Life is a game of breaks.
Kurtis Blow, pioneering emcee, and Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, Rock Steady b-boy and breaking vanguard, know this better than most. The two legends, hailing from the age of block parties, park jams, and local relevance, have lived parallel lives each defined by breaks. In Kurtis’ case, it’s “The Breaks,” a certified hip-hop classic that took emceeing to new heights, and in Legs’ case, it’s breaking itself, the acrobatic art form that went from a local Bronx passion to a worldwide cultural movement.
Their respective careers read like trivia compendiums, littered with originated styles, broken ceilings, watershed debuts, and revolutionary returns, but looking back on “The Breaks” evokes more than just nostalgia. It reveals not only how that pivotal release paved the way for hip-hop’s popular ascension, but how two of hip-hop’s most pioneering artists have navigated their own breaks, all while helping others weather their hardships and achieve real empowerment across four decades.
“It’s a special thing for me,” says Kurtis of the anniversary, “but this is difficult for me to celebrate due to the double crisis we’re faced with over here in America.” He strikes a solemn tone, one as earnest as it is uncharacteristic. “My compassion and condolences go out to the families who have lost family members because of police brutality… Everyone is standing up and protesting; it’s a crazy thing.”
There’s a bitterness to celebrating such a milestone amid the largest spate of anti-police brutality demonstrations in American history. If “The Breaks” represented a stride in hip-hop’s pop culture stock, launching Kurtis to heights then-unseen, the rise of hip-hop hasn’t been reflected in meaningful institutional change for those that originated it. All these years later, hip-hop is a genre you’re just as likely to hear in music executive boardrooms as you are at grassroots marches and large-scale demonstrations, with Kendrick’s “Alright” and Pop Smoke’s “Dior” sturdy staples on the streets.
“Hip-hop is the voice of the people,” Kurtis explains, “it’s self-expression; it’s the epitome of communication.”
“The first jam I went to, I had no idea what to expect,” recalls Crazy Legs, casting his mind back to mid-’70s NYC. “Being this shy little boy in the Bronx—which is very odd, right—I felt like I just came to life.” It was certainly a break of some kind, as a child chaperoned by his cousin turned into an insatiable passion for the evolving and ever-inventive craft. “You’re looking at a 10 or 11-year-old kid who has nothing in terms of options for activities or programming… Being someone who comes from a home with a family of six kids, it [was] difficult for us to be anything that costs money.”
Even within hip-hop culture—“There was no such thing as that term... For the first nine to 10 years,” Legs reminds me—breaking and emceeing proved uniquely accessible passions, and classic images of Double Trouble on the stoop and Legs breaking in Wild Style show a grassroots culture defined by style, mastery, and competitive spirit. “The goal was to develop your skills, prepare to battle, and have a good time,” he explains, and in the charred neglect of the mid-’70s Bronx, Richard Colón found his “new style.”
Kurtis, who’d been “a b-boy right before [he] became a DJ,” understood those intersections more than most, and as a major label signee, he was uniquely primed to cut an “ode to the b-boys.”
“The Breaks” is egalitarian in both music and lyrics. While Kurtis’ bars touch on the hardships of life itself, the eight-minute runtime leans into rec-room floors and park jam showdowns, splicing 20-second breaks with ear-catching refrains.
“‘The Breaks’ was one of the first hooks in hip-hop,” Kurtis tells me. “I want to shout out The Sequence because they actually created the first hook in hip-hop,” he adds, launching into a rendition of 1979’s “Funk You Up.”
It’s a simple, undeniable chorus, much like the chant-ready refrain on “The Breaks,” but if “Funk You Up” traded on the trio’s presence, Kurtis’ single was a monument to the first principles of party-starting rap. “The most important thing about the song is it had eight breaks!” Kurtis explains. “It was the opportunity for the b-boys to go down to the floor and do their thing. That’s the most important part of a party.”
A few moments later, Kurtis goes further still: “The most important part of hip-hop is the break—we started rapping over the break later on.”
Still, for all these novel aspects—the live instrumentation, the hook, the unprecedented success it proved—“The Breaks” managed to strike a delicate balance between artistic piety, mainstream appeal, and social commentary. That’s at least partially the work of Robert Ford Jr., a musician, and mentor to a young Kurtis who was responsible for the dueling clavinet-piano solo. “Rocky… he was like my dad, a father figure who gave me loads and loads of advice,” he says of the influential producer and lifelong friend, who died in May. “Rock always found the solutions to our problems, dealing with each other in relationships, in the business, and in the studio—wherever it was, he was that go-to guy.”
