I've had a mild obsession with Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker pretty much since I found out about it at age five. The combination of three of my favorite things—dance, quality holiday music, and a love story—typically results in a magical time. But in recent years the various Nutcrackers I've seen in ballet productions from Portland to Seattle have felt more and more stale in terms of dance style, fashion, and set design (not to mention the traditional version's tendency to exclude certain body types and skin colors). I will always love the ballet, and let's be honest, the 1990 animated fantasy film The Nutcracker Prince is a fuckin' classic, but if I'm going to sit through yet another Nutcracker this year, it's gotta be something different.
So paired with my love and fascination of hip-hop culture, The Hip-Hop Nutcracker—which is pulling through Portland for two shows at the Keller Auditorium (Nov 12 & 13)—is clearly geared toward someone just like me. And the fact that all of these loves could culminate in a phone call with hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow—AKA the first rapper to get signed to a major record label—is tripping me out in a very good way.
When asked whether the rapper/singer/DJ/b-boy/minister/record and film producer constantly gets asked to perform his 1979 hit "Christmas Rappin'" this time of year, I could almost see Blow's pride beaming through the phone.
"That’s my favorite song of my career," he says. "I just want to take my hat off to all the radio DJs and radio personalities who have been supporting that song since 1979. You guys made it into a classic so I thank you guys. I thank radio more so than anyone for making that song, you know, a big classic and a big part of my legacy. It’s going strong. Every year they play it, just like Nat King Cole."
Originally released in 1979, "Christmas Rappin'" has been a familiar tune for me during every Christmas season that I can remember—and I wasn't even born until 1988. His other early hits like "If I Ruled the World," "The Breaks"—the first certified gold rap song—and "Basketball" will be forever cemented into the foundation of hip-hop culture. As a devout Christian, minister, and lover of the Christmas season, Blow's work MC-ing an intro for The Hip-Hop Nutcracker is right on brand.
"It’s the holiday season, of course I’m the Christmas Rapper," he says. "And basically, you know, it’s the birth of Christ... So it’s my favorite time of the year, just the love that’s in the air, the holiday season. You wanna just grab a hold of your loved ones, get friends and family, and just give 'em a big hug for putting up with you all year long, right?"
While some people may have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea of watching breakdancing and popping and locking to classical music, it's really not that wild of a concept at its core.
"I think that’s one of the strong points of the piece," Blow tells me about The Hip-Hop Nutcracker, a production directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, and starring a dozen dancers, a DJ, and an electric violinist, along with the 60-year-old rapper.
"The fact that you have all this modern dance that’s out there: hip-hop, b-boying to the wave, popping and locking, electric boogaloo, all that stuff... including it and watching it to classical music is the most incredible thing. As a matter of fact, classical music is a basic way of how we teach music in the classroom, so its format is so basic that when you add hip-hop beats to it, it’s the most incredible sound to ever come up with. And just to see that happen with our presentation is incredible."
Blow makes sure to shout out the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), the entity behind the The Hip-Hop Nutcracker's 30-city US tour, as well as Weber and Michael Fitelson who adapted the play. The MC thinks of the all-star cast as the "b-boy dream team." In previous years, Blow has been game to get out there and do a dance solo during a finale in the holiday production.
"When I first started [The Hip-Hop Nutcracker], I’d come back out and sing “The Breaks” at the end with the whole cast and crew," he says. "We’re all out there doing solos and everything, having a whole lot of fun at the end. Everybody’s cheerin’ us on and I would go out and do a little solo myself. But you know, I was just having health problems, so I’ll stay away from that this year. I’ll probably back next year."
"I was thinking some of that electric boogaloo or waving or some stuff like that [for this show]," he adds. "I can knock that out." But The Hip-Hop Nutcracker isn't the only thing he has going on right now. You may remember seeing him chat it up with Shad in the first season of the Netflix music docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution. And Blow says he is in the midst of developing some new projects for the big and small screen, a world he is well-versed in after serving as a consultant on The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann's Netflix drama about teens growing up in the Bronx during the height of disco and the rise of hip-hop.
"Film/television is one of my loves. I love to edit, love to direct. I was a part of The Get Down and am looking forward to some new projects," he says. "I have some things working with the James Brown family: They’re doing a documentary on him and how he was so inspirational to early hip-hop. And you might see a KB biopic in the near future."
In addition to alladat, Blow says he's still hard at work as a board member for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx, which is set to open in 2023.
"[That's] another project we’ve been working on for a while: seven or eight years and 35-40 people sacrificing their time pro bono to get this museum up and running," he says. "So in 2023 we’ll definitely open the doors and it’ll be incredible and awesome to have a brick and mortar location where everyone in the world can just come and see the history and the stories and the careers and the pictures and the bios... So big shout out to Rocky Bucano and Adam Silverstein, and Reggie Peters. [An] incredible group of people working on this thing over in the Bronx."
In response to whether he's got any solo music coming out in the near future, Blow says he's still very much into the idea of making gospel music.
"I’ve made five gospel albums in the last I guess seven years or so," he says, "and so I was thinking about doing a Christmas rap album, you know, the album called The Christmas Rapper and my first song “Christmas Rappin'” could be the first song, and then we’ll have like 11 or 12 brand new Christmas rap songs. Definitely wanna keep doing gospel. Big shout out to Kanye, he really did well with this Jesus Is King album. Incredible, incredible album. So something like that in the gospel [genre] or something I would love to do."
For the moment, Blow is super jazzed about being part of The Hip-Hop Nutcracker, and its ability to beautifully fuse classical with modern elements.
"We had a lot of fun last year, and I know it’s going to be great," he says. "So get ready for a performance of a lifetime cause these kids come out there and they give 150 percent. And it’s amazing to see all of them. So big shout out to the team. And that’s it. Thank god we could do this."