On October 29, legendary 57-year-old rap icon Kurtis Blow went into cardiac arrest, his pulse stopping for five minutes. He survived and is already back on tour, rocking mics for as long as you like. Even though—and perhaps especially because—the seminal, trailblazing 1980s rap icon still walks among us, it’s worth appreciating all he’s meant to not only rap music but also to hoops. Without Kurtis Blow, it’s safe to say not only that hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t exist, but perhaps the league we know wouldn’t exist, either.
In 1984, Blow dropped “Basketball.” It’s a celebration of the game’s past and present, referencing everyone from Magic and Bird to Willis Reed, “Earl the Pearl” and “Number 33, my man Kareem is the center on my starting team.” He rapped, “Tell me if you were in the joint, the night Wilt scored 100 points.”
The year “Basketball” was released, the League was just beginning its meteoric rise from moribund status, with Magic and Bird having just faced off for the first time in the NBA finals. To give a sense about what a historic pivot point in hoops history this was, there is no mention of a promising rookie named Michael Jordan. But even without the Jordan marketing magic, “Basketball” by Mr. Kurtis Blow was a crossover rap hit single at a time when those were few and far between. The song not only traveled to a broad audience well beyond Blow’s native Harlem, it was embraced by someone who worked just a couple miles but several worlds away: new NBA Commissioner David Stern. “Basketball” marked the beginning of the extremely lucrative and at times very uneasy collaboration between the NBA and hip-hop. Stern had “Basketball” used in promotional videos and it has remained central to the League, later heard by a new generation on the soundtrack of NBA 2K12.
But the NBA’s acceptance and promotion of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” had greater ramifications than just some marketing tie-ins. It led many young kids—myself included—to discover hip-hop. I bought Blow’s album Ego Trip on my 10th birthday just to listen to “Basketball,” then rewind it and listen again. In the process, I became enamored with other tracks on the record, including the classic “AJ Scratch” and one of the first singles to communicate the reality of black urban life in the Reagan ’80s, “8 Million Stories,” with its refrain: “8 million stories in the naked city, some ice cold and told without pity.” That track featured an MC who started his career as “Son of Kurtis Blow,” DJ Run of Run-D.M.C. And once I learned about Run-D.M.C., I was all in and hardly alone.
The synthesis of Kurtis Blow, and the exploding popularity of the NBA, was unwittingly turning a generation of young people onto hip-hop. Kurtis Blow’s Harlem was going global and David Stern’s game was the vehicle. But “Basketball” didn’t just alter how we all saw the game. It changed the way the game saw itself. From David Stern’s marketing gurus to Nike’s high-top engineers designing the first Air Jordan later that very same year, they saw that this league—which as recently as 1979 was showing its finals on tape delay—could define “cool” in the 1980s and beyond.
This all seems so obvious today. But the idea that basketball and the sneaker industry could ride a black musical form devised just a few years earlier in the South Bronx to global domination must have seemed laughable then. This took daring vision. It also led to what has happened all too often when black music and corporate America meet: exploitation, with everyone except the people who created the art form becoming wealthy. In other words, none of the NBA/hip-hop empire building happens—or at the very least none of it happens the way we remember it happening—without the skills of Kurtis Blow. If everyone who has become wealthy at the intersection of basketball and hip-hop tithed one percent of their earnings to Kurtis Blow, he could live out his days in a platinum palace. But chances are even if they did, he would emerge to find a stage, kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug and jet.
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