The 1980s represent a very strange period in Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. It was unusual to see his timeless folk songwriting transposed onto the glossy and gaudy production of the synth-riddled period. Whilst it might not have been Dylan’s most glowing decade, it was an era with some unbelievable songs and groundbreaking movements, nevertheless.
One such movement was the rapid uptake in hip hop, which broke into the mainstream via an unlikely source in the form of Blondie when their 1981 single ‘Rapture’ became the first rap video ever broadcast on MTV. Whilst pop culture may be a palette whereby all genre’s rub off on each other to colour the canvas, Dylan was nonetheless an even more unlikely figure to sneak into the hip hop studio, despite the fact he has always been ahead of the changing times.
Although, Blondie might have been the first to rap on MTV, a year earlier a single had already hit gold. Rap music is so ubiquitous today that it’s remarkable to think that it took until August 19th, 1980, for the rap single to be certified gold. In just over 40 years, it has gone from a marginalised art form to chart music’s main alternative voice, and its commercial success all started with one seismic record.
Not since Neil Armstrong has a man claimed as many firsts as Kurtis Blow. With ‘The Breaks’ he claimed the first rap song to sell over 500,000 copies and smash gold status. Moreover, it was released on a major label after the pioneering star signed to Mercury Records back in 1980. And the album itself, Kurtis Blow, made a huge mark on the rap scene and showed the genre could enjoy sustainable success.
As Promethean and singular as the track and the whole genre of rap for that matter may have seemed, there was also a profound link back to blues music in the piece, which Blow explained when he remarked: “I think it came out in 1920 or something, where a guy was talking, saying – ‘Oh, your girlfriend left you, and you lost your job and your car got towed away, well don’t worry, tomorrow the sun will shine and everything will be alright’ – good breaks and bad breaks can happen in life, but don’t worry because there’s always another tomorrow.”
Further adding: “We wanted to repeat that concept and have the many meanings within one song. We put it together and had the greatest musicians play – John Tropea on guitar, Jimmy Bralower on drums, Larry Smith, who went on to produce Run-D.M.C. and Whoodini played the bass, Denzil Miller on keyboard.”
As Blow would remark years after its release: “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.” ‘The Breaks’ represented the moment that this cultural movement usurped the status quo, and it did so in style.
This is something that Dylan has always had his eye on. The next voice of a generation, Dylan declared, would be a kid “with a chop top hairdo, who came from that world, who knew it,” and according to Dylan, these kids would change things in the same hard-hitting way that he had back in the ’60s. He regarded the music that he was making as worthy but archaic, he recognised that music would become increasingly urban and he did not bemoan this heralded fate one bit. Instead, he championed it as a necessary transition to modernise the way in which societies flaws are illuminated.
Thus, In 1986 he joined the movement, laying down the deeply confounding opening verse to the Kurtis Blow track ‘Street Rock Duet’, rapping out with caustic societal disdain: “Kids starve in Ethiopia / And we are gettin’ greedier / The rich are gettin’ richer / And the needy’s gettin’ needier.” Dylan agreed to be on the track after borrowing a couple of Blow’s backup singers for Empire Burlesque, but it was a collaboration that proved very impactful.
Dylan might have gotten behind the rap movement and been keen to champion it, but the verse finds him, in the famous words of Sid Waddell, as out of place a penguin in the microwave (even if ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ has something of the proto-rap about it). Sometimes it is simply better to admire from afar as opposed to joining in with the game. Alas, if the big-name draw and a firm thumbs up from a hero helped to legitimise the movement and shine a light on Blow then more power to him I suppose. You can take a listen to his rapping below.