You can’t hear the “Kurtis Blow” without thinking about his iconic song, “The Breaks,” or how it ignited B-Boys like Crazy Legs who took the floors popping up around the urban disco scenes. Hip-hop pioneers Kurtis Blow and Crazy Legs took The Knockturnal on a trip down memory lane where music is alive and well in the heart of New York City.
IN THE STUDIO
Turn the clock back to 1979. Twenty-year-old Kurtis Blow was looking for a follow-up to his “Christmas Rappin’” single when his college best friend—Russell Simmons—approached him. “The producers asked me to ask you: what do you want to do for your next single or your next song?” Blow recalled Simmons saying. His best friend had previously introduced Blow to producers J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. This new song would push Moore and Ford towards producing Blow’s first five albums, Simmons towards becoming his manager, and Blow towards making history with an electrifying hit withstanding decades.
So Blow described to Simmons the concept he had in mind. “I was like wow! I want to make a song with a lot of breaks in it so my B- Boys, my B-Boys could do their thing. A lot of breaks so that, you know, the B-Boys could create circles around them and go down to the floor and do power moves.”
The idea of “breaks” reminded Moore of a 1920s philosophy record, and he chimed in with a way to incorporate a message that would resonate with listeners. Blow remembered the philosophy record going something like: “’Hey bucko, you say your wife left ya and you lost your job and your car got towed away? Well, don’t worry. The sun will shine. Everything will be alright.” Together, they aimed to make a song about the ups and downs of life. Looking back on the song’s success, Blow said, “It had something more than ‘Come on everybody, let’s get up and party, let’s dance and have a good time.’ It was taking it to the next level and giving you something to think about, like a conscious rap”
Breaks 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
Blow and producers decided on eight breaks and began recording. Studio time in 1979 differed much from how artists top the Billboard charts today. Hip-hop music required a live band, with members all mic’d up, amplifiers in the drums, the works. A special mic for the MC hung down to where Blow sat in the center of the set so that he could do his vocals. He and musicians practiced a few times before hitting “record.” The recording held the raw sounds of the band, but his vocals were only used as a rough draft. Blow later recorded overdubs.
“It was incredible cause we had the best musicians during that time,” Blow said. “Other producers hired John Tropea, and it was Denzil Miller who was a concert pianist—a concertist— and also Larry Smith—the great Larry Smith went on to produce Whodini and Run-DMC—and Jimmy Bralower who actually recorded the snare for the LinnDrum.” For example, Tropea’s guitar-playing provided some of the most notable sounds to “The Breaks.” These sounds, Blow witnessed control room engineers work their magic on, which aided him in understanding the logistics of being a studio MC. “They did it three times, recorded [Tropea] three times playing the same thing. And then they bounced it, all three tracks down to one track, and added some compression and made it tight and thick and what they call ‘fat.’” Fascinated by the “stacking” of tracks, Blow called this moment life-changing.
Pleased with the result in the studio, “The Breaks” debuted in 1980.
SETTING THE CLUB SCENE
With the track released, Blow and producers awaited the reception of the New York City music lovers and beyond. However, at the brink of a new decade, listener’s ears were still being shaped by catalytic shifts in culture and social movements that boiled in the decades before.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the MC saw his home city as a melting pot of different cultures.“It was like West Side Story but we all became friends. It was no real murder, you know,” Blow explained. “Bernardo didn’t get killed, and Riff didn’t get killed. But we all became friends and became family. So it was really, really, really special. The Warriors and all of that, New York is incredible. Number one city in the world.”
“It’s the epitome of urban America and man, I owe a lot of who I am today from the experiences and growing up in New York City. I love all people. I’ve learned to love all the boroughs.” That last line and a subsequent nod to the city’s Boricuas brought a chuckle to Crazy Legs, who reps the Bronx.
