These are the breakthroughs: Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow talk 50 years of hip-hop

Ahead of Atlantic City's 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop Mixtape Live concert, two architects of the genre share stories about "The Message," "The Breaks," "White Lines" and more.

Hip-hop pioneers Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow in the 1980s. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz / Photos: Getty Images)
Hip-hop pioneers Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow in the 1980s. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz / Photos: Getty Images)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, and all-star celebrations are taking place across the world throughout 2023 — including a big 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Mixtape Live concert on June 17 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The event, curated by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Doug E. Fresh, and Charlie Mack, will feature 50 MCs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, including the Sugar Hill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Yo-Yo, EPMD, J.J. Fad, Schooly D, and Monie Love.

But of course, the lineup would not be complete without two architects of the genre: Kurtis Blow, the first rapper to have a gold-selling hip-hop single (with “The Breaks”) and sign to a major label, and Melle Mel, the first hip-hop inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (as part of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) and actually the first rapper to call himself an “MC.”

“I always thought [hip-hop] had the potential to be in something really, really special, because of just the popularity that was going around in the Bronx and Harlem and Queens and Brooklyn — how everyone was excited to be at a hip-hop party. That was the thing to do on Fridays and Saturdays. And when you started to hear it on the radio, that's when I really, really knew. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we have the opportunity for a career with this stuff,’” Blow tells Yahoo Entertainment as he looks back. “It's incredible, the level of success from where we first started, with a couple of groups, to now it's a global phenomenon. It’s unreal. Every day is like dreaming a dream.”

“I always knew that we would be successful. I said that in the beginning,” asserts Mel. “I just didn't think that it would be something that everybody else could do. But I'm fine with that, because I'm still competitive. I'm one of the most competitive guys. … Me pioneering a lot of things and being considered an icon in the genre, I think it's a feather in my cap. At 61 years of age… I know I might not ever be the face of the genre again… but how could me or Kurtis Blow ever be irrelevant in the genre that, No. 1, [we] helped create?”

Ahead of Atlantic City’s 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop Mixtape Live extravaganza, Blow and Mel recently took part in Yahoo Entertainment's dual-career-spanning roundtable to share stories about their biggest songs and achievements. Read on, and watch the extended roundtable video embedded here, to learn all about who was originally supposed to record Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s sociopolitical classic “The Message” (and why the Furious Five were reluctant to record it themselves); why Chuck D considers Kurtis’s “Christmas Rappin’” to be “the most relevant song in the history of hip-hop”; why Sugar Hill Records rejected a then-unknown legendary film director’s unofficial video for Melle’s “White Lines”; what Melle (and his fans) really thought of Duran Duran's “White Lines” cover; the “funny deal” that Blow signed early on with Mercury Records; where Melle was when he first heard his rap on Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”; how Blow schooled clueless music journalists on his first press tour; how meeting Harry Belafonte changed Melle's life; and much, much more.

“Christmas Rappin’” by Kurtis Blow (1979)

Kurtis Blow: That was just a blessing. … Little did I know back then, in 1979, I would be making a record that would last forever. And a lot of people say — I heard Chuck D just say it last year — that that song is the most relevant song in the history of hip-hop, because, wow, it plays every year! You know, like Nat King Cole! My cap goes off to the producers, J.B. Moore and Robert Ford Jr., rest in peace; they produced my first five albums. It was an amazing time of my life, to be in the studio and hear the fidelity of the music. And back then, in ‘79, we had all live musicians; this was way before the drum machine and synthesizers. I remember sitting in the chair and I had the whole band around me — the bass was on my right side, the guitars were there on the left side, the drummer was behind me, and we had keyboards and everything — and they all were playing this song live, right before my eyes. And I'm listening to this for my first time in the studio, at 19 years old. And I mean, I was traumatized — traumatized in a good way! I’ll never forget it. It was incredible, just hearing that fidelity, that quality of the music… just the process of recording and fellowshipping, and hanging out with the musicians and all of the producers and the engineer, Roddy Hui. Oh my gosh, I love them guys, man. I miss them so dearly. It was a special time in my life.

