Last week, Bob Dylan turned 75 years old. That whole week, tributes were pouring in celebrating his nearly six decade contribution to popular music. I even wrote my own tribute in last week’s blog entry. However, I’m still not done talking about Dylan, though this entry isn’t really about Dylan.
One of my favorite podcasts is Sound Opinions. Broadcasting out of WBEZ in Chicago, Sound Opinions is hosted by Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, music critics for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times respectively. Commemorating Dylan’s 75th birthday, they dedicated an entire episode on his life up through the 1965 release of Highway 61 Revisited. However, that isn’t enough to cover Dylan’s expansive career. They are doing a second episode dedicated to Dylan and covering the monumental album Blonde on Blonde and his career through now.
After Blond on Blonde was released in 1966, Dylan released some really great and underrated material. But, he also released some questionable and downright terrible material. Dylan has this mythology associated with him that everything he has done has been on his own terms and planned according to what exactly he wanted to do at the time regardless of critical or commercial backlash. I don’t quite believe that. I think Dylan has occasionally set out on a project he truly devoted himself to but resulted in poorly calculated misfires.
The 1980s weren’t a great time for Dylan. During that time, he was regarded as a relic. He even starred in a movie called Hearts of Fire alongside Rupert Everett and musician Fiona where he played a formerly famous musician who stepped away from the spotlight, but was trying to make a comeback in a big way. I guess life was imitating art in that case. The 1980s weren’t all bad for Dylan though. Oh Mercy in 1989 was a critical success and 1983’s Infidels is an underrated classic. But 1986 saw one of my favorite of Dylan’s more questionable career choices. In 1986, Dylan rapped.
Kurtis Blow is one of the more underrated pioneers of hip-hop. His debut album in 1980 spawned “The Breaks,” one of the best hip-hop tracks of all time. “Basketball,” released in 1984, was another classic and one of my favorite songs by Blow. Blow’s career didn’t last long after that, but he was undeniably one of the most important figures in hip-hop whose influences are still being felt today.
By 1986, Blow’s career was winding down. That year, he released his second to last studio album entitled Kingdom Blow. Opening up the album was a track called “Street Rock;” 9-minutes of fierce beats seamlessly blending rock and hip-hop. This track feels incredibly lively with moments of anger at the state of urban decay and the struggle communities within it face daily. Blow is rapping about being mad as hell, but finding solace in the music that helps him get by day to day. He raps about what he knows and what he see going on around him relying on the music to serve as some spiritual salvation that is both cathartic and cleansing for him.
Blow also pays respects to the pioneers of hip-hop that have helped him get to where he is now. Interestingly enough, some of those heroes don’t really come from hip-hop but from rock. Opening up the track as a guest vocalist is Bob Dylan. Rapping about his frustration with the news media and the rich stealing from the poor, Dylan sounds incredibly confident with his flow. Rumor has it he performed his contribution in one take. Regardless of the spirit and ferocity of the track, the novelty of Dylan rapping is incredibly funny almost to the point where it is distracting. “Street Rock” is a stellar track that some listeners may not truly appreciate on novelty factor alone.
Some people associate Dylan as being a contributor to the development of hip-hop based on songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I tend to go back and forth on my thoughts on that matter, but I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea some people do that Dylan invented hip-hop. That’s a silly exaggeration. However, there’s no denying Blow and other hip-hop artists at the time were drawing on rock influences in their music. Hip-hop was gaining critical and commercial ground. What many people thought was a fad was only getting bigger. And hip-hop artists wanted be taken as seriously as rock music was. They were the new rock and they wanted the same respect rock had garnered for decades.
Blow’s career is worthy of respect, but doesn’t get the same attention as his contemporaries like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five or Run-D.M.C. He isn’t even in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame yet despite having been featured in some exhibits. I think that’s a shame because Blow had such a significant impact on hip-hop and modern day rap. There is also something undeniably cool about his style and ability as a vocalist. It may be a long time before Blow gets the credit he truly deserves, but the material he has given the world will stand the test of time.