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After heart transplant, Kurtis Blow returns to LA and Riverside with ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’

It’s been a decade since Kurtis Blow joined “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” but the legendary rap pioneer from New York City says he vividly remembers the moment it happened.

“They came to me and said, ‘Wow, you would be great being a part of this new show called ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker,’ ” Blow says on a recent video call. “And I said, ‘What?’

“I remembered the old Nutcracker and so I went over to the rehearsals and I saw these B-boys and B-girls just doing their thing, rehearsing to classical music,” he says. “And I just thought to myself, ‘This is amazing,’ because I’m a big fan of classical music. And that fusion of hip-hop and classical music, I became a fan of it.

“So when I saw these dancers, B-boying and B-girling to Tchaikovsky’s music, it was, man, it was the epitome of the fusion I’m talking about. And I just had to be a part of it.”

Blow, who serves as the host and emcee of the touring show, returns to Southern California for a pair of shows this month as “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The production, which includes a dozen dancers, a DJ, and an electric violinist, stops at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on Monday, Nov. 14 for a preview show, and holds its official season opener at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

(A new film adaptation of the live show, featuring Blow in a cast that includes Rev Run of Run-DMC, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the Jabbawockeez dance crew, premieres on the Disney+ streaming service on Nov. 25.)

The show opens with Blow, who is healthy again after a heart transplant in December 2020, in a brief performance to warm up the crowd for the main performance. He then returns at the end to perform his biggest hit “The Breaks,” a single from his 1980 debut that became the first gold rap record.

Blow, the first rapper signed to a major label, has a history with Christmas holiday-themed performances: His 1979 debut single “Christmas Rappin’” was a rap revision of ” ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.”

Here’s what else we learned in an interview edited for length and clarity.

Q: Blending different elements, such as hip-hop and classical, can create new art – and in this case, dance. Is that something you’re interested in?

A: I am an avid supporter of the fusion of the hip-hop genre of music into other forms of music. I was the first to do it on my first album. I was the first to do rock and roll rap. I was the first to do a country and western rap, on my first album, a song called ‘Way Out West.’

It was amazing just to have that concept of the possibility that we could intertwine and merge and fuse into other genres of music. So I’ve been a fan and an avid supporter of that concept since day one. And here we are in 2022, doing the same thing that I had the concept of doing back in ’80. It works.

Q: Tell me a little about your role in the show.

A: So I come out in the intro and get everyone prepared for what they are about to see and hear. And, you know, have them jumping and throwing their hands in the air. I take them back to the old school and sing a medley of old-school hip-hop hits.

And then I come back at the end and I sing ‘The Breaks’ with the whole cast and crew. And that is amazing, as well. All of the people standing up, throwing their hands in the air, having a good time. And we are all doing solos, B-boy solos, B-girl solos. Everyone doing this thing within their own style of dance. It’s amazing just to see the togetherness and the unity of the whole cast. We all are together having fun.

So that’s it. The audience leaves the show feeling really, really good inside. That’s our job, you know. They are revitalized and they share the holiday spirit when they go home to their families and their community. That’s what it’s all about. Love. And love conquers all.

Q: What does Christmas mean to you now? And what are your fondest memories of it as a kid?

A: Well, hey, for every kid growing up in America, Christmas is the most fun time, the most favorite time of the year for most everyone. It’s the biggest holiday. It’s the holiday where the spirit of love is in the air. You just want to grab ahold of your loved ones and give them a big hug, and say thank you for putting up with you all year long, right?

So the Christmas tree had presents under the tree, and Christmas Day, we’re waiting to wake up and open up our presents. Just receiving all of the gifts and all of the love, and just the joy in the spirit of love that’s in the air.

As I grew and became an MC, I got the opportunity to make the Christmas rap, my first song. And so people call me the Christmas rapper. It is my favorite time of the year. Definitely.

Q: How did ‘Christmas Rappin” become your first single? It’s an interesting choice for a debut.

A: I have to give the partial credit to my producers, J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. They sat me down. I was 19 years old. And they said, ‘Man, so what style of music do you want to have? Who’s your favorite artists?’

I said James Brown. And then I thought about it, because I was DJ-ing at the time, and the hottest music out during that time was a band called Chic. So I said I wanted a sound, a style between James Brown and Chic. I call it progressive disco funk.

So they said, All right; we’re going to do a song that is going to last forever. It will play every year. Christmas was coming up. We recorded a song and you know, it was a monumental hit. I’m telling you, it played during the clubs way after Christmas. We released it Dec. 19, 1979. But it played all the way up into the summer of 1980.

Q: Christmas means different things to different people. There’s Santa Claus and the birth of Christ. How do you see those fitting together in the holidays?

A: I’m glad you asked that question, because, you know, I am a minister. And the biggest part of my ministry is to actually give the people hope, and give them some inspiration during their lives that, you know, everything is going to be all right.

When it comes to Christmas, as a Christian, it is our favorite time of the year, because there would be no Christianity without this day. But we as Americans, we all love Christmas, Santa Claus, Rudolph, snowmen and everything. And all of the capitalism that goes along with buying presents and supporting the economy, as they say.

But the real spiritual element of the birth of Christ, this is why I’m here. This is why I’m still here, because of the heart transplant and everything. And that was because of what we believe is the great physician, and that’s Jesus Christ.

Q: I know you were doing a hip-hop service at your home church in Harlem for a long time. Is that still going on?

A: We shut down. We’re going to start back virtually really soon. Probably the first of the year.

Q: That’s another example of mixing together different traditions – hip-hop with a religious service – to create something entirely new.

A: Yeah, you know it’s amazing. A lot of people, they come to the church looking to see Kurtis Blow, but they leave with Jesus. So, however, you want to dress it up. We have a hip-hop choir. They sing some funky, funky gospel. And we have gospel rap. There’s a DJ cutting up: ‘Je-Je-Je-Je-Jesus!’

But we use hip-hop in the presentation of the gospel. Jesus is in the center of that presentation. So you may come to the hip-hop church looking for hip-hop, but you find Jesus.

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