During the summer of 1980, America was experiencing one of the most staggering heat waves in its history. In the streets of New York City, sweltering temperatures combined with the city’s pre-existing crime, poverty, and drug issues, created an unstable environment that had a devastating impact on many communities, particularly Black and Brown ones. In the midst of this difficult summer, a gleaming light managed to shine through when Harlem-born rapper Kurtis Blow forever changed the course of hip-hop with the release of The Breaks, hip-hop’s first certified gold single.
The iconic hip-hop dance track, which featured elements of popular funk sounds and frequent percussion breaks, was one of the early tracks that helped introduce mainstream audiences to the underground hip-hop sound that was birthed in the Bronx by DJ Kool Herc just seven years prior. The Breaks’ infectious rhythm and relatable lyrics about life’s everyday struggles (“bad breaks”) and everyday pleasures (“good breaks”) made the single an instant hit amongst the younger generation. Young people at the time were still riding a high from Sugar Hill Gang’s hit single, Rapper’s Delight, which was the first hip-hop song to flood radio airways and capture the attention of audiences outside of New York.
In the 70s, inner-city buildings in the Bronx were burning down on one side of the street, while the kids on the other side were building a culture called hip-hop
Young people’s yearning for more hip-hop music greatly impacted The Breaks’ success. This demand even led Blow to become the first hip-hop artist to perform on the legendary music television show, Soul Train. Blow’s Soul Train performance of the track and the audience’s reaction, properly reflected the celebratory and dance-heavy vibe he hoped the single would ignite. It’s a pure dance track that, according to Blow, was inspired by the break-boy (B-Boy) dancers of New York. “The concept was created as a tribute to all the breakers in and around the South Bronx and Harlem back in the early days of hip-hop,” Blow explained during an interview with Songfacts. “I wanted to do a tribute song with many breaks so that the breakers could get down and do their thing. When we danced during the breaks of a song, that was our time to go off – to do our best moves.”
The rapper’s desire to make music that people could dance to stemmed from his personal relationship with dance. He credits his mother’s love and knack for dance as the main reason he became interested in the art form. Before he began rapping and long before he was dubbed by many music historians and critics as the ‘King of Rap,’ Blow proudly carried the title of the neighbourhood’s go-to dancer that dominated local dance competitions and put on a show for family and friends. Blow, along with many other young dancers at the time, was influenced heavily by James Brown. He emulated the legendary dancer’s splits, impressive footwork and most notably, energetic and boastful demeanour.
Eventually, Blow graduated from copying Brown’s moves at house parties to become a certified B-Boy. Before rappers became the stars, B-Boys and B-Girls played a huge role in developing the look and feel of hip-hop culture. From the way they wore their clothes to the language they used, the original breakers’ impact on hip-hop is still reflected today in popular street style collections and on the stages at Red Bull’s BC One dance competitions. They used the full extent of their bodies to bend into shapes and pioneer signature dance moves that were created specifically to flow with the beat of hip-hop tracks.
Blow’s decision to create The Breaks’ in tribute to the B-Boys and B-Girls, points to the respect and admiration that the rapper had for the culture he was once a part of. As much as the MC and the DJ played a huge part in getting the crowd rocking, the breakers brought a physical energy that was both celebratory and infectious. When listening to the track this same feeling shines through. The live drums and original production elements differed dramatically from other hip-hop tracks at the time, which relied on heavy sampling of funk and disco music. The live instrumentation arranged by the song’s producers, J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. J.B. seemed to add a more technical element to the production of hip-hop music that intimately reflected the spirit of the times.
Before Blow released the hit single, in the earlier days of hip-hop, breakers used the break-heavy beats produced by legends like hip-hop pioneers DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash to show out at parties and entertain the crowds. The Breaks gave breakers a dedicated anthem that they could top rock, power move and freeze to. The song’s call to action sounds off at the beginning of each break beat when Blow emphatically commands partygoers to “break down.” The next 30 seconds of the song are reserved for B-Boys and B-Girls to test out their best moves and shift the energy away from the MCs and DJs on stage and transmit it to the dance floor.
Throughout the track, Blow and his producers made sure to add elements that would provide breakers with the same vitality they would feel dancing at a backyard BBQ or on top of cardboard boxes at a park in the Bronx. Layered over the drum-heavy beat, vocal ad-libs consistently appeared. Sounds of party cheers, laid down by Blow and some friends in the studio, brought a playfulness to the track. The presence of these ad-libs is another nod to Brown, who was known for shouting out different phrases to hype the crowd up during his performances. Brown’s legendary call and response style also made an appearance on The Breaks.
Blow’s hit single did not remain an American homegrown treasure. The love of The Breaks and the iconic dance styles it encouraged made it around Europe and Asia, too. Still a young 20-something from Harlem, Blow found himself performing for thousands in Tokyo, where, today, underground hip-hop communities still dance to and reflect fondly upon his music. Video games like Just Dance allow players from around the world to transport themselves to the animated streets of New York to hit their best breaking moves. A quick YouTube search will also provide choreographed dance routines backed by the single.
The impact the song had on breaking culture and across the world cannot purely be labelled as a sonic contribution. Blow made hip-hop history with the wide-spread success of The Breaks, which achieved gold status when it sold over 500,000 copies. The song established the genre as a rising force to be reckoned with. The song hit #87 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, #4 on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart, and #9 on the U.S. Billboard dance chart. Even though many people at the time didn’t understand hip-hop music and the culture it birthed, the presence of Blow and fellow hip-hop pioneers on the charts made a powerful statement to the world.
While buildings around the Bronx were being burned by landlords looking to collect insurance payments, Blow’s single was reflecting a more positive reality of life that came with both the good and the bad. Hip-hop’s ability to turn a negative situation into a positive one started with pioneers like Blow, that created a soundtrack for breakers to move to and encouraging words that neighbourhood kids could sing along to. From the song’s introduction “Clap your hands everybody / If you got what it takes” to the first bridge “if you deserve a break tonight / Somebody say alright!” Blow is calling for a celebration and appreciation of life.
As the first rapper to earn a gold record and the first to release a major-label single, Blow’s significant contribution to the evolution of hip-hop remains one of the biggest in the genre’s history. In the four decades since The Breaks was released, dozens of rappers, including Jay-Z, KRS-One and Will Smith, have sampled the track and made anthems of their own. While some people may no longer be breaking to the song’s original funky rhythms, Blow’s ability to make crowds dance still remains. The track can still be heard at backyard cookouts and family reunions and it provokes the same level of physical improv as it did when it was released.
Not only did The Breaks make history on the charts, but the song set the tone for how the next 40 years of hip-hop would look, feel, and sound. It introduced an anthem that breakers could move to and birthed a generation of rappers that would strive to not only satisfy listeners with fly rhymes but with music that created memories that would last another 40 years and influence another generation of rappers.
NEWS SOURCE – www.redbull.com/int-en/kurtis-blow-the-breaks