Sunday, January 31, 2016

"...If You Got What it Takes..."

The Making of Kurtis Blow’s Classic Recording The Breaks”
                                                 By Mark Skillz
Kurtis Blow sometime in 1980
It’s eleven o’clock Sunday morning and the choir is in full swing. The organist and drummer are locked in tight syncopation. But this ain’t like the “chuuch” that your grandmoms used to make you go to. No, there is a guy on the turntables doing call and response and the beat is too funky for a gospel staple like the “Upper Room.”

This is the Hip-Hop Church.

The guy behind the turntables isn’t your ordinary choir director either, he’s a rap legend, in fact, he’s rap royalty: the first guy to record a RIAA certified gold rap twelve-inch hit: Kurtis Blow.

Back before Kurt Walker (his real name) wore a robe and a collar, he was the first bare-chested, gold-chain wearing, Jheri Curled rap sex symbol. In a recording career that spanned twelve years Kurtis planted the seeds for Run-DMC, Whodini, Will Smith, Hammer, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Nas, Jay Z, the College Boyz, Heavy D and a whole bunch of others.

Today hip-hop finds itself in a quandary: it is a youth-driven, image obsessed culture in constant search for what’s good in the hood, or hot in the streets. Many years ago it was a sub culture that disdained commercial success and pop sensibilities, now it’s a commodity dominated by artists with pop aspirations who are backed by major record corporations in partnership with Madison Avenue. If hip-hop began as a reactionary movement, as some have asserted, then the beginnings of its relationship with mainstream acceptance can be traced back to one man and his classic recording.

                                          The Producers
Robert "Rocky" Ford Billboard writer turned record producer

In 1979 Billboard record critic Rocky Ford was scared. He was thirty years old with little money and his girlfriend was expecting a child. Ford needed a break – a big break. To make some quick cash he had an unusual plan for the time: record a holiday season rap record. Problem was Rocky had never written a song, didn’t know how to sing and couldn’t play an instrument to save his life. But he knew a guy who could.

James Biggs Moore, III was a thirty plus year old ad salesman at Billboard. Born and bred in the Midwest, he describes himself as a “Rhythm and Blues player in rock and roll bands.” He was a white guy who loved everything: jazz, country, doo wop, rock – you name it, Moore had an ear for it. It was in a group called Kilroy where he met some of the best session musicians in the city. The group recorded out of studio in Manhattan called Greene Street, which would later become the recording home to acts like RUN-DMC, Jimmy Spicer and LL Cool J. Between Rocky Ford’s music biz connections and JB Moore’s musical expertise, God couldn’t have put two people together better than this.

It was from Moore where Ford got the tip about “something new happening on the streets.” Rocky Ford was the first journalist to cover the burgeoning hip-hop scene before there were any records. Combining efforts they decided to make a record, though they would both write and produce the song, the technical aspect (arrangement, mix down and editing) of it would be Moore’s department; the marketing would be Ford’s. All that was missing was the right vocalist. In the summer of 1979 they went looking for him.

                                           The Rapper
DJ Lovebug Starski at The Fever
In 1979 the most popular rappers in the city were DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheba and Lovebug Starsky. According to Ford’s recollections, “Based on pure talent alone, hands down, Hollywood was the man.” But he didn’t have the right look. 
Eddie Cheba, Hollywood’s partner in crime, was intelligent and like Hollywood, “had a very large ego.” A quality that made him all wrong for the job. Ford and Moore were looking for someone they could mold and who would take direction.

Next, they checked out Lovebug Starsky, whom they described as, “The kind of guy, you could meet in a bar and enjoy a beer with,” remembers Ford. But there was something about him too that wasn’t right for their project. “I remember he said something in our interview,” Ford recalls, “that didn’t sit right with me. It was something to the effect of: I’m into rap right now because everybody’s into rap; if everyone was into surfing – I’d be doing that.” Onward they pressed. They were looking for someone who would have that ‘it’ factor.

One day, by chance, Ford came across a kid posting up flyers for a jam. The kid referred him to his older brother - the promoter, a short, light- skinned college dropout from Hollis, Queens, whom many remember as being a good dancer, a fast talker and a sloppy dresser with a restless spirit. His name was Russell Simmons.

