There was a party up in the Bronx. It was 1977, maybe ’78, according to Chris Stein, founding member of Blondie, when he and bandmate and then-partner Debbie Harry had heard rap music, but really didn’t know what was happening.
The duo had already known rap pioneers Grandmaster Flash as well as Fab 5 Freddy, who later went on to host Yo! MTV Raps by the late ’80s through mid-1990s and invited them to an event at the Police Athletic League in the South Bronx.
“It was just super exciting and eye-opening to see all this going on at the same time as the downtown music scene, but there was really no connection between these two scenes at that point,” said Stein during a 2022 podcast interview. “We had heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ [The Sugarhill Gang] on the radio, so I had a basic conception of it, but seeing it in person was really eye-opening.”
Also in attendance was the “Queen of the Downtown Scene” and founder of the NYC graffiti art space Fun Gallery, Patti Astor, along with writer Glenn O’Brien and others involved in the 1983 hip hop film Wild Style, directed by Charlie Ahearn.
The performance was a free-for-all for anyone with anything to say and featured Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers, and Funky Four Plus One, the latter who had a female singer and joined Blondie on their Saturday Night Live performance on Valentine’s Day 1981.
“I don’t remember there being any formality to it,” remembered Harry of her knowledge of rap at the time. “It also seemed that there were some no-name kids that just jumped up there because they really had something to say, which was also very exciting. It was like folk music to me, although musically it wasn’t like folk music.”
Stein added, “I was very excited because, on a socio-political level, it was literally all these marginalized kids finding a voice.”
“It was a really great, very exciting event,” shared Stein. “It was nothing like what we were used to with bands on and off stage, and one band replacing another. It was this continuous madness of DJs and MCs coming up and performing in this sort of loop.”
Out of that night in the Bronx came the song “Rapture,” off the band’s fifth album Autoamerican in 1980. Reaching No. 1 on the charts, “Rapture” was also the first official music video with rap music to be aired on MTV.
Mentioning Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash in the song was a given for Harry and Stein. “He was one of the guys,” said Harry of Flash. “He was the man and we liked him. He was a good guy, and we could see that.” She added, “There was something really there… and it had to go somewhere.”
Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly
Dj spinnin’ I said, “My My”
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
François c’est pas, Flash ain’t no dude
And you don’t stop, sure shot
Go out to the parking lot
Working through “Rapture,” Harry and Stein wrote the song together, incorporating different pictures of the scene. “We collaborated on most of it,” said Stein. “I was the B-movie stoner at the time, so I wrote all the ‘Man from Mars’ nonsense.”
And you get in your car and drive real far
And you drive all night and then you see a light
And it comes right down and it lands on the ground
And out comes a man from Mars
And you try to run but he’s got a gun
And he shoots you dead and he eats your head
And then you’re in the man from Mars
You go out at night eatin’ cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercurys and Subaru
And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars
Then, when there’s no more cars you go out at night
And eat up bars where the people meet
Face to face, dance cheek to cheek
Today, “Rapture” has continued to enrapture with covers by everyone from Alicia Keys to Erasure and been used on copious samples, including Grandmaster Flash’s 1981 track “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and Destiny’s Child 2000 hit “Independent Women Part 1.”
Blondie recently revisited an earlier recording of “Rapture,” and released it as a holiday song “Yuletide Throwdown.”
“When we were recording ‘Rapture,’ the first take of it was slower than the existing version,” said Stein of the remix also featuring Fab 5 Freddy. “I just got the master tape and worked it up in my home studio and put Freddy on it, and it became this Christmas thing. It’s been floating around for years, but there’s never been a full-on remix and release of it.”
Stein added, “It’s a Christmas song. It’s like ‘Die Hard.’’
At first, the band wasn’t sure what would become of “Rapture” and had their sights set on another Autoamerican track, “The Tide is High,” written by Jamaican artist Jon Holt. “I just had so much faith in it as a song,” admitted Stein of the latter track, adding that Blondie never connected to one particular genre, which is why they easily swayed from the new wave-rap mix of “Rapture” and the Caribbean flash of “The Tide is High.”
“The people we admired the most like Bowie and Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, were always redesigning themselves as they went along and changing, changing their genres,” said Stein.
Harry added, “It was just our nature as an artist. We both came from not a strictly musical ideology in art or music, and so our interests and our observations went further afield than somebody strictly interested in rock bands or pop bands.”
Astonished by the constant mining of material from the 1980s film and music for art today, Harry isn’t one for looking back—and staying there—but doesn’t mind revisiting “Rapture.”
“I hate nostalgia,” said Harry. “I like the past and I like to build on the past—it’s inevitable that we build on the past, and we learn from the past, and that’s what it is. That’s what art and music are. They’re a layering of things that sift through, but to walk down memory lane and stay there, is kind of a mistake.”