Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4: Kurtis Blow, "The Breaks"

Artist: Kurtis Blow
Song: "The Breaks"
Album: The Breaks (single)
Year: 1980

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It is almost laughable when one considers the fact that even with the availability of so much factual information, as well as the fact that the genre has been in the mainstream for more than two decades, many people are still under the impression that hip-hop music "came out of nowhere."  For some reason, the origins of the genre somehow live in an odd myth that "one day there was no hip-hop, the next day it was topping the charts," when the fact of the matter is, the roots of the style are rather well documented.  While many fans may not want to hear the realities of early hip-hop, it is impossible to separate the genre from the disco sound, as it was in the waning months of disco's popularity that hip-hop music began to rise, and there were few performers more important to the early development of the genre than Kurtis Blow.  Though by today's standards, he would have very much been an "outsider" due to the way in which he performed, it was Kurtis Blow that was largely responsible for introducing the hip-hop style to the masses, as his most famous single was perfectly crafted for dance clubs across the globe.  Furthermore, the underlying themes that can be found within this single would become the most common subject for all hip-hop songs, and it is one of the many reasons that there is perhaps no other song more important to hip-hop history than Kurtis Blow's 1980 classic, "The Breaks."

If one ignores the lyrics that open "The Breaks," and only give attention to the musical arrangement, it is clear that this is as much of a dance song as has ever been released.  Every element of such music is in place within the first few notes of the song, and it is led by what remains one of the funkiest and most recognizable guitar riffs in all of music history.  While many believe that the riff in question was a sample, it was in fact an original progression recorded for the track, and it is perhaps this reason that makes it fit so perfectly.  It is the deep groove which comes forth through the guitar that links "The Breaks" to its r&b roots, and it remains a song that almost demands the listener to dance along.  Yet the hand-clapping and bouncing drums that work behind the guitar are just as important, and it is within this element of the song that one can hear a link to many of the other early hip-hop hits.  Perhaps moreso than any of its peers, "The Breaks" has a more open, at times almost Caribbean tone within the drum fills, and it works in perfect contrast to the more strict, dance-based lead drum track.  There is also a brilliant bassline that is somewhat buried within the mix, but it adds a great amount of depth to the other instruments, and overall, "The Breaks" is one of the most musically simplistic, yet absolutely fantastic recordings in hip-hop history.

Much like the music over which he performs, the vocals of Kurtis Blow can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and even his voice has similarities to many other artists.  While this vocal sound is rather unique, one cannot help but not how much the inflection he uses is similar to the likes of Bootsy Collins, and there is also a light feel to this voice that would be heard in later artists like Biz Markie.  However, Kurtis Blow's voice is strong and all the way at the front of the mix throughout the entire song, and one can easily picture him controlling a dance floor with this vocal style.  The clear and direct manner with which he delivers each line manages to blend perfectly with the music, and yet many often overlook the almost constant social commentary that he provides with each rhyme.  While by modern standards, there many not be much significant about the lyrics, one can see "The Breaks" as the first hip-hop song to use the "tough life" theme, and in many ways, he used every observation that has been made since.  From having too many bills to cheating partners to lines like, "...and the IRS says they want to chat...," he leaves nothing untouched, and there are even moments where his rhymes become rather humorous.  When he is rapping about "cheap dates," there is a level of tongue-in-cheek to his approach, and it is this light, yet pointed style of rhyming that would go on to influence nearly every emcee that followed.

When one compares "The Breaks" to the current state of hip-hop music, it is almost laughable to see all of the differences.  Perhaps the most obvious is the length of the song, as it is impossible to think of a "hit" hip-hop song in today's music scene that was nearly eight minutes long.  Yet "The Breaks" does not drag at any point, and it is largely due to the fantastic vocal performance from Blow himself.  The way in which his voice dances across the track is nothing short of perfect, and it is quite obvious just how he was able to light up dance clubs all over the world.  The upbeat mood that the song conveys is second to none, as he masterfully blends funk, r&b, and disco into this new musical approach.  The slight sting that comes through each time on the guitar riff is one of the main reasons that it has become one of the most heavily sampled pieces of music history, and yet there are still many "harcdcore" hip-hop fans who are unaware of its origins.  This is similar to the reality that while many recognize the name of Kurtis Blow, there are a large number of people who are not familiar with "why" his name is given so much respect.  However, the fact of the matter is, more than three decades after it was first released, "The Breaks" is as infectious and enjoyable as it was when it first hit clubs, and this fact alone is one of the many reasons why it is cited as one of the most important songs in the entire history of recorded music.

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