Kurtis attributes the deft balance of elation and empathy to his idol: James Brown. “1968 was when that song came out,” he begins. “I remember it today, and not only about the lyrics teaching us black pride—‘Say It Loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud’—but the beat, the first time we heard that anticipation and syncopation from Clyde Stubblefield. The kick drum and the snare and the hi-hat…” Kurtis’ voice trails as he launches into an energetic performance of the Funky Drummer’s signature sound, head nodding as he gets into a groove. “Oh man, when I hear that beat, I lose my mind. That’s the start of the boom bap.”
The heft of Brown’s assertions go hand-in-hand with the irresistible funk that furnishes them, and that fusion inspired Kurtis’ approach to writing. “The Breaks” is a b-boy anthem about hardships told with heart and humor, but as his career pushed on, his pen grew defter still. It was on the third verse of 1985’s “If I Ruled The World” that he most memorably fused pep with politics.
“What I wanted to do in the third verse was take people to the next level, and give them something to think about,” Kurtis says of that harsh pivot into poverty, hunger, drugs, and the working-class struggle. “I get that from James Brown.”
If Kurtis’ gaze was growing sharper, so too was Legs’, who’d come to serve as a breaking protector in the wake of its fleeting moment as an international sensation. Emerging from the 1980s, Legs performed as a member of the Rhythm Technicians Dance Company, with their 1991 staging of So, What Happens Now? called “probably the first hip-hop production on a mainstream dance stage in New York City.” The New York Times described the show as a poignant tale about how “art can push up out of the most cruelly devastating terrains.” Still, even then, they painted the art form as “struggling for respectability after having nearly been exploited to death as a commercial fad.”
Struggling too were the breakers behind the curtain, pushing their passion into unfamiliar straits. “We had an opportunity, we [faced] things like racism back then,” Crazy Legs recalls. “Unless you were watching a play like Dreamgirls, you would never see black and brown people on stage… Broadway is considered ‘The Great White Way’ for a reason!”
1992’s Concrete Jungle, another theatrical showcase of breaking, rendered Legs’ childhood passion through a confronting lens, depicting young b-boys and b-girls contending with police brutality. Legs elaborates, explaining the piece “was also representative of digging deep into your cultural roots, because at the end of Concrete Jungle, what brings us back to life, or keeps us moving forward and fighting back, was our ability to be raised by the sound of the drums.”
This restorative power of the drums has seen the dedicated artist through tough times, including the deaths of fellow breaking pioneers, the commercial pillage of the art form, and the racism of the theater. Still, through his unwavering advocacy for breaking, the Rock Steady president has seen just how powerful those drums could be. “When I was in Puerto [Rico], I went up to this one area called Utuado,” he recalls. “There were all these people who had no resources when it came to water filtration and things they needed to survive, but when we came down from the hill… there was a celebration with what is called Plena music.”
A Puerto Rican genre defined by hand drums, political satire, and audience participation, Plena is another oft-spontaneous art. “To go from the hills where people are dealing with all this other stuff, to watching my people celebrate like that, and have this outdoor musical celebration with instruments, was something I needed,” reminisced Legs. “It gives you hope, and it shows you that the people, although desperate, find a way to get through it. We are resilient in Puerto Rico.”
It’s a resilience that’s been tested over the last decade, which has seen the maligned US territory struggle under a procession of crises. Puerto Rock Steady, a festival now in its eighth year, has seen Legs action his platform and “help with economic development in Puerto.” Still, the wake of Hurricane Maria devastated the artist-activist. Crazy Legs, while imploring his corporate sponsors to help his relief efforts, headed to Puerto Rico in the week after the devastating storm, accompanied by representatives from nonprofit aid organization Waves for Water.
“I tried to do something valuable, giving people the opportunity to not only survive the possibility of having to deal with dehydration but also turn it into something sustainable,” Legs explains, adding that the water filtration systems can be useful for as many as 1 million gallons per unit. “It’s not just for the moment; it’s about making sure those same tools we left them with can be used down the road.”
Legs’ swift response saw 195,000 people gain access to clean drinking water, and his efforts elsewhere provided solar lamps, relief goods, and toys for children, even as a disgusting political circus hampered a governmental response. “We need to empower ourselves,” Legs told NPR on the ground in Puerto Rico. “We need to self-sustain.”
It’s a truth that’s central to breaking, an art that empowers through self-expression. “We were kids just trying to have fun, meet girls, be competitive,” Legs remembers, those teenaged preoccupations far from anything political. One particularly striking reminder of breaking’s power to uplift came at the turn of the century when Red Bull sent Legs to Uganda to meet Abramz Tekya, a b-boy who counted the Rock Steady leader as a personal hero. The extreme poverty sees Legs call it “the belly of the beast of despair,” the extremity of the situation making hip-hop’s hold on Tekya—and Breakdance Project Uganda’s many successes—all the more incredible.
