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Kurtis Blow breaks hip-hop nationally with his 1980 debut

American rapper, singer and songwriter Kurtis Blow, circa 1980.
Michael Ochs Archives
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American rapper, singer and songwriter Kurtis Blow, circa 1980.

What were the most important albums in hip-hop history? Rap was different before that album — and afterwards, it was forever changed?

That's the question that Morning Edition posed to cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald for its new series Hip-Hop's Game Changers. Fitzgerald is the author of the book, Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music.

Hip-hop started at block parties in the Bronx 50 years ago, but it took nearly a decade before the top DJs and MCs immortalized their sound in recording studios.

Kurtis Blow's 1980 debut LP is one of rap's first nationwide hits. It's also Fitzgerald's first selection.

Kiana Fitzgerald, critic and author

Author Kiana Fitzgerald
/ XOA Productions/Running Press
XOA Productions/Running Press
Author Kiana Fitzgerald

Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to sign a major label deal. Prior to this album, hip-hop was a very in-the-moment kind-of experience — the park jams, 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 that into one specific experience that made other hip-hoppers realize, 'Oh, I can do this too. I can put something on wax and make money from it or tour from it or support my family with it.'

In 1979, Blow had success with a single called "Christmas Rappin', but Mercury Records needed to know it wasn't a fluke before committing to a full album. That second single was 'The Breaks,' which is the one of the most celebrated hip-hop songs in the history of the genre.

Blow got that album deal. And his 1980 debut stands as one of rap's foundational achievements. Kurtis Blow the album and Kurtis Blow himself were really the blueprint for the format of hip-hop that we know and love today.

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Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Kiana Fitzgerald is a freelance music journalist, cultural critic, and DJ. She writes for the world from deep in the heart of Texas.