In 1979, Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’ ” became the first hip-hop song ever released on a major label, paving the way for the man born Kurtis Walker to become rap’s first true solo star with his iconic follow-up single “The Breaks.” Nearly 40 years later, Walker’s still spreading holiday cheer as the MC for “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker,” which comes to the Shubert Theatre Thursday through Saturday.
Walker has been involved with the show, in which a dozen hip-hop dancers and an onstage DJ put a modern spin on Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, since its 2014 premiere at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Director, choreographer, and co-creator Jennifer Weber originally wanted to combine hip-hop dance with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” but when the theater pitched “The Nutcracker” instead, Weber was game.
“There’s something really interesting about classical music because it does not have a repetitive beat,” says Weber. “You’re so used to seeing hip-hop dance with a 4/4, kind of repetitive hip-hop beat, and it makes it almost predictable. So when you start working with classical music, it kind of frees you up and pushes you to work in different directions physically.”
Walker remembers being blown away from the first rehearsal.
“The mash-up between hip-hop and classical music, and b-boying and ballet, was just amazing to me,” Walker says. “I had to be a part.”
“The Hip-Hop Nutcracker” is set in mid-’80s Brooklyn, and Walker sets the scene for every performance with a brief introductory set. He then returns to the stage at the end to do a final song with the cast.
“I take them back to the old school hip-hop,” says Walker. “It’s incredible. We turn the party out and just have a great time.”
The role is a natural fit for Walker, who has never shied away from playing the rap elder statesman. Whether he’s preaching at the Hip Hop Church he founded or working as chairman for the Universal Hip Hop Museum set to open next year in Harlem, seemingly everything he does is in service of the culture he helped kickstart.
“I think it’s my calling to be this spokesman for hip-hop,” says Walker. “Somebody has to do it, and I’m ready for the sacrifice.”
This isn’t Walker’s first foray into live theater. In 2000, he played a similar part as the narrator of “Echo Park,” a musical about the origins of hip-hop which had a brief run at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Though he made his name as a solo artist, Walker enjoys being part of an ensemble.
“There’s more power in numbers, and you feel it onstage,” he says. “You’re part of a family, and it’s a good feeling to be part of a family.”
Weber, who calls Walker a “great collaborator,” loves the transition from his rap set to the main show.
“Everyone is up out of their seat jamming to Kurtis, and then all of a sudden you realize everybody’s jamming to Tchaikovsky,” says Weber. “It’s so crazy, but the way we present the classical music is the same way we present the hip-hop, that they’re both so alive.”
After a successful one-off debut, “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker” has become a touring production, putting on 30 to 40 shows around the country during the holiday season. Weber had never actually seen “The Nutcracker,” and didn’t know just how huge a cultural phenomenon the ballet was, before developing “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker,” so she was somewhat surprised by its runaway success. She’s glad to see the excitement of hip-hop dance resonating with audiences.
As Walker sees it, the success of productions that fuse rap and theater — think “Hamilton” — is a testament to just how thoroughly hip-hop culture has been absorbed into the mainstream.
“We live in a hip-hop generation right now, a hip-hop nation, and it’s only natural that productions like this can evolve and be created and have success,” Walker says. “It’s a part of our American culture, and you’ll see it on a global level as well.”
Walker also credits Weber with keeping the production fresh.
“It’s awesome to see how the choreography has evolved throughout the years with [Weber] adapting to the newest styles of b-boying or breakdancing, and just fusing it together with ballet,” says Walker.
This time of year has never lost its magic for Walker; to this day, “Christmas Rappin’ ” is his favorite of his own recordings, and he’s overjoyed to be sharing the yuletide spirit with “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker.”
“The holiday season is my favorite time of year,” says Walker. “You know, love is in the air, and that’s the theme of the play: Love defeats evil.”
THE Hip-HOP NUTCRACKER
At Shubert Theatre at the Boch Center, Dec. 21-23. Tickets from $35, www.bochcenter.org/hiphopnutcrackerTerence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley