by Steve HueyAs the first commercially successful rap artist, Kurtis Blow is a towering figure in hip-hop history. His popularity and charisma helped prove that rap music was something more than a flash-in-the-pan novelty, paving the way for the even greater advances of Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C. Blow was the first rapper to sign with (and release an album for) a major label; the first to have a single certified gold (1980s landmark The Breaks); the first to embark on a national (and international) concert tour; and the first to cement raps mainstream marketability by signing an endorsement deal. For that matter, he was really the first significant solo rapper on record, and as such he was a natural focal point for many aspiring young MCs in the early days of hip-hop. For all his immense importance and influence, many of Blows records havent dated all that well; his rapping technique, limber for its time, simply wasnt as evolved as the more advanced MCs who built upon his style and followed him up the charts. But at his very best, Blow epitomizes the virtues of the old school: ingratiating, strutting party music that captures the exuberance of an art form still in its youth.Kurtis Blow was born Kurtis Walker in Harlem in 1959. He was in on the earliest stages of hip-hop culture in the 70s — first as a breakdancer, then as a block-party and club DJ performing under the name Kool DJ Kurt; after enrolling at CCNY in 1976, he also served as program director for the college radio station. He became an MC in his own right around 1977, and changed his name to Kurtis Blow (as in a body blow) at the suggestion of his manager, future Def Jam founder and rap mogul Russell Simmons. Blow performed with legendary DJs like Grandmaster Flash, and for a time his regular DJ was Simmons teenage brother Joseph — who, after changing his stage name from Son of Kurtis Blow, would go on to become the first half of Run-D.M.C. Over 1977-1978, Blows club gigs around Harlem and the Bronx made him an underground sensation, and Billboard magazine writer Robert Ford approached Simmons about making a record. Blow cut a song co-written by Ford and financier J.B. Moore called Christmas Rappin, and it helped him get a deal with Mercury once the Sugarhill Gangs Rappers Delight had climbed into the R&B Top Five.Blows second single, The Breaks, was an out-of-the-box smash, following Rappers Delight into the Top Five of the R&B charts in 1980 and eventually going gold; it still ranks as one of old school raps greatest and most enduring moments. The full-length album Kurtis Blow was also released in 1980, and made the R&B Top Ten in spite of many assumptions that the Sugarhill Gangs success was a one-time fluke. Although the albums attempts at soul crooning and rock covers havent dated well, the poverty-themed Hard Times marked perhaps the first instance of hip-hops social consciousness, and was later covered by Run-D.M.C. Blow initially found it hard to follow up The Breaks, despite releasing nearly an album a year for most of the 80s. 1981s Deuce and 1982s Tough werent huge sellers, and 1983s Party Time EP brought D.C. go-go funksters E.U. on board for a stylistic update. Around this time, Blow was also making his mark as a producer, working with a variety of hip-hop and R&B artists; most notably, he helmed most of the Fat Boys records after helping them get a record deal. 1984s Ego Trip sold respectably well on the strength of cuts like the DJ tribute AJ Scratch, the agreeably lightweight Basketball, and the Run-D.M.C. duet 8 Million Stories. Blow followed it with an appearance in the cult hip-hop film Krush Groove, in which he performed If I Ruled the World, his biggest hit since The Breaks.If I Ruled the World proved to be the last gasp of Blows popularity, as hip-hops rapid growth made his style seem increasingly outdated. 1985s America was largely ignored, and 1986s Kingdom Blow was afforded an icy reception despite producing a final chart hit, Im Chillin. Critics savaged his final comeback attempt, 1988s Back by Popular Demand, almost invariably pointing out that the title, at that point, was not true. In its wake, Blow gave up the ghost of his recording career, but found other ways to keep the spirit of the old school alive. In the early 90s, he contributed rap material to the TV soap opera One Life to Live, and later spent several years hosting an old-school hip-hop show on Los Angeles radio station Power 106. In 1997, Rhino Records took advantage of his status as a hip-hop elder statesmen by hiring him to produce, compile, and write liner notes for the three-volume series Kurtis Blow Presents the History of Rap. The same year, he was a significant presence in the rap documentary Rhyme and Reason. Blows music has also been revived by younger artists seeking to pay tribute; Nas covered If I Rule the World on 1996s It Was Written, and R&B group Next sampled Christmas Rappin for their 1998 smash Too Close.