“The Breaks,” by Kurtis Blow (1980)

Kurtis Blow: This was the follow-up song from “Christmas Rappin’.” Let me talk about the record deal, because I was the first MC signed to a major record label. So, I had a funny deal: It was a 12-inch deal, and my first 12-inch [single] had to sell 30,000 copies in order for me to do a second 12-inch. “Christmas Rappin’” sold over 400,000 copies. Boom. So, I got the chance to do the second single, and second single was “The Breaks.” Oh my gosh. It sold 840,000 copies! I was supposed to sell 50,000 copies, and if I didn’t, then I couldn't do an album. I had a funny deal like that. But the second single sold close to a million and was certified gold, and that's my claim to fame, a big part of my legacy, and my biggest hit today.

It was a great time. I was assigned to a major label, so I did major press all around the world, and I had my record company send me everywhere. “I wanna go everywhere!” Here's a kid out Harlem, 20 years old, I'm traveling to places like Japan and Paris and Berlin and London. I would go to these places and sit up in the office in the main office of the record company, in the conference room, just doing interviews from like 12 to 5 in each city. I would do print, newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and it was documented all over the world that I was the first rapper to actually travel to these places.

I remember a lot of those questions that they used to ask me in the interviews, and it was like, “What is this thing, hip-hop?” I used to tell 'em, of course, that it's a culture, a way of life, a society of young people who love and cherish the elements of the culture: rapping, scratching, breaking, graffiti. And I used to name the pioneers, from Kool Herc to Afrika Bambaataa to Grandmaster Flash to DJ Hollywood, Eddie Chief, and Lovebug Starski. But I remember they used to always ask me this question like, “But where's your band?” [laughs] I was onstage with just two turntables and a microphone. By the time the show had ended, everyone was like, “Well, I don't think you need a band. We're good with this.” That was our job, to rock the house in our live shows.

Melle Mel: [Journalists] asked us [the Furious Five], all the relevant questions, because it was a groundbreaking time. … One of the things that [Sugar Hill Records co-founder] Sylvia Robinson did that was very ingenious was most of the [Sugar Hill Records] acts at that time [worked with] Cynthia Horner, who was old-school, from Right On! magazine. She was the publicist for the Jacksons, right? … And we had a publicist called Howard Bloom Associates, and they did rock music, so we did all the rock magazines too. We did shows with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the Stray Cats. We played early on with U2! We did all of those rooms. So, by the time we got to “The Message” and then to “White Lines,” we were basically a pop act. We had that pop vibe going for us. That's why when they was looking for a group to be the first group to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we were the automatically the automatic first choice, because we were put out there like we was a rock group.

“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)

Melle Mel: The inspiration behind “The Message” was, basically, Ms. Sylvia Robinson, the owner of Sugar Hill Records. … I would be remiss to not say that she easily is one of the greatest hip-hop producers — definitely the greatest female producer, but I would even say she's the greatest hip-hop producer, because she made the songs that [fostered] most of the change, the biggest change to this day, to the genre. She brought those songs to the table. And she was the only one that believed in this song. She just knew, as far as timing-wise and just how to put out the right song. Because [the Furious Five] wasn't supposed to do “The Message”! The Sugar Hill Gang was supposed to do “The Message.” But the Sugar Hill Gang didn't want to do the song. And actually, nobody in our group wanted to do the song. But I knew how adamant she was to get that song done. And to be in with the record company, it was good a move, strategically, to just be a part of the song.

Nobody wanted to do that record, because mentally, we weren't there. We was party guys. “Broken glass everywhere/People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care” — nobody was ready for that! But she knew that people were ready for it, and not only people that listened to hip-hop, but people outside of hip-hop. “The Message” is one of the records that when it first came out, even if you didn't like hip-hop, you liked that record. And if not for that record, we'd just be a regular group. “The Message” is more of a pop record than a hip-hop record. With us doing that record, it took the group to a whole ‘nother level.

It changed the genre, because I think hip-hop was ready for a change. It was so much of a different record. And then all the critics who had overly criticized what rap was and what hip-hop was, they was the ones that made that record — the record that it turned out to be. Because [critics] was like, “See? This is what hip-hop should be, or could be.” And that is what it went on to be: You had the Public Enemies, you had your Poor Righteous Teachers, you had your X Clans, even up to right now, to the few rappers of the day that that's still socially conscious. Their father is “The Message.” That's the king of the genre. And it made me, at that time, the king of conscious rap. I went on to make… “White Lines,” and [the genre] was totally different.

