Honorable Mentions: Treacherous Three f/ Spoonie Gee “New Rap Language”

Harlem-born Kurtis Walker, a.k.a. DJ Kool Kurt, got his big break when he signed a deal with Mercury Records in 1979. He soon put out this 12-inch single, and thankfully the first rap song ever to be released on a major label also happened to be dope. Few listeners outside Harlem or the Bronx understood that the song was inspired by and dedicated to B-Boys (and if you don't know that the b stands for “break,” as in “breakdancing,” just keep it moving). “I wanted to do a tribute song with many breaks so that the breakers could get down and do their thing,” Blow explained later. “When we danced during the breaks of a song, that was our time to go off—to do our best moves.” The lyrics break down other meanings of the word: “Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car, breaks to make you a superstar.” The song was also one of the first rap tunes to talk about the IRS, 35 years before Kendrick Lamar released “Wesley’s Theory.”

The rolling bass line on the track was played by Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, who was hired by Hall & Oates as a result of the song’s success. “The Breaks” became the first rap song in history (and only the second 12-inch single in history) to sell half a million copies and earn a certified gold plaque from the RIAA. “There was no real marketing for the song, no plan,” Kurtis Blow recalled. “We just wanted to make a kick-ass record, and that's exactly what we did. The clubs ate it up. You couldn't find a club in America during the summer of 1980 that would not play this song around 12, 1 o'clock in the morning.” But when he performed the tune on Soul Train, Don Cornelius was not feeling it. “It doesn't make sense to old guys like me,” said the show’s mackadocious host. “I don't understand why they love it so much.” Well, that’s the breaks. —Rob Kenner