In the ‘70s, New Yorkers were going through a lot. A few years younger than Blow, Legs’s childhood revolved around a mile radius, give or take, of his Bronx block. He occasionally ventured out to join other B-Boys and B-Girls at jams and practice sessions. And he kept up with the World-Series-winning Yankees and Muhammad Ali. Legs described life in the borough as “what the times really had for us.” Living in an at-risk home, he faced a dysfunctional family and alcoholism. Much of the Bronx burned in the decade’s fires. Police attributed multiple civilian deaths to serial shooter Son of Sam, the 44 Caliber Killer. The blackout happened in 1977. “As bad as it was, we didn’t know any better. So there was a lot of fun to be had within those times of like ‘Ignorance is bliss,’” Legs reassured. “So for me, you know as much as I wanted to play baseball, as much as I want to be a boxer, I had to resort to becoming a B-Boy. And that was because it was free. It didn’t cost me anything but a pair of sneakers and a couple of friends and people to battle with.”
For Legs, B-Boying gave him “life” in tough situations and he’s surprised that he stuck with it. He joined a range of youths finding their love of dance in the city. And Blow found New York City as a stage to several emerging music scenes. Both pioneers surely discovered they were living in the disco capital of the world.
A history buff, Blow broke the four parts of disco down. “You had the actual real Downtown Village disco, which was the gay crowd, which was the Free Love crowd. After the Civil Rights Movement came the Wildflowers of the hippies and the Wildflowers and the Free Love movement which turnt into the LGBT community. But then you had a disco, hardcore disco, regular disco with White people and Black people in the Midtown clubs. And then you have Uptown disco which was ghetto disco or underground disco or hip-hop which was the street DJs’ that played in the block parties in the Park Jams and the community centers and in the small clubs in Harlem and in the Bronx. Of course, the house parties too. So that was the scene, that was the club scene.”
To Blow, the action centered on the Midtown clubs from 1970 to 1977. He frequented places like Leviticus, Pippin’s, Nemo’s, and Superstar Cafeteria.
Legs started dancing 1977 and to him, the closest thing to a club meant Mom and Pop’s Disco on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. This was a basement in a tenement building where B-Boys and B-Girls gathered. “It was a place where this Puerto Rican cat used to DJ. He was a resident DJ. His name was DJ Little Angel, and he was actually the first DJ that I had ever seen in the hip-hop game show before I became aware of everyone else…Charlie Chase and Grand Wizzard Theodore and Jazzy Jay, all of them.” Legs added to his nightlife routine: The PAL, Saint Martin’s, and a gymnasium on Crotona Avenue where Cold Crush, Fantastic Five, and other pioneers performed. Plus, he dubbed Park Jam as his “disco.” He would wait in the summertime to hear about it from word of mouth or the sounds echoing from the buildings in the neighborhood.
Park Jam in the city felt like the Pied Piper, Legs said. “You follow that, those echos to where that jam was—whether it be 129 Park or 118 Park, you know. You find these places and that was your experience.” He’d go into this place called Rhythm Den or “the Tower Records of Hip-Hop back in the ’70s” and pick up live Park Jam tapes. People would buy records of the music they heard at the jams—live bands, no sampling, and music not yet referenced by the phrase “hip-hop.”
EIGHTIES MAKE IT OR BREAK IT
Near the debut of “The Breaks, DJs held setlists with “’The Message,” “Rapper’s Delight” “That’sThe Joint,” and “Super Rhymes.”
And on summer nights in 1980, crowded clubs fell under the spell of harmonious chants to the beat. Blow credited DJ to crowd call-and-responses as pivotal factors in the success of any hip-hop music. “I’m going to tell you the main thing that got hip-hop over the top in the beginning in the Bronx with people like Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba, of course Cowboy and Melle Mel, and the original MCs—the first MCs used crowd response, and that’s how they got popular in New York. And everyone came back to the club the next week because they could be a part of that crowd participation.”
He soon felt that for real. “The Breaks” became norm to nightly playlists as it climbed to the number one spot in the country. The coveted 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. time slot was reserved for the hottest songs. It was during this time when he noticed familiar lyrics recited, Blow recalled. “They throw in ‘The Breaks,’ and everybody’s dancing. So here comes the middle part of the song that you say: ‘Throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care. Wave ’em from side-to-side. And you deserve a break tonight. Somebody say all right.’ And the crowd—the club is packed, a thousand people say, ‘All right.’ And the DJ is looking at just like, ‘Oh my God,’ and ‘Say Hooo!’ The whole crowd in the club says ‘Hoo!’ …And then, ‘Everybody scream.’”