“White Lines (Don’t Do It),” by Melle Mel (1983)

Melle Mel: When we did “White Lines,” that was right before the group had broken up, and I was telling the rest of the guys, “Listen, this song is going to be a smash… we'll be leaving on a high note!” But with the conflicts with the record company, and they just went and did they thing. I went back to the studio and re-recorded “White Lines.” We was all in the studio. Ron Isley was in the studio — that's how we got the [Isley Brothers sample] in the song.

[Sugar Hill Records’ co-founder Joe] Robinson called me to New Jersey and said, “I've got some got something we want to look,,” and he plays a video. And I see “A Spike Lee Joint” is all in the video. And you see a guy in a white suit, which turned out to be Lawrence Fishburne! And, I said, “Who did that nice video?” He says, “Eh, some college kid.” And I said, “Yeah, but what are you gonna do with the song?” He said he told [the director] to go F himself! Three or four years later… [Joe] reminds me, because this video was by Spike Lee, “We’re gonna try to see if we can get Spike to put it out.” So, they go call Spike’s people — and then Spike Lee told Mr. Robinson, “Go F yourself.” [laughs] So, the moral to the story is, Sugar Hill Records would've discovered Spike Lee, had [Joe] have been more open-minded back then. Because it was a Spike Lee Joint and everything. It had all the earmarks of a Spike Lee project.

[Sylvia] Robinson, in her wisdom, added the “Don't do it!” part to the song. Back then, we was all partying, so I just made the song from a pure party experience. Yes, it had all the pros and cons [about cocaine], but basically, it was a party song. Actually, that could have been one of our biggest songs in the U.S., but being that it was a drug-related song, a lot of radio stations still didn't play it [despite the added line]. It just so happened to be way bigger overseas… they didn't censor the song as much, and we got way more airplay. It was like our biggest song in the U.K., bigger than “The Message.” … We are probably, to this day, one of the biggest hip-hop groups in the U.K. because of “White Lines.” It was a huge pop song over there.

A crazy story was, I think it was in Bad Boys, when we had done the song with Duran Duran [for Duran Duran’s Thank You covers album]. And they wanted it, I believe, in Bad Boys, because it was about super-cocaine. And one of the stations in L.A. played the remake with Duran Duran on their “Make It or Break It,” and our fans trashed the song! I think it would've been a huge song, especially being in the movie, but they trashed it. And then the producer got scared and didn't put the song in the movie. I thought it was a great [cover]. I had a good time working with Duran Duran. They was just good guys, and the keyboardist, Nick Rhodes, was the most knowledgeable. Him and the guitar player [Warren Cuccurullo] were the most knowledgeable guys about music; they would sit down and for hours would go back and forth with different records. [Rhodes] is like a walking encyclopedia with music. That's why on [Thank You] they did “White Lines” and [Public Enemy’s] “911 Is a Joke.”

“I Feel for You,” Chaka Khan featuring Melle Mel (1984)

Melle Mel: Chaka Khan is getting her well-deserved spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [this year]. … Congratulations to Chaka Khan, an icon and one of the great voices of R&B. I'm just thankful that I had a chance to record with her and be on one of her biggest records. Actually, that was another first: the first hip-hop with R&B fusion record that was a No. 1 record worldwide. Grammy Awards, American Music Awards… you know, it definitely started a whole new thing with the fusion — Method Man and Mary J. [Blige], [Big Daddy] Kane with Patti LaBelle. But that was the first one.

The record came about from a legendary producer. His name was Arif Mardin, and he was probably about 80. It was his idea to actually [cover] the [1979 Prince song]. And the guy that arranged the record was named Reggie Griffin; he used to be in the Sugar Hill Band. … They was looking for a rapper around 1984, and I had [the hip-hop movie] Beat Street out. We was pretty popular in ‘84. That was actually my best year. When he got me to be on the record, I never went in the studio with any of 'em. We just flew my voice on the two-track, flew it out to them, and the next time that I heard the record, I was in a Yellow Cab. I'm coming from downtown, from the Roxy into the Bronx, and I was high. I was effed up. And I'm hearing the record, in the backseat of the cab, and I'm thinking I'm dreaming or I'm tripping out! … I actually first met Chaka Khan at the Grammys. I flew in that afternoon, we did the rehearsal, did the Grammys, I got up the next day, got on the plane, flew back to New York, and then flew back to London to finish the tour.

