By Bob Ruggiero
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You'd be wise to bring earplugs to Kurtis Blow's Hip Hop Church. At the Harlem outpost's recent fifth-anniversary celebratory service, a full band (including a DJ) backs a parade of MCs and singers, with rap's first superstar himself on the drums, diamond stud in his left ear, still looking youthful in his natty black suit and black Timberlands. "It was either these or my Air Force Ones," he explains. "God is not mad at ya! He's concerned about what's in your heart, not on your back."
Balancing his secular past with his spiritual present, nowadays Blow spends his time leading New York City hip-hop tours, recording gospel-rap albums, and helping run his mini-empire of raucous, nondenominational Christian sanctuaries. Besides the services held at Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church on West 146th Street, his parishes in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Oakland also host weekly gatherings, with branches in Seattle and Dallas allegedly on the way.
Showtime duties for the recently licensed pastor, born Curtis Walker, run from preacher man to soundman, from DJ to MC. He doesn't rap tonight, but a young albino minister named Tykym Stallings gives the crowd its collection plate's worth by spitting about 400 straight bars over beats from such folks as Jay-Z and Kanye West. Catching his breath, he then leads the call to worship and throws in a couple of Bible-themed jokes: "You know the reason I stay up until the morning? Because He-brews." (Blow dutifully provides a rimshot.)
Next is the responsive reading from Proverbs 22: 1-6. Congregants follow along in their bulletins:
Leader: "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold."
Congregation: "Amen! Word!"
Leader: "The rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is maker of them all."
Congregation: "That's what's up!"
The crowd is light, the proceedings casual. One woman sports a White Sox cap; another eats from a McDonald's bag. Blow himself departs for the lobby mid-song to answer a call on his Bluetooth headset. "Normally, the place is packed," he explains a few minutes later. Apparently, tonight's rain impeded the recovering substance abusers from a nearby center who usually fill the pews. "You should have been here last week. Standing-room only—probably 700 or 800 people here." (When informed that the capacity is 500, he softly castigates himself: "You know how I like propaganda. But propaganda is lying.")
His mood brightens when explaining why some gospel rappers and preachers refuse to mix carnal rhythms with sacred rhymes. "Some chords are very mystical and can be mistaken for evil," he says. (Those include minor 7ths and minor 9ths, FYI.) "But it depends on what you say, not on what you play."
He pauses to giggle. "I just thought of that. That came from God."
As the service enters its second hour, a posse of cradle-of-hip-hop types saunter into the lobby, led by a formidable cat in a heavily studded Furious 5 leather jacket who introduces himself as "Melle Mel's brother." (Real name: Mickey Bentson.) They distribute Blow's latest single, a CD-R tribute to Obama (with a bonus track called "God") and proceed to rattle off little-known Blow stories. There's the one about how he taught Reverend Run to deejay and inspired the Run-D.M.C. founder's original stage name, "Son of Kurtis Blow." There's the tale of his relegation to Furious 5 member #7, and his 1992 stint on soap opera One Life to Live, which included a remix of his "Christmas Rappin' " and a breakdancing Santa Claus.
Blow one-ups them all by later recollecting his 1985 collaboration with Bob Dylan, who'd stopped by the studio during the recording of "Basketball" to borrow a few backup singers for his own track. To return the favor, he agreed to contribute an intro to Blow's song "Street Rock," which required the rapper and his 300-pound bodyguard to journey to Dylan's Malibu home. (Dylan's Great Dane, Snoopy, apparently scared the bejesus out of the bodyguard, but Bob's rapped bit required only one take.)
Though Blow's sing-song style was passé by the mid-'80s, he relishes reminiscing about his past—even his crack, cocaine, and angel dust habits, plus the eight-year separation from the mother of his three children. (They recently got back together.) "The more money I got, the more women, the more sex I got, I just got greedier," he says. "The only time I really got happy in my life was when I picked up the Bible and read Revelations."
Born-again in 1996, he more recently reinvented himself as a rap evangelist. In 2007, he issued his first album of original material since the '80s, the modest-selling Kurtis Blow Presents: Hip Hop Ministry (EMI Gospel); six months later, as part of a trio of MCs called the Trinity, he returned with Just Do It, highlighted by the hard-to-resist, '90s West Coast–flavored title track. (The listener is unironically urged to "Do it in the name of the Lord.") Blow and his L.A.-based son, Kurtis Blow Jr. (a/k/a Kolione), make many of his beats themselves. "My mission is to get more holy hip-hop outlets, more radio shows, more video shows," he says. "I truly believe that it's the best kind of rap you could ever do."