Become a believer in the power of love with rapper and MC Kurtis Blow
If the idea of dragging yourself to see an annual Nutcracker ballet makes you want to scream, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is for you. If the traditional version has you hankering to tear down any tidy-tight high hair buns within arm’s reach and defiantly shake your bum in the face of perfect quadruple pirouettes and incessantly long Act I living room party scenes, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is for you. There’s no need for a snooze alarm to stay awake either. Believe it.
Don’t just take our word for it: Listen to Kurtis Walker, best known as rapper Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip-hop and the MC of the touring production that lands Nov. 17 at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. The show has Blow warming up the audience and establishing the time, date and place—1980s, New Year’s Eve, New York City—with a medley of hip-hop songs from that era, including, appropriately, his “New Year’s Eve.”
He returns at the end to close the Nutcracker with “The Breaks,” a hit single on the eponymous release that became the first rap album to be certified as a gold record and led to Blow signing his debut contract with major label Mercury Records. Since that time, he has gone on to release 10 albums over 11 years; partner with The Fat Boys, Run DMC and others; appear on television’s Dancing With The Stars and SportsCenter and in the film Krush Groove; receive mention in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Notorious and Straight Outta Compton; and serve as associate producer on the Netflix series The Get Down.
“The Hip Hop Nutcracker is the story of two young people falling in love, and their love creates special magic that can defeat evil,” Blow says in a phone interview. “I set the tone and the pace for that spirit and that message to be communicated. The story takes place at the height of the holiday season, with a new year ushering in; it’s 1980. I think back to people singing those old-school hip-hop songs that were so hot and relevant during those years.
“We just have a whole lotta fun and get prepared. The reason I do what I do is to inspire people to think of this hip-hop Nutcracker as not just another Nutcracker. We want people to make noise, scream, clap loud, stand up and yell, let your hair down, dance, let yourself go.”
Blow likens the show’s energy to that of an athletic event and the audience to avid sports fans. “What happens at a baseball game when your favorite player hits a home run? Boom! It’s everyone jumping up in the air, and they scream and yell and make a whole lotta noise. They make a lot of noise when Lebron James slam dunks. Boom! It’s that same excitement we want to bring. We know that is the epitome of entertainment. We want everyone to feel that love and that passion. It’s the holiday season; let’s have a good time,” he says.
If it is a good time, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is also an example of serious musicology; spectacular breakdancing; top quality, large scale, proscenium theater choreography; and state-of-the-art digital and video technology. In addition to Blow, the show created in 2013 by director/choreographer Jennifer Weber and writer Mike Fitelson, a native of Oakland, showcases approximately one dozen superbly gifted dancers; an on-stage DJ (DJ Boo); imagery that includes graffiti, a virtual subway system and more; and an onstage electric violinist.
And then, there is the modernized update of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale from traditional 19th century Germany: the 1816 short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s libretto has Maria/Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in a reimagined, dreamed, urban style adventure battling mice, indulging in the land of sweets, enjoying divertissements delivered by mechanical dolls, Chinese puppets, Russian folk dancers (note the precursor to breakdancing moves like the windmill and coffee grinder) and other spectacles. Ultimately, the young couple emerges from the dream to find a new year beginning, new revelations and renewed hope for the future.
Topping all the positivity, contemporary narrative and happy, kinetic, cathartic release due to the dancers’ infectious, meticulous dancing, is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s marvelous classical music score. Inarguably, it has long been one of the highlights of the 130-year-old ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov that was at its debut not a success. As admirable as was the score, the choreography was far from revelatory.
The ballet gained popularity in the United States only after the New York City Ballet gave its first annual performance of George Balanchine’s reworked staging in 1954. (Smithsonian magazine reports Balanchine drew the idea to create his own version from a full-length version presented in San Francisco in 1944 that failed to launch widespread support.) Televised versions increased the appeal in subsequent decades. Ballet companies have long staked their financial viability on the annual production.
Blow says Tchaikovsky’s music is a gold mine for the kind of fusion across genres he has pursued throughout his career. “I have banked on a career on that ideology or this contention: that hip-hop, this genre, is exactly that: music. It’s music in the same way classical music and other genres are (at their essence) music.
“My first album (The Beats), I had the idea of the fusion of the genres. I was the first to do rock n’ roll rap, the first to do country rap on a song called ‘Way Out West.’ I did the first blues hip-hop song, the first reggae rap with the Fat Boys in 1983. So I’ve always had the vision to fuse hip-hop in the concept of funky beats and raps and flows with other genres of music. This is why the hip-hop with classical music that is the basics of all music together works so unbelievably. Along with the breakdancing? Wow, that’s The Hip Hop Nutcracker.”
Blow loves to talk music theory. The basics of mastering music theory involve knowing how to count beats, bars, measures, time signatures. “After all of that, you have to know what instruments you’re using,” he says. “We learn via or through classical music what instruments are, from woodwinds to strings to brass.
