Music history: “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow

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The early history of hip-hop (or rap) is full of gems that have been overlooked given the passage of time, and the changing of styles. One such gem is “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. Released in 1980 from Blow’s 1979 self-titled debut.

“The Breaks” became the first rap song to be certified gold. The accomplishment matters to the evolution of rap (as it developed toward becoming hip-hop) and proves the staying power of the genre, regardless of how many detractors criticize the form.

“The Breaks”: social observations by Kurtis Blow

Listening to the song, audiences notice a few things right away: the party atmosphere, the repetition of the word “breaks” (or “brakes”) depending on the line, and the live music accompaniment.

The atmosphere is important, especially looking back almost 40 years. Hearing the party going on around Blow as he raps helps audiences to remember that rap grew out of party scenes and neighborhood battles. Emcees were cheered on by their peers who often became fans. Thus, the sounds of people in the background on “The Breaks” either chanting the song’s title, or making other types of utterances lets everyone listening know that rap is a music form that has grown out of the authentic human experience, and not made solely as “art” for the sake of recording.

It should be noted that “The Breaks” as a 12-inch single, featured an instrumental version of the song, in which audiences could “do-it-yourself” and rap their own lyrics over the music.

So, in terms of keeping it real, early rap was able to do that, and “The Breaks” was no exception. The song’s repetition, mostly through the use of homophones, also adds to the humor. Blow explains the different kinds of breaks. Ones that allow a vehicle to stop (“brakes”) and breaks that allow a person to become famous (“breaks”). But breaks are also for when things that could have gone well, don’t. Such as dates and filing taxes. There is something hilarious about Blow’s delivery when he mentions the hypothetical person who claimed his or her cat and now has to chat with the IRS. And, of course, there are the breaks in music, and breaks that make some people rich and some people poor.

The soundscape of “The Breaks” consists of a lead guitar, heavy drums and a bass, and what sounds like a synthesizer or keyboard in the background almost. Late in the song, the piano/keyboard gets a showcase as the party sounds continue. The guitar’s quality is jingly, the percussion goes from traditional drums to steel drums. When Blow calls for a break down, the drums play rhythmic motifs and the guitar plays a high-pitched accent to everything.

Blow’s voice is deep and confident. He provides the kinds of lines that modern rap fans take for granted. Blow brought audiences the kind of lines associated with rap: “Gon’ do it, do it/ do it, do it, do it,” “and you don’t stop,” for example. He also has the crowd waving their hands in the air, or “the sky” in Blow’s case, and encourages the scream.

After “The Breaks”: Kurtis Blow in brief

To read the account of “The Breaks'” success and Blow’s other albums, the 1980s were kind to Blow, at least as a professional musician. But it seems around 2009, Blow began to take his music in a different direction. He became an ordained minister, according to multiple outlets. As a result, Blow started a hip-hop church where he fulfills multiple roles, including emcee and ordained minister.

“The Breaks” peaked at No. 87 on US Billboard Hot 100, No. 4 on US Billboard r&b chart, and No. 9 on US Billboard dance chart. Well into the 21st century, “The Breaks” was ranked No. 10 on Vh1’s 100 Greatest Rap Songs.

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