Legs’ growing love of rap attracted him to Blow’s joint with “a thick bass” and a “rich, full feeling of music.” He wasn’t the only B-Boy to think that way. “The Breaks” lured in support from the Rock Steady Crew, the New York City Breakers, the Dynamic Breakers, and Air Force Crew. Blow accompanied live shows with their breakdancing.”How the power moves just, just came up and just, just really, really solidified this culture,” said Blow, “That was the most incredible thing for the eye to see at a concert or at a jam, at party, anywhere—the acrobatics.” Breakdancing boomed soon thereafter and dominated the 1980s.
Nightlife transitioned from disco to hip-hop, and the scene turned to places like Studio 54, Danceteria, Negril Nightclub, The Roxy, 371, Disco Fever, The Black Door, The PAL, The Renaissance, T-Connection, and The Audubon Ballroom. Uptown, Blow and Legs found niche crowds—particularly at Disco Fever where they’ve hung out together and witnessed other legendary acts. “Disco Fever was like the Studio 54 for hip-hop,” said Legs. Blow cosigned the analogy as Legs continued.
Crazy Legs: “Yeah, that’s where like after a lot of heads who were doing shows—that I forget who said this the other day but—it’s like if you have a Cold Crush or Furious Five or whatever, if you saw them there late at night, they probably came from where somewhere one had already did it show and was closing out that night at the Disco Fever.”
Kurtis Blow: “Right, right, right, right. It was the hangout spot for all of the MCs, all the rappers from about 1980 to ’85/’86. Man, it was the number one club in New York City. And another thing about that club which was great, the influential power that it had. Like you listen to the DJ’s, or like MCs, rappers who were making records would come to the Fever and listen to the song that the DJ was playing cause they were playing different kinds of beats, and they would get their ideas from the song and come up with these hits. A lot of hits came out of the Disco Fever like—
Crazy Legs: “’Good Times.’”
Kurtis Blow: “’Games People Play,’ ‘You Gotta Believe’ by Star Speed, The Flash and them did ‘The Message,’ ‘Birthday Party Rhyme,’ was a Fearless Four, Disco Four all of them, man. They all came and got ideas from the DJs in either, and that’s where Mr. Magic got his logos from too. Like ‘Money-Makin’ Manhattan’ and ‘Boogie Down Bronx.’ He got that from Lovebug Starski. He was an MC at the Fever so his whole style was Lovebug Starski.”
LEAVING A LEGACY ON HIP-HOP TODAY
As hip-hop increased as a prominent culture, new artists arose from cities everywhere. And while neither Kurtis Blow or Crazy Legs likes to refer to themselves as “legends,” their impacts on the industry have provided unparalleled blueprints for younger generations.
They pride themselves on uplifting the culture—especially Black, Brown, and other People of Color. The music and entertainment is amidst reform, under the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the two pioneers witness labels and artists currently fighting to eliminate the mislabeling of music as umbrella term “urban,” Blow and Legs stand alongside. “I’m tired of people from outside of our community labeling us what’s easier for them to accept and understand,” said Legs. “I think it’s more important for us to empower ourselves, and identify ourselves and our own labels and terminology.” Blow added, “Judge that artist from the music that you’re listening to and that’s it.”
They also don’t stray away from speaking on social movements—which why a song like “The Breaks” remains of cultural importance four decades later.
The Knockturnal: So it’s been 40 years since “The Breaks”—that’s huge! So what is it like listening to it now in 2020?
Kurtis Blow: “Wow, what a great question! You know, actually I still get those same feelings. There’s nothing like hearing your song on the radio. As an artist that is like the epitome of, of a career. It’s actually you walking down the street, and someone’s driving by, they stop at the light, and boom they’re blasting your song in their car. That’s the most incredible feeling, and I don’t think I’ll ever not feel good by hearing my song on the radio. So it’s a great feeling.”
The Knockturnal: And what’s it like hearing breakbeats now?
Crazy Legs: “It’s like the same way I feel when I drive past the baseball field. I want to be on it. I want to hit the field. I want to play. I want to get down and do my thing. When I hear breakbeats, music that I love—it just makes me feel the same way I felt when I was a kid except I have to be more cautious and stretch out these days.”
On Thursday, June 25th, Kurtis Blow and Crazy Legs sat down to conduct a Q&A via Instagram Live on the Red Bull Dance Instagram channel to commemorate “The Breaks.”