No shade to Miss Carey, but can we slow down on the “All I Want for Christmas is You”? Even though tradition can really drag on, it’s only a matter of time before the modern contributions start catching up. Both are great, but we need a balanced mix to feel genuine during the holidays. The iconic “Christmas Rappin’” Kurtis Blow is here to give us, yet again, an exciting contemporary twist on a seasonal classic, The Nutcracker.
On Tuesday, November 23, Blow will bring the ballet to Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in a very different style. The Hip Hop Nutcracker tells the same famous story of Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, with the same well-known 1892 score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But this time, it’s set in the New York City contemporary audiences recognize, and the choreography would fit in on any street corner or pop dance reel.
There are some twists in the music, including emceeing and an opening set by Blow, beats by DJ Boo, and the genre-bending talents of violinist Jarvis L. Benson. The score itself, however, remains unchanged in all its 19th-century glory.
The breakdancing — unlike ballet in many ways, not least of all in its openness to improvisation — seems incongruous for moments before it melts into the sublime, becoming an obvious reflection of the music. Dancing is dancing, after all. The dancers hit the important beats and fluidly embody both the technicality and the meaning in the music, even if in an unexpected way. The flexibility serves to remind audiences that hip-hop is a culture, not a sound.
“It has always been my belief that hip-hop is so malleable,” Blow says. “Hip-hop is able to fuse with other forms of music. And this is what The Hip Hop Nutcracker is all about: that fusion of classical music and those funky beats of hip-hop. It reminds me of that song that Nas made with Puff Daddy, ‘Hate Me Now.’ I became a big, big fan of that song.”
It all circles back to Blow’s first single, “Christmas Rappin’.” The hip-hop pioneer was the first performer in the genre to sign with a major record label, and he hit the ground running in 1979 with a seemingly odd subject matter. The record starts with a stuffy, campy narration of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” swiftly interrupted by the rapper: “Hold it, that’s played out!”
Before writing it off, consider that record labels are businesses, and burgeoning producer Robert Ford needed to make money. He knew that a Christmas theme would declaw the very dubious experience of releasing something entirely non-standard. Thankfully, Kurtis Blow sincerely loves Christmas.
“Every time the holidays come around, I’m into it,” Blow tells CultureMap. “Over the top. And it’s not just because of the song itself. It’s my favorite time of the year because of all of the love and the spirit of love and the joy that is all around us. You just want to be close to your friends and your loved ones and your community and your parents and your children, and just give them a big hug and say thank you for putting up with you all year long.”
Blow says his role as host and emcee of The Hip Hop Nutcracker is to “take [viewers] back to the old school.” This version of The Nutcracker takes place in 1980, ushered in by Blow and the audience in a song called “New Year’s Eve.” After a countdown, people dance in the aisles and wave their hands in the air. At the end of the show, Blow returns to perform his hit song from the same year and the first-ever rap record to reach certified gold, legendary ditty “The Breaks.” 1979 was Blow’s last New Year’s Eve as a rapper who was still breaking out. For the holiday in 1980, Blow “was celebrating like no other.”
And this season, Austin audiences can, too.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker breaks out at the Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 23. Tickets are available online through the venue.