The fast talking visionary Russell Rush
Simmons knew some of everyone on the rap scene. If they promoted shows anywhere in the five boroughs Simmons knew them and could rattle off the names of groups associated with them within a flicker of an eye. Moore and Rocky Ford were immediately impressed with him. “There were other promoters,” Ford recalls of that time, “with other motives, but Russell wanted to make money.” This was the kind of guy they were looking for.

Russell sold them on a rapper he knew, a college friend of his who was eager to make his mark on the rap scene. He was both book smart and street smart, ambitious, competitive, talented and a natural performer. There wasn’t a rapper or rap group around that he didn’t know something about, for he had directed all of his energy into this new scene that was barely heard beyond the rivers that border New York City. His name was Kurtis Blow. “Russell kept selling us on Kurtis,” Ford remembers, “he kept saying, “you gotta check him out, you gotta check him out.” One night at a crowded party at the Hotel Diplomat Rocky Ford and JB Moore went to go see him in action.

Listening to tapes from that era, it’s difficult to see what Moore and Ford heard that night. On many live cassette tape recordings from the time Kurtis sounds nervous and unsure of himself. At times he strays off beat. At other times it sounds like he’s forgotten his rhymes. Harlem deejay and rapper William ‘B-Fats’ Bowden who recorded the late 80’s rap classic “Whoppit” recalled for hip-hop historian Troy L. Smith, how he remembered a young, eager Kurtis, “hanging out…carrying crates,” at neighborhood parties. Occasionally, he’d grab the mic., B Fats says he and his brother, the late Donald ‘D’ Bowden weren’t impressed. “Without any experience,” Bowden recalled, ‘he sounded horrible.” Many of his rhymes come straight from his heroes: Mele Mel, Hollywood, Lovebug Starsky and Eddie Cheba. But Kurtis had something that everyone else on the scene lacked: a lethal combination of ambition and charisma. No amount of critics was going to stop Kurtis Blow.

Billy Bill the first rap songwriter w/ Kurt @ the Fever
His best friend back then was a short, stocky, brown skinned guy named William Waring whom everyone called Billy Bill. Waring, who would later author rap classics ‘Basketball’, ‘Games People Play’, ‘Hard Times’ and many others, summed his friend’s early struggles up with one word: “Rejection,” he told me in a phone interview. “You know… wanting to be good and not getting the chance. You see, back then, MC’s had large ego’s and didn’t really want to see the next man come up. And Kurtis wanted to prove that he belonged.”

It was on August 31st 1979 at the Hotel Diplomat where Rocky Ford saw something special about the young man on the mike. Kurtis recounted for then Daily News writer Bill Adler how he and Grandmaster Flash “blew everyone off the stage that night.” According to Ford, “Kurtis was good looking, intelligent and well spoken.” From their initial conversation he was able to tell that he was serious minded and had been bought up pretty good in a nice family. But mostly what he and JB Moore liked about him was that he had no ego to stroke. “Kurtis hadn’t really written anything at that point,” Ford remembers, ‘he was just saying rhymes from other people.” This worked out perfectly for them because they already had the first part of the song written.

“To be honest I thought they [the lyrics] were corny,” Kurtis told me in a phone interview. “It wasn’t real authentic rap that I would do in a club,” he told me. “But I had a vision that we could make it work.” And he did. At the time Blow was twenty years old and was working like an immigrant, “I worked at a liquor store on 86th St, doing deliveries” he told me, “I drove a Gypsy cab, I was a deejay – and on top of all of that, I was in school.”

For the young, bright eyed and hungry Kurtis the recording studio experience was awe-inspiring. “I’ll never forget sitting down with Denzil Miller and Larry Smith,” he laughs as his voice becomes more animated, “and them asking me what kind of sound did I want? I was like “sound”? What do you mean what kind of sound do I want?” I had no idea what they were talking about,” he laughed. 

For many b-boys of that era James Brown was God. For Kurtis there was no doubt that he wanted some elements of the Godfather of Soul’s music in his own recordings. However, in the late 70’s the hottest band on Black radio and in discos was Chic, their music featured funky, good time feeling lush string arrangements flavored with high minded thematic lyrics which appealed to those who aspired for the finer things in life. It was funk with a sports jacket and designer jeans. “My sound is between James Brown and Chic,” he told me, “I like to think of it as progressive funk.”

