Kurtis Blow Gives Hip-Hop History Lesson In 'Echo Park'

Rap musical opens at New York's Apollo Theater.

NEW YORK — The red-carpet premiere of "Echo Park: The Hip Hop Musical" at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Thursday was a lesson in hip-hop history, featuring rap godfather Kurtis Blow.

People filtered in as Grandmaster Caz spun old-school favorites that had theater-goers throwing their hands in the air and hollering with approval.

"These are the beats we used to play back in the day," Grandmaster Caz said as the lights dimmed and the long, red glitter curtains parted. "These are the beats that started it all and will live forever. Tonight is your night, old-school people."

"Echo Park," which covers the years 1978–81, is the first part of a trilogy that will tell the story of hip-hop to the present day.

The musical is named after the park in the Bronx, N.Y., where breakdancing and DJ culture began.

Going Way Back

The opening scene showed four breakdancers, decked out in Adidas, popping and locking, as Grandmaster Caz told the energetic crowd to "wave your hands in the air like you just don't care." The dancers got the audience clapping and shouts of "true" and "word" rang out from the crowd.

The next scene, hampered by mic problems, was set inside a sparse apartment with a La-Z-Boy, couch and two framed pictures on the wall. The most prominent piece of furniture in the apartment was the DJ table at stage left, with turntables and one large speaker on wheels.

One of the show's characters — a 17-year-old Adidas- and Kangol-wearing DJ calling himself Scotty Rock (played by Derrik "Nine" Keyes) — aspires to be the man that "gets the party started right." But his mother, hair in curlers and dressed in a bathrobe, is angry because her son is scratching up her James Brown record. She tells him he's wasting electricity; he says they don't pay for electricity in the projects.

"I liked the scenes in the apartment with Scotty Rock and his mama because we all have arguments like they did," 24-year-old Bronx resident Rymell said. "And everybody got kicked out of their mama's apartment sometime."

'They Wanted To Party'

"Echo Park" explores the community atmosphere that fed the street music and culture of old-school hip-hop. In one scene, "The Battle in Projects Park," Scotty Rock hooked up his turntables to a streetlight and local kids beatboxed, breakdanced and battled on the mic. The crowd laughed and cheered loudly for their favorite performer.

"Kids didn't have money to go [to] the disco, but they wanted to party," Grandmaster Caz said.

A cop interrupted the familiar street-party scene onstage and broke up the fun. The crowd hissed and booed.

Kurtis Blow appeared onstage before the intermission, wearing a black leather jacket, gold medallions over his bare chest, Adidas shell toes and a red Kangol hat.

"The MC was the extension of the DJ," he said, beginning a narration that would carry through to the end of the show. "The MC tells the history; his word is bond."

Jade Whittle, a nurse's aid from Mount Vernon, N.Y., said the musical made her feel nostalgic. "That was my era and where it all started," she said. "I loved seeing the gear because I used to sport those outfits, the dancing and Kurtis Blow — he's a pioneer."

These Are Their Memories

"My friend told me about the show and I wanted to come out so I could remember the day," said Christopher White, 30, from Westchester County, N.Y. "It has me cracking up — the language, the music, the clothes. Those are my memories."

One of the most-cheered scenes in the second half was set at the popular '80s dance club the Audubon. Kurtis Blow hosted a "Ghetto Fabulous Fashion Show," which included Fly Guy, B Boy, Fly Girl, B Girl and Stick-Up Kid. Dancers strutted their stuff.

"The show is very original and has a lot of potential," said Pam Kaslow, 54, a theater producer from Manhattan. "The music and the dancing are really the best parts."

"The part between Scotty Rock and his mother was really cliché and needed work, but the dancing and the way they captured the time period was a lot of fun," said Roxanna Font, 26, from the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

The show ended with Blow (in his sixth outfit of the night) doing his old-school hit "The Breaks" (RealAudio excerpt). The crowd stood up, cheered, danced and sang along.

"Echo Park: The Hip-Hop Musical" is scheduled to play at the Apollo Theater through the first week of July.