20s and 30s.

For me, honestly, I was blessed and fortunate enough to find success at an early age, in my 20s. Of course, being the first rapper signed to a major label and having the first certified gold rap song in the history of hip-hop, which was “The Breaks.” It’s an incredible song. I’ll never forget the miracles that happened. 

“The Breaks” was a song that was geared to have a lot of breaks in it so that all the beat boys and break dancers could do their thing. Then they started calling that dance “break dancing” after “The Breaks.” Just changing the world, being one of the guys who was a pioneer, like Davy Crockett. A lot of people experienced hip-hop by seeing me early in the 1980s. It was just a blessing.


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Tell me about the hip-hop museum that you’re part of. What’s going on there?

The Universal Hip Hop Museum is a project we’ve been working on for about seven years now. It’s a brick and mortar location in the Bronx. We’re going to have this location where we will be able to tell the whole story from beginning to present of hip-hop. What a great, great blessing that will be to solidify our history in one location for everyone in the world to come and check out. 

I wonder what you’re dealing with in terms of how to represent the history of hip-hop properly. What kinds of questions do you run into? There are different artifacts, different stars that one person may think need to be elevated but another thinks not. How do you tell the story properly?

Diplomacy is the biggest thing. If you talk to these individual artists who were around in the Bronx and Harlem during that time, they all talk about what I call the “I, I, I syndrome”: “I did this. I did that. Me, me, me.” You just have to be diplomatic and make sure you know that it’s the classic ego. Everyone was blessed. There were pioneers who were there and they have their recognition that is deserved. You have to listen to them and go through it.

André 3000 of OutKast once expressed doubts that he’d want to still be performing at 50. Do you think that because hip-hop is such a youth music and such a youth culture that there is some contradiction? Is it strange or somehow a little off to be on stage rapping after you’re 50?

Well, I say this, I thank God that I can rap my songs in church. Not many rappers can say that because they’re out there making songs that they can’t rap when they’re 50. It just doesn’t make sense. They’re cursing and using profanity. I’ve made over 200 rap songs myself and never use profanity. You can have a rap career, a rap legacy and not offend people.

Kurtis Blow, 60, recorded the first rap singles, with “Christmas Rappin’” and “The Breaks.” The latter was the first rap single to be certified gold. In later life, Blow became a minister and is also chairman of the board of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, under development in the Bronx.

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