It was September 27, 1980. Rap records had only been a reality for a year and the word "Hip-Hop" had not yet been assigned to define a culture. The music was so new to mainstream America that when Mercury Records recording artist Kurtis Blow was introduced on the wildly popular Saturday morning syndicated music program Soul Train, host Don Cornelius had to explain to his audience what rap was.
"In case you're not familiar with what rapping is all about, our next guest is one of the leading exponents of the art," Cornelius stated.
For further context of the time and where urban music was, the musical guests on this episode were funk band 7th Wonder who was responsible for "Daisy Lady" and the resulting breakbeat and R&B band L.T.D. who performed "Where Did We Go Wrong?"
I was like 'why did he do this on national television?'
- Kurtis Blow
This history-making performance would mark the first time that a rap recording artist appeared on national television, and it wouldn't happen again until February of 1981 when The Funky 4 + 1 appeared on Saturday Night Live as guests of Blondie's Debbie Harry. It was very rare for an artist to perform live on Soul Train, and outside of James Brown and The Isley Brothers, not many artists were allowed to.
"I was 19 years old," Kurtis Blow told Rock The Bells about the historic appearance. "I didn't even lip sync. There is an instrumental version of 'The Breaks' on its B side and I went live to that."
Blow's performance on the show was high-energy, and the crowd was engaged throughout, as he also showed off his skills as a dancer as well as MC. Kurtis explains that he was a B-Boy early in Hip-Hop, but his first encounter with his later partner Russell Simmons was dance-based as well.
"I used to hit up this club called Nell Gwynn's with my fake ID and that's where I met this short light skinned guy that could do the Brooklyn Hustle real good," he remembered. "There was the regular Hustle, but the Brooklyn Hustle was much more complicated."
The crowd's positive reception to Blow was also due to the call and response refrain in the song: "That's the breaks, that's the breaks". The fact that the crowd felt connected to the performance is due to a technique that early rap artists borrowed from Black Baptist preachers, and Kurtis says that it helped him outperform many of the R&B titans for which he served as the opening act.
"I was opening act for The Commodores and none of the R&B acts respected rap too much," he recalled. "I was blowing them off stage every night with, 'Throw your hands in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care' and 'All the ladies say, Owwww/Fellas say, ho.' By the end of the tour Lionel Ritchie [Commodore's lead singer] was asking the crowd to throw their hands in the air and say ho!"
When Kurtis finished his Soul Train performance, which was a definite success, it was time for the obligatory interview. Host Don Cornelius was known for his snappy remarks, which at times made interviews humorous and other times tense.
"Can the man rap?" Don asked the crowd to a thunderous affirmative roar. Kurtis then explained that he had been rapping since 1975 as part of a movement that was happening in the South Bronx and Manhattan. "Every neighborhood had a rapping DJ, and on Saturdays they would compete against each other," he said. "The winner would be the number one rapping DJ of the region."
Don then responded, "It's so much fun, it doesn't make sense to old guys like me. I don't understand why they love it so much. But that ain't my job is it? My job is to deal with it and we're dealing with it."
Kurtis' uncomfortable look conveys that the moment was as awkward for him as it was for the audience. "Don dissed rap!!" Kurtis said. "I was like why did he do that on national television?"
As rap grew over the years, Don continued to deal with it, sometimes awkwardly mixing up a Jam Master with a Grandmaster or famously mispronouncing Rakim's name (Rakeem he called him). Eventually, in the early 1990s, Don would bow out of the hosting gig, handing the reins over to younger and more "hip" hosts. The power of rap was such that Soul Train's theme song which in different iterations was performed by The Rim Shots, O' Bryan, and The Whispers was performed by Treach of Naughty By Nature.
Eventually, Soul Train became an important vehicle for rap music, hosting artists like WHODINI, Run-DMC, LL COOL J, UTFO, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, Heavy D, Dana Dane and more.