Janice Headley revisits 1981 with the track “Rapture” by Blondie, who leveraged their celebrity to shine a spotlight on hip-hop.


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Janice Headley revisits 1981 with the track “Rapture” by Blondie, who leveraged their celebrity to shine a spotlight on hip-hop. 

Written & produced by Janice Headley.

Mixed & mastered by Roddy Nikpour. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop 

In the 1950s, racial tensions were still running high in the U.S. Black artists – no matter how talented – were often limited to playing small venues, and asked to enter through the back of the house. 

Even someone as famous as the jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald experienced this. But her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, used her celebrity status to get Ella booked at the famed Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood. She lobbied for the venue to book Ella for a week of performances, promising to sit in the front row every night. Marilyn brought fellow celebrity guests Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to sit with her on opening night. 

And it worked. After those shows, Ella never had to play in a small venue again. 

In 1981, another iconic blonde used her celebrity status to elevate a growing Black movement in music: hip-hop.

Her name is Debbie Harry, frontwoman for the New York City new wave group Blondie. In 1981, the group was on fire — by this time, they had scored three number-one singles on the Billboard charts. The release of the track “Rapture” not only landed their fourth number-one spot — they also made history as the first number-one single to feature rapping. 

“Rapture” was also the first music video to feature rapping on MTV. It would be three more years until MTV aired a video from an actual rap group, Run DMC

Formed in 1974, Blondie was well known in the downtown New York City punk and new wave scene. And then, Debbie and her bandmate-slash-songwriting partner Chris Stein began to make friends with the hip-hop crews emerging in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, she says there’s one song that led to her hip-hop epiphany: “That's the Joint” by Funky Four Plus One

She adds: “My biggest epiphany came when me and Chris went to an event in the South Bronx, and there were DJs scratching and people rapping live. It was a very local, neighbourhoody kind of thing, and just fantastic.” 

They were brought there by Fred Brathwaite — a k a Fab 5 Freddy, one of the pioneers of hip-hop. 

Chris met Fred through the public-access cable television show “TV Party,” which ran in New York City from 1978 to 1982. Chris was the show’s co-host, and Freddy was an occasional cameraman, and then eventually, a guest. Here’s Chris remembering that momentous night on the podcast Sing for Science.

CHRIS: He just said, well, there's this big event going on in the Bronx at a Police Athletic League and why don't you guys come up with me. And we went. And it was just super exciting and eye opening to see all this going on at the same time as the downtown music scene. But it wasn't. There was really no connection between these two scenes at that point. 

CHRIS: But, you know, I was very excited because on a socio political level, it was, you know, literally all these marginalized kids finding a voice. So it was, you know, it was very exciting. 

Performing that night was a then-21-year-old Grandmaster Flash. Here he is on Yahoo Entertainment, remembering the first time he met the two songwriters behind Blondie… 

GRANDMASTER FLASH: So Fab Five Freddy says to me, "Yo, Flash. I got some good friends downtown I want to bring up, you know, from Soho, bring them to the party." This is Blondie. Mind you, the audience that I have primarily is Black and Latino, but there was this blond-haired person that came in. And then, Freddy tells me that she says, she watched me on the turntables, the way I orchestrated them, and that she was going to write a song about me. I'm looking at Freddy like — and mind you, she had all these huge songs out. Like, we're talking super monster, powerful popstar — she's going to write about a DJ on the come-up? OK. 

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Six months later, people were coming to me like, there's this song on the radio, it's everywhere, and it's talking about how quick you are on the turntables. I'm like, could this possibly be what Freddy was talking about? I go purchase the record, I play it, and I go, "WHOA. She kept her word." 

GRANDMASTER FLASH:  And that — like I told you, our audience was primarily Black and Latino — that skyrocketed me to whites and people from different countries. The work got better, people were booking me more. This song gave me a chance because I really wanted to show this thing to all races of people, all people, all creeds, all colors, all genres. Well, how do I do that? She gave me that door to go in. 

Blondie continued to use their platform to spotlight the artists who inspired them, inviting Freddy, Flash, and more friends to appear in the music video for “Rapture.” When they were invited to premiere the clip on the television series Solid Gold, she made a point of telling the audience: 

BLONDIE: The most recent fad to catch on with kids in our big cities, metropolitan areas, is rapping. Some of the hotter names on the rap scene are Sugarhill Gang, Flash, Kurtis Blow, Funky Four Plus One More, to name just a few. Using our new single "Rapture," Blondie and some of our friends put together a number to show you what rapping in the street scene is like. We're presenting it for the first time on television right here on Solid Gold.

Unfortunately, Grandmaster Flash’s record label would not give him permission to be in the video. So, he was replaced by none other than Jean-Michel Basquiat, the influential painter who infused graffiti art into his work. 

The Blondie boost helped the hip-hop genre get mainstream attention — but Blondie wasn’t trying to pretend they were turning into a rap group themselves. 

In 2011, Debbie told Entertainment Weekly, “It was an homage to the form and to the idea of it. But a lot of rappers have told me over the years that that was the first rap song that they ever heard, because rap really wasn’t on the radio in the beginning. It wasn’t really looked at very highly by the industry. Having ‘Rapture’ go to number one sort of legitimized it, in a way. The hip-hop kids and the punk kids always felt related, because we were all deconstructing culture in a way.” 

Chris adds, “The most impressive was the Wu-Tang guys and the guys from Mobb Deep, they told us it was the first rap song they heard when they were kids.”

Just two years before the release of “Rapture,” the Sugarhill Gang had cracked the charts in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight,” but the song only peaked at #36. As we mentioned in our 50 Years of Hip-Hop episode on that song, it was Debbie and Chris who helped initiate that track, inviting Nile Rodgers of Chic to a hip-hop event in the Bronx.

That’s a big part of what allyship means: active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it. Blondie made sure to shout-out the artists who inspired them in the lyrics for “Rapture.” To include those artists in the music video. When the TV show Saturday Night Live asked Debbie Harry to be a host, she insisted she be joined by Funky Four Plus One, making them the first-ever hip-hop act on that show. And when MTV launched their now-iconic hip-hop show Yo! MTV Raps, the host was none other than… Fab 5 Freddy. 

And that’s how allyship is done.

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