When 63-year-old hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow brings “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” to Providence Dec. 7, he’ll also be celebrating his 36th birthday.
On Dec. 7, 2020, he woke up after a heart transplant. “I’ll never forget waking up that early morning, realizing: ‘Oh my God, I’m still here! I’m alive!’ On Dec. 7, I will be 36 because I got a heart donor with a 34-year-old heart,” Blow said. “A pioneer again: first rapper to get a full heart transplant.”
Blow, born Kurtis Walker, talked to the Globe ahead of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” hitting PPAC on his “birthday.”
In 1979, then 20-year-old Blow became the first rapper signed by a major label with “Christmas Rappin.’” Nearly 45 years later, he’s still Christmas rappin’ as MC of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker.”
“The holiday season is my favorite time of year,” Blow says. “The spirit and joy and love in the air. Everyone is feeling good inside. It’s a great time to give your friends and your family a big hug and say thank you for putting up with me all year long.”
Now in its 10th year, the stage production, created by director/choreographer Jennifer Weber, sees Tchaikovsky’s 130-year-old ballet “reimagined as a holiday dance spectacle” with “a dozen all-star dancers, an on-stage DJ and an electric violinist who turns the beloved Nutcracker score on its head,” according to show billing.
Meanwhile, a screen adaptation just hit Disney+ starring Run-DMC’s Rev Run — Blow’s “son.” More on that below.
So how did you get involved with “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”?
A: I was actually referred by a friend. They came to one of my shows and said: Man, you know what, you would be great as the MC of this new show, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker.” And I said, “What? Are you kidding me?”
He invited me to the rehearsal; I saw these incredibly talented dancers doing their thing to classical music. They had a DJ spinning funky-funky beats under Tchaikovsky. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.” The fusion of the B-boys, classical music, and hip-hop beats — I had to be part of it.
That’s awesome. What can we expect to see at PPAC?
I’m MC and host. It’s a modernized version of the original story about two young people who fall in love; their love creates a special magic that defeats evil. We need that nowadays more than ever.
And you were the first rapper signed by a major label. What was that journey like?
It goes back to my days in Harlem, just loving music. I was a James Brown clone; everyone wanted to be James Brown. We’d go to parties and throw out James Brown moves, create circles of people around this. There was a competition of doing your best moves. The winner became the most popular guy or girl. I was in the circle a lot, winning a lot of competitions. Pretty soon I joined a crew — the older kids wanted me to breakdance, or B-boy, in the crew — and we won a lot of competitions.
Music and dancing became our escapism from the culture of trauma we were experiencing. All the murders and assassinations — MLK, JFK, RFK, Malcolm X. It was a troubling time. Music became our escape. We danced the night away. Hip-hop saved my life. Gangs were dominating the five boroughs. It was real. It was a dangerous, troublesome time. Hip-hop became our escape from the trauma. I mean, we couldn’t even walk to the store. My mom would ask me to go get some milk. And I’m like, “Ma, you go with me?”
I’d go to the store and gangs would chase me home. It was crazy. You couldn’t walk the streets at night, or even in the daytime. I remember running home from school. It was traumatic.
I eventually went to the High School of Music & Art. And that’s when I became a DJ. That’s how I started in 1974. And went on to meet Russell Simmons in college, the City College of New York, and we opened a disco out in Hollis, Queens. I met [Russell’s] younger brother, who later on became my protege. During that time, we called proteges “sons.” So the son of Kurtis Blow is DJ Run.
You became an ordained minister in 2009.
Yes. That was another beautiful part of my life. The transformation into, as we say, the clergy. Reading the Bible, discussing, studying, worshiping. God changed the way I talk, changed the way I walk, changed the way I perceive things. I started smelling the roses and realizing all the beauty life has to offer.
You had a heart transplant in 2020. What was the condition you had?
I’m walking, living, breathing testimony of the power of God. God is still in the miracle business.
I was diagnosed as having heart failure. Doctors came to me saying, “We don’t know if you’re going to be here another year. You should really consider this heart transplant.” I prayed about it. I’m just grateful. Every day is a joy. I got another chance to get it right.
Now your protege, Rev Run, is starring in the Disney+ version of “Nutcracker.”
It’s an amazing opportunity, it’s a good look for hip-hop. I have a cameo, and I also sing [at the end.] I was honored to be on-set with a whole new set of dancers, B-boys and B-girls. It’s incredible.