“There’s something I like to talk about: the Circle of Keys that is the science of sound. Hip-hop is widely known as the innate love of the drum because you have to have a funky beat to write a hip-hop song. The fusion of that hip-hop funky beat and classical music and other forms has been my whole career.”
But it hasn’t been his whole life, which in 2017 turned upside down. It’s a long story, he warns, before rendering an abbreviated “Cliff Notes” version. “It was a process of four heart operations, starting in 2017 when I went into cardiac arrest. It was not a heart attack. I went straight to the heart stopping. That is the end result of a bad, bad, heart attack. The heart stops, right? I actually died for five minutes.
“The police gave me a defibrillator treatment. I came back and then had four operations. The last surgery was a full heart transplant. I moved on it after the doctor came to me and said, you’re not gonna be around for another year, so you should consider this heart transplant.”
Having developed heart failure between surgeries and reaching a decision point in 2019, the hurried search for a donor began. “I was fortunate it didn’t take too long to receive a 34-year-old heart. I had the transplant Dec. 7, 2020. It’s been two years now, and I’m so grateful and thankful. There were prayers from family and my wife of 38 years, Shirley Walker, who’s been my prayer warrior.
“It was a miracle of blessing to still be here to do this Hip Hop Nutcracker. I am a walking, living, breathing testimony of the power of God and the fact that God is still in the miracle business. What God did for me, He can do for you. When I wake up in the morning, I’m so grateful to be here to breathe air.”
He pauses the flood of appreciative words long enough to breathe that precious air, then says why a Hip Hop Nutcracker is what the world needs now. “I can paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, ‘Any time of day is the right time to do the right thing.’ This is one of the missions of hip-hop: to educate and empower our youth. It’s one of our responsibilities as elders and leaders to tell the truth in love and support each other.
“Coming out of COVID, it’s more needed now, although we’ve always needed to unite and love each other. We need to promote and inspire everyone to go with the concept of loving each other.”
As he contemplates the “rebirth” represented by his new, young heart and audiences coming to the show, he thinks often about sound and the ways in which it is the origin of life. “It has been around since the beginning of time. Our bodies are all rhythmic sound in motion. We are matter that matters. From birth, our bodies are made up of sound, energy, rhythm, kinetics. Life is a combination of everything around us: the air, water, earth and the gasses. It’s all in motion.”
Blow says to be born is to win the race, and in that, we can find unity and correlations to music. “In order to be born, we all had to win the race to connect to that Y chromosome. Sperms have to travel up the uterus and connect. That’s how life is created, with motion and rhythm that carries it. It’s sound and motion that great philosophers say classifies life.
“Even the alignment of the nine planets that travel around the sun are in perpetual motion. And each is a different distance from the sun, and it takes them different amounts of time to travel around the sun in one year. All of these velocities of each of these nine planets are so perfect you can measure them and it can be charted like a graph. In music, that’s called a staff. The wavelengths and distances (between music notes) are so perfect they can be measured. Their relationship to each other can be classified as the origins of music and a musical staff. And just as we are all individuals, each note has a different sound when it travels.”
On the horizon beyond the Nutcracker for Blow is broadcasting his hip-hop message of love and universality in his roles as an ordained minister and leader of the Hip Hop Church, co-founder and board chairman of the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, NY, and an advocate for integrating hip-hop into the curriculum of higher education academic institutions and conservatories.
“Education is important at this time because the music industry, coming out of the pandemic and even before that, has been ruthless and unfair to artists. Artists need to come together and educate each other of the downfalls and pitfalls and about publishing, copyright, ownership, fair wages, fair royalties. To this end, we have formed the Universal Hip Hop Museum you can check out (uhhh.org), or the Hip Hop Alliance, the first union formed in partnership with SAG-AFTRA (sagaftra.org).
“Hip-hop culture is vital and needed in a time when it seems the world is upside down. From the pandemic to wars, inequities, injustices and everybody talking? We need to come together and try to get back to those old days when everything was safe. When was that? (He laughs, well aware of sounding idealistic, perhaps even romanticizing the past, but continues.) Let’s promote the idea we are all one big humanity family. Love someone.”
Backstage during the show, Blow steps out of the spotlight. The cast operates like a family, cheering each other on and, in his words, “loving on each other.” He refers to the dancers as his B-Boy and B-Girl Dream Team. “They don’t need a critique from me. I know they’re going to do their best. I say, ‘Man, I see you doing your thing out there. Wow.’ There’s no need for pep talk or anything like that because they are so talented in their own right. They have incredible different styles. It’s an awesome thing to see. The fruition of it: It’s incredible.”
As he brings the evening to a close, Blow is intent on one last message, one more opportunity to send people out of the theater with jubilant spirits and energized bodies and minds. “This is what I bring to the Nutcracker: that we should be thankful we are here, together. You should be feeling good inside. It’s the time of year you want to grab hold of friends, family and loved ones and say, thank you for putting up with me all year long. We want our audiences to see the show and leave feeling revitalized.”