Originally published in ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine, January 1980 RUMBLE IN THE (CONCRETE) JUNGLE!
a Blow by Blow account
Kurtis Blow talking to Lloyd Bradley just as Christmas Rappin' was hitting the UK club charts.
Unquestionably, one of the biggest things to emerge on the R&B scene during 1979 was the advent of the Rap. Despite the cautionary murmurings of the critics and music observers, it would appear that far from being a mere "flash in the pan" it is only the tip of an iceberg, rooted in the inner cities of America as a foil to soul music's recent and undeniable identity problem.
Is rappin' a rip-off (Rap-off)? B&S recently spoke with one of the undisputed top-three rappers and it came to light as a parallel and reversed popular thinking situation on who ripped-off whom!
Just as rappin' was born 'cross-town', so too was Kurtis Blow, in a hospital on 125th Street, NYC (and towns don't come cross-er than that!) some twenty years ago. All of his life he has lived within a few blocks of that location and claims such a background is primal and a prerequisite in what it takes to rap. As he tells it, we think you'll see why...
"I started spinning about four years ago, when the music was funky. Then as European influences crept in, the rawness seemed to disappear and people didn't identify with it anymore. It really got difficult for deejays too. We had to try to keep the audiences rockin' but everything was too bland - even mixing was out as one tune sounded much like the next. Everything merged into one colour-less sea of sound."
Even the most ardent anti-rapper would have to agree with that. Individuality was out - blandness and mediocrity ruled supreme via a plethora of disco releases fit only for the automat-like (and fleeting) market that descended on the disco boom like bees to a honey pot!
Kurtis continued his philosophy: "We, the deejays, had to do something to make our shows a little bit different... a little unique. Rappin' really started on the instrumental breaks. It began as ego-trippin'... y'know, childish and quite irrelevant, but pretty soon it became an accepted thing, almost expected in fact, and those clubs who had rappin' deejays started to pick up."
This would have been around 1978/9, when Kurtis moved from a club on 125th St. (where else!) to the renowned Small's Paradise and the rappin' sub-culture was well under way.
Again, Kurtis takes up the story: "Now that rappin' was beginning to grow, deejays would rap all through tunes and started looking for those with that certain beat. 'Good Times' was a perfect example and other favourites included 'To Be Real' and several MFSB numbers... anything with a solid bass and drum foundation."
Now the aforementioned parallel begins to take substance, and increases via Kurtis's explanation as to where rappin' is heading. "What started out as simple fun, became an industry and as such, the creative aspect became more professional.
"For instance, the better rappers started to include news items in their raps - stuff like the Iranian crisis (shades of "Run The Ayatollah") and it worked, but some deejays did not have the skill to carry it off. It's got to make sense as well as being entertaining.
"The thing about rappin' now is the fact that it's become political, and a method of getting a message across." Not surprising perhaps, as the whole concept of rappin' is anti-establishment (as is toasting). It can only work as the jargon of a subculture. But is rappin' an all American thang or limited in it's appeal?
The articulate Mr Blow further expounds: "Rappin' is totally ours - nothing can take it away! It's kinda what we are giving to ourselves. Middle America doesn't really understand what it's all about and regards it as sub(verse)ive rubbish! Other cultures will never be able to emulate the feeling that we have. Instead, they may develop their own styles, much like your own Ian Dury - which is cool."
Ian Dury, eh? That's perceptive and a valid point with which to underline the uniqueness of rappin'. Our conversation was beginning to border on the serious - but it would appear to be quite a serious scene, with sociological connotations that run deeper than was first imagined.
Such a detailed "why it is" would be incomplete without a "how it is". So, how is it?
"The top jocks on the east coast are D. J. Hollywood (of the Apollo), Sugarhill and myself. Hollywood is number one - he's even used as support act to rock the crowds for top bands. Sugarhill is good too, but uses a lot of other people's stuff which is a cardinal sin for any rapper, but it happens all the time.
"Someone ripped off my 'Christmas Rappin' and theirs sold well when mine sold out! All my rhymes are original and I've got a repertoire (rappertoire!) at home and draw on it when required. I'm thinking rhymes all the time and write them down straight away. The second part of 'Christmas Rappin' was written on a subway!"
Many people, including yours truly, believed that spontaneity was an integral part of the rapper's game... an on-the-spot rap as it were, but Kurtis advised otherwise. "None of my stuff is spontaneous - it's all worked out beforehand, with one or two exceptions. It's just that your diction gets messed up, and a lot of it gets lost."
Yeah, a lot of toasters might head that remark! But how did this recording spate get underway anyhow? "Fatback started it all with 'King Tim III'. It worked and then came Sugarhill - they were the first recent raps to be recorded. It's just kinda spiralled from there - made a lot of rappin' stars - and now a rapper on tour with his own band is commonplace."
How soon, we ask, is this situation to be repeated in the UK? But back to the "rip off" comment at the very beginning, and in particular Kurtis's "recent raps" remark: "Talking to the beat over records has been around, on the radio, since the early 50's as a hangover from scat singing. Later, around '61/62, one of the top radio rappers was Sly Stone!
"Anyway, rappin' surfaced again in New York - partly due to the toasting scene, which is big there - but then went to Jamaica via the powerful radio stations of the southern states, which could easily be picked up in the West Indies."
The direct connection was Randy's - a major New Orleans radio station and retail store - where the likes of the legendary deejay, Poppa Stoppa were to influence Jamaicans, to the extent of direct imitation: thus, rap was brought over along with the records they ordered from the station's store.
So what goes around, comes around, and back in the hands of Kurtis and his genre, this medium will be exploited to it's full extent.
For Mr Blow himself, apart from his heavy gig schedule, he's currently engaged in recording his new single, but refused to advise the title - understandably perhaps, as rip off merchants are quick to seize any opportunity to make a quick score.
However, as far as B&S is concerned, the only follow-up to 'Christmas Rappin' has to be... 'Easter Bunny'! (Llloyd Bradley).