What do 19th-century ballet, modern New York, Prussian gothics, Russian composers and the roots of rap have in common? Until celebrated choreographer Jennifer Weber, hip hop godfather Kurtis Blow and New Jersey Performing Arts Center execs Eva Price and David Rodriguez came together, absolutely nothing. But thanks to their hybridized The Hip Hop Nutcracker spectacle, now American audiences can enjoy a dozen breakdancers, a DJ and an electric violinist putting a streetwise spin on the timeless holiday tale. Folio Weekly spoke with Kurtis Blow—the first commercially successful rapper and first MC to sign with a major label thanks to the oddly appropriate 1979 single “Christmas Rappin”—about the show.
Folio Weekly: The Hip Hop Nutcracker has been around a while, Kurtis. What’s new in 2017?
Kurtis Blow: We have eight dancers from the old crew coming back plus four new dancers […] and new choreography from Jennifer Weber; seeing breakdancing and ballet mashed up with the classical beats of hip hop and the classical music of Tchaikovsky is hard to beat.
The original Nutcracker story was written in 1816, Tchaikovsky’s ballet in 1892. What is it about this that resonates with modern audiences?
This story about love creating a magic that can defeat evil is a message that needs to be driven home in the hearts and minds of everyone. I personally love the holiday season, with all the joy and fun it brings through togetherness, family, giving thanks and giving back. That holiday spirit is reflected in The Nutcracker, and maybe that’s why people love it. We all need that spirit very much—now more than ever.
You started as a breakdancer in the ’70s. What do you think of the skills The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s team shows onstage?
It’s awesome. I’ll always have love from the bottom of my heart for B-boying, DJing, MCing, breakdancing and all those original elements of hip hop. But to see young people come on with that same energy I had when I was a teenager … it’s incredible. It’s elevated so much from simple power moves, windmills, backspins and headspins into combinations with flares [acrobatic moves in which the dancer alternates balancing the torso between either arm while swinging the legs in circles]. They have all these new moves—stuff I couldn’t do then and can’t even do now. [Laughs.]
You toured worldwide in the ’80s but semi-retired in the ’90s. How fun is it to be on the road again, even if it’s just for the holiday season?
It’s a whole lot of fun. I don’t get a chance to tour professionally like this, with a couple of buses, equipment and production. I’m reliving those youthful days.
Have you toured in Florida?
Oh, yeah, I’ve played throughout the whole state many, many times. Florida has very special people and the best weather in the world. It’s a true melting pot, which reflects hip hop—it’s for everyone of all races, ages and countries.
As a founding father of the genre and the culture, what do you think of hip hop today?
The main thing is that the raps today are incredible: wittier, more complicated and faster, with so many styles and flows—what in poetry we call the meter. But the most incredible thing is how countries outside the U.S. have embraced hip hop and turned it into their own culture. The cats in France, Germany, Spain and Italy are rapping in their native tongues, and they’re big pop stars in their countries. After 9/11, I went to the Middle East doing the Bob Hope USO thing, performing on military bases. We visited 14 countries. One day I was talking to a guard who told me about a group in Palestine rapping about the plight of the Palestinian people—but their songs are the No. 1 requested songs on the Israeli radio station. That’s the power, and the potential, of hip hop. We are definitely the voice of the people.
Do you still consider yourself a prominent hip hop voice?
Well, right now, I’m chairman of a new project, the Universal Hip Hop Museum, which will open in a brick-and-mortar building in 2022 in the South Bronx, at the southern tip of Yankee Stadium. So I’m raising awareness—letting people know we need artifacts and pictures, along with the support to secure and solidify the past, present and future of hip hop. That’s our mission.