“Learning how he used the many tools of hip-hop in the way that people like Africa Bambaataa was telling us to use them was amazing to me,” Legs beams, explaining how hip-hop culture transcended differences of religion, dialect, and belief. He tells me Abramz’ program has made it into the prison system, an impressive feat in its own right. “Hip-hop was just the foundation for them to learn about accounting, learn about technology, find a path to becoming a doctor,” he says of the prisoners touched by the restorative drums. “It was nice to see how people who only wanted to be on a level playing field were using something we helped create to reach those goals.”
Just as James Brown had inspired Kurtis to become a b-boy in his early teens, Crazy Legs inspired Abramz Tekya to effect real change through a love of breaking. It’s an incredible example of why Kurtis has an interest in preserving—and consulting—the oft-maligned annals of hip-hop history. “I am an avid supporter of history,” he tells me, himself a former student of communications at CCNY. “Being poor, growing up without knowing my dad, it became my life philosophy to make my heroes my dad… Dr. J was my dad, Walt Frazier, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, those were my dads, you know? I studied them; I wanted to be like my dads.” These figures, many who were covered in Kurtis’ classes on oration, punctuate his music—Frazier and Dr. J in “Basketball,” Malcolm in “One-Two-Five (Main Street, Harlem, USA),” MLK in the Dexter Scott King-commissioned “King Holiday”—idols by way of invocation and influence.
Kurtis’ many pioneering achievements—the first emcee to sign a major label deal, earn a Gold record certification, appear on national TV, and grace a magazine cover—are firmly steeped in his understanding of history. “It’s a good philosophy because you study what they did to achieve success,” he says of those paternal inspirations. “Take the good parts, don’t repeat their mistakes… that is such a good life philosophy.”
We can define Kurtis’ career by the trails he has blazed. The power of his hip-hop celebrity has seen him work alongside figures such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson; in founding Harlem’s Hip-Hop Church, where he continues to preach and push to preserve the culture; and in serving as the Chairman Emeritus of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. “It’s God now, my father in heaven,” says Kurtis, a devout Christian who looks back on years spent “running from ministry” before finally being ordained in 2009. “I want to be like my father.”
It’s sobering to think about Kurtis’ political bars, felt keenest on 1985’s America, resonate so profoundly all these decades later. Still, as 2020 continues to unfold, he looks out on the streets with bittersweet pride. “I see humanity standing up; I see humanity crying out: ‘This is not right, these injustices have to stop,’” waxes Kurtis.
“It rings true,” Kurtis Blow says of his distant critiques that have endured for 35 years. “These are problems that exist today for poor people, the status quo. Capitalism creates the status quo: you have a rich class, the middle class, and you have a whole bunch of poor people, and it’s been that way throughout history.”
Reflective and responsive, Kurtis presents as both a student of history and an agent of change. It’s no surprise that Legs feels the same. “A lot of people want to cancel 2020, but to me, 2020 is representative of a new beginning, holding the powers that be accountable,” says Legs, quick to add “minus COVID!” to his endorsement. “I think it’s a great time to witness and be a part of change that benefits society as a whole. The generation coming up now, you have to applaud them, because although they’re seeing things real-time… They’re actually reacting and taking action and making demands, and that, to me, is so inspiring.”
Kurtis Blow and Crazy Legs drive home a vision of hip-hop that prizes community, from park jams and parties to marches and movements. Even as they reminisce, the pair is breaking new ground: Legs talks about Red Bull’s fierce commitment to breaking, as well as the chance that the art form is represented at the upcoming Olympic Games, while Kurtis’ Universal Hip-Hop Museum is aiming for a 2023 opening, one that coincides with the famous rec-room party that crystallized influence and inspiration.
An excited Legs explains how he’s been given a chance to “create and develop a Rock Steady Crew movie, documentary, and Broadway play,” which he’s proud to call “the first perspective of hip-hop from Latinos from the ‘70s to hit the screen, stage, or anything like that!” He talks about casting choices, crewing options, and directors, all of which he’s consulted on, and it feels a world away from the uncomfortable nature of his ‘90s Broadway tenure. It’s a chance to give “other black and brown people… the opportunity to show off their skills and push their careers further.” Legs is invigorated, passionate, and grateful.
“The art form represents so much opportunity and upliftment, and it has served as a bridge between so many gaps when it comes to religion, politics, culture,” Crazy Legs says of the ever-vibrant international breaking culture. “We have to respect the power that it is.”