The first real hip hop record producer the late Larry Smith
Larry Smith, Rocky Ford’s childhood friend from Queens, who at one time was bassist for the group Brighter Shade of Darkness, who’s song “Love Jones” was a hit on the R&B charts in the early 70’s, replayed Chic’s “Good Times’ bassline making it hit even harder over drummer Jimmy Bralower’s funky groove. Denzil Miller, whom Moore remembers as being, “a bit bi-polar and a bit of a flake”, but a superb musician who’s timing was “exquisite,” played keyboards. 

If Blow sounded like a nervous wreck live on stage at clubs like Randy’s Place and the Jamaica, Queens Armory, in the studio, he found confidence. Blow’s timing was incredible. And he did it in one or two takes.

Determined to make the song work he practiced the rhymes everywhere. “I noticed that the meter was different,” he recalled. “It was a new flow. It was faster; the rhymes are coming not at every four bars – which was common back then, but every two bars. It was a challenge.” And it was one that he was more than capable of meeting. Sometimes he practiced in his cab, other times while doing his deliveries around the city, but mostly it was either in the studio or out in Queens at a club he and Russell ran together called Night Fever Disco. The more he did it the better he got at it.

“About a red suited dude with a merry attitude…” was an example of the speed of the rhymes. For him those initial experiences in a recording studio were like a dream. “The microphone was sounding like I never heard a microphone sound before,” he recalled for me. “The headphones sounded better than any I had ever heard. The music sounded great.” But for Kurtis one of the biggest bonuses was that the beat would be steady, “there was no deejay, I didn’t have to worry about a deejay losing the beat,” he laughed, “Because in the studio the beat was locked.”

The transformation from nervous upstart to super rapper was coming to fruition. Billy Bill chalks it up to “trials and tribulations,” he says. “Everyone has their water shed period. I guess it was his metamorphosis, it was him turning into a butterfly.”

One night while Billy was playing at Dante’s on 160th and Broadway Kurtis bought a test pressing to the club. “When I heard it on that system in that club, I couldn’t believe it. Everyone [in the club] knew he was my friend, but they couldn’t believe it was him. I was blown away.” Slowly word started to travel through the streets about Kurtis’ new record. One night at the Renaissance Club on Parsons Blvd in Queens, he and Russell gave a copy to DJ Eli, the two watched as the “crowd went wild.”
And then Frankie Crocker played it on WBLS. The response was overwhelming.

JB Moore and Rocky Ford had a good feeling about the song. However, knowing what they knew about the music business, they were cautious. One day during a subway ride from 42nd St, Ford and Blow had a heart to heart. “Look man,” Ford told him, “you have to understand that you may not have another hit again. I told him how most artists go their whole careers without any hits. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up too high. I told him that we had to be realistic.”

But little did any of them know how big they were about to get.

                                               The Breaks
As a boy in Michigan, JB Moore would listen to the radio late into the night. He loved Chuck Berry. It was from his love of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and many other singers that he would grow to love the double entendre. Moore loved the art of a song lyric that had more than one meaning. But there was one record heard on just about every jukebox in America that would have a profound effect on the young James Moore.

Eddie Lawrence has been a comic and a performer since at least the 1930’s. Sometime during the late 1950’s Lawrence came up with a character called Sentimental Sam, a character for whom some of the worse things in life would happen to. It was out of the Sentimental Sam character that gave birth to the Old Philosopher. It’s highly doubtful that there has ever been or will ever be another comedy record as popular as “The Old Philosopher.”

The sentiments are about the cruel ironies that life throws our way; Lawrence’s light-hearted approach makes it sound funny:

“You say your wife went out for the weekend to get a corned beef sandwich, and the corned beef sandwich came back, but not your wife? You say your furniture is all over the street because you can’t pay the rent?”

There is nothing funky about ‘The Old Philosopher’ nor is there anything even remotely soulful about it either, in fact it’s hard to even call it a song. There’s no way it ever played on any black station in the country. But it resonated with JB Moore, who would later wonder what would happen if he took the sentiments of ‘The Old Philosopher’ and gave it a hip, funky, urban twist. The results: a song called ‘The Breaks.’

During the transit strike of 1980 the team of Moore, Ford, Miller, Bralower and Blow headed back to Green Street Recording Studio.