Beat Street (1984) and Krush Groove (1985)

Melle Mel: Beat Street was produced by the late, great Harry Belafonte. A lot of people would consider that some of my best work, but how it all came about, we wasn't actually supposed to in Beat Street. I was supposed to write the song for the star of Beat Street to do at the end, but he couldn't get the vocals. So, if you listen to the end of Beat Street, they used my voice through the whole thing and he just lip-synched my voice, and then they tweaked his voice. … That's how we actually made it into the movie.

But as far as the writing of the song, it all came about when meeting Harry Belafonte. He wanted me to write a song. And we had this conversation… you know, Harry Belafonte, he's a worldly guy. He is one of the heroes of the ‘60s, and just an eloquent man. … If you listen to what I'm saying in the song, it almost has nothing to do with the movie. It has more to do with me having a conversation with the great Harry Belafonte that inspired me to write the song. … I don't think it was the greatest hip-hop movie, but just meeting Harry Belafonte and having that conversation, mentally and spiritually it took me to another level with my writing style. I added another gear to it. And that's the beauty of life. One conversation with the right person could change your whole perspective on what life is about. … We talked about a bunch of different things. We talked about the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about him as an entertainer. We talked about what he wanted to capture in the movie. It was nothing specific, but just being in front of Harry Belafonte and just listening to him convey his thoughts on what he wanted the movie to be about, that's the way I wrote the song. Those verses are considered some of my best verses.

Harry Belafonte and Melle Mel attend the 'Beat Street' screening, panel, and  performance hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Oct. 20, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo: Charles Norfleet/WireImage)
Harry Belafonte and Melle Mel attend the 'Beat Street' screening, panel, and performance hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Oct. 20, 2012 in New York City. (Photo: Charles Norfleet/WireImage) (Charles Norfleet via Getty Images)

Kurtis Blow: It was all a dream — it's like a dream world now [to look back at] Krush Groove. I was really hot during that time. I was a hot producer. I had produced the Fat Boys, and I was producing their second album. I was doing my America album as well, which was the first time I got the opportunity to produce myself. I got this big mega-deal from Mercury/Polygram to produce five albums for Kurtis Blow, and I also produced the soundtrack for the movie Krush Groove. It was a lot of work. I'll tell you! I would go to three different studios throughout the night, just checking on things or whatever, and then I had to wake up 6 A.M. every morning to make the casting call. We filmed that movie in three weeks. Really, it was incredible. Yes, it was three weeks, and we all learned how to act during the filming of the movie. My hat goes off to Gloria Schultz, who was the wife of the director Michael Schultz and was our script supervisor —she taught us all how to act. We learned on the set. It was amazing. Prince came down to the set, and Michael Jackson. Sheila E. was in the movie as well, and I got to hang out with her. That was incredible — just the relationships of me and the Fat Boys doing that first movie and just watching them smile and be happy and laugh and joke. It was so much fun.

50 Years of Hip-Hop Mixtape Live (2023)

Kurtis Blow: It all about unity — peace, unity, love, and just having fun. That's our motto. So, when we get to be in Atlantic City on June 17, you are going to witness the unification of the old- and new-school of hip-hop. You'll see three or four generations come out; grandparents will bring their grandchildren and their children, and it's going to be amazing. There is no color line. You'll see all races, all nationalities and ages. Republican and Democrats will be in the house together, throwing your hands in the air and waving like they just don't care. And if you got on clean underwear, somebody say, oh, yeah!

Melle Mel: We gonna come in Atlantic City, and the gun [muscles] show is going be in full effect. It is going be a spectacle. It's going to be something to see. We’re going to give the crowd what they looking for. When you ask for “50 years of hip-hop” and we show up, that's what you're going to get: 50 years of hip-hop. The first five is going to be a mother, though.

For tickets to and more information about 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Mixtape Live, click here.

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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.