Kurtis Blow w/ drummer Jimmy Bralower and producer JB Moore
“I wanted to make a record with a bunch of breaks for the b-boys,” Kurtis remembered. “When I said that JB Moore got real excited and said, “Oh great!” because he had a song concept in mind along the same lines.

Like any rap song of that era the music was inspired from other sources, in this case the bass line was based on Steely Dan’s “Royal Scam.' “Tommy Woke,” Moore tells me, “played the one and three from that song.” Woke would later play bass for Hall and Oates. Using a sixteen track Neve board, engineer Rod Hui compressed the hell out of Tommy Woke’s bass and Jimmy Bralower’s funk drumming. Moore, not content to sit on his laurels for the second record, pulled out all stops and enlisted John Tropea on guitar. Tropea’s credits include Paul Simons ‘Fifty Ways’, Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats in the Cradle’ and a bunch of other hits. Kurtis really wanted to bring out the break beat element and it was he who suggested percussion, thus the services of Jaime Delgado were enlisted to play timbales. Delgado had been a member of salsa singer and musician Ray Barretto’s band.

As on ‘Christmas Rappin’ they wanted to capture the feel of a real party so they enlisted friends and family for the party track. Among the studio audience shouting “That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks” was future author and filmmaker Nelson George and Rocky Ford’s two sisters and mother. “I had to stop my mother from clapping,” Ford recalls laughing, “because she couldn’t clap on beat.”

‘The Breaks’ was the first adult themed rap record and was openly embraced by both Black radio and adult listeners. It also helped that Moore and Ford’s adult realities were reflected in the record: unemployment, rejection, lack of money, no cars, these were things that made the song appeal to more than just kids with a boom box and a bag of bamboo.

Steeped knee deep in double and triple entendre’s from the beginning to the end ‘The Breaks’ was a watershed moment in rap music. For b-boys the term ‘breaks’ had one meaning, for adults the term had a different connotation. In the midst of a deep recession, double digit inflation, sky-high unemployment rates and long gas lines, the phrase “that’s the breaks’ resonated with a whole lot of people. For the first time there was a rap song that poked fun at life’s different calamities. 

Now if your woman steps out with another man

That’s the break, that’s the breaks

And she runs off with him to Japan

That the breaks, that’s the breaks

And the IRS says they want to chat

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And you can’t explain why you claimed your cat

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks.

And Ma Bell sends you a whopping bill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

With eighteen phone calls to Brazil

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And you borrowed money from the Mob

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And yesterday you lost your job.

Throw your hands up in the sky

And wave em round from side to side

If you deserve a break tonight somebody say alright

Breaks on stage breaks on screen

Breaks to make your wallet lean

Breaks run cold and breaks run hot,

Some folks got em and some have not.

You say last week you met the perfect guy

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And he promised you the stars in the sky

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He said his Cadillac was gold

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he didn’t say it was ten years old

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He took you out for a Red Coach Grill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he forgot the cash and you paid the bill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He told you the story of his life

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he forgot the part about his wife

For b-boys the funky guitar line, percussion and drum breaks were heaven sent. The phrase ‘breakdown’ was a call to get down and dance, or “go off” as we used to say. But in adult life a breakdown could literally be your car not working or the stress of life getting the best of you, which could literally make you scream and holler and breakdown crying. But like ‘The Old Philosopher’ record, ‘The Breaks’ was about not taking these things seriously. It was like someone saying to you, “Smile, they’re just the breaks.”

To this day, thirty-one years later because of “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow still travels the world and he’s thankful for it. “You have to understand something,” he said, his voice flowing with a mixture of pride and amazement, “I had the number one record in the country when I was twenty-one years old, that’s what kept me grounded. Being a pioneer for hip-hop is what kept me grounded. Russell and I believed that hip-hop could crossover; this is what we set out to do. And we did it. Look at hip-hop now, it’s everywhere. It’s taken me everywhere. I was a kid from the ghetto in Harlem…and here I was getting on planes going to London. Man, God is good. And now look at it now. Just look at it now. It’s in every country and in every language. And I was one of the first to do it? Thank you Jesus,” he said to me, “Praise God. I’m one of the pioneers of hip-hop. Praise Jesus. God is good. I’m enjoying life…”

Special shout to Bill Adler for the old newspaper clips!
originally published in Wax Poetics Magazine 
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