Rapper's Delight By Sugar Hill Gang, The First Top 40 Hip Hop Tune: Rare Facts And Stories
"Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang came out of nowhere to be the first Billboard Top 40 rap hit. The Sugar Hill Gang had no business being the first. Performers like the DJ Grandmaster Flash and rappers in his circle Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel had been pioneering the genre of hip hop to much more acclaim. But the tune to bring rap to the masses was "Rapper's Delight," and the name on the record was the Sugar Hill Gang.
The Sugar Hill Gang didn't invent rap, nor did they even write most of the rhymes in this hit, but the combination of Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee has some kind of special alchemy that makes "Rapper's Delight" a single that affects its listeners on a cellular level. With the help of producer and Sugar Hill Records mastermind Sylvia Robinson they brought rap to the mainstream charts with this historic song. They didn't just record the track and call it day. There were challenges, compromises, and a stroke of good luck along the way to turning this song into a Top 40 classic.
No one was recording hip hop at the time
In the 1970s hip hop was happening at house parties, it was live, it underground. Whether you were a DJ or an MC, your mission was getting the people to throw their hands in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care. No one was recording their music or rhymes out of fear that they would lose what little revenue they had from live performances. At the time, members of the hip hop community were certain that to record their music would mean death for their art form.
Sylvia Robinson had no connections to hip hop. In her early days she performed as a member of the R&B group Mickey & Silvia before going solo to perform simply as Sylvia. Robinson was fairly successful throughout the 1970s, but her greatest contribution to music was creating Sugar Hill Records. While attending a party in Manhattan in 1979, Robinson was stunned as she watched a D.J. called Lovebug Starski lead the crowd through spoken word rhymes laid over R&B records that he was spinning. She later explained:
I saw him talking to the kids and saw how they’d answer back. He would say something every now and then, like ‘Throw your hands in the air,’ and they’d do it. If he’d said, ‘Jump in the river,’ they’d have done it. A spirit said to me, ‘Put a concept like that on a record and it will be the biggest thing you ever had.’
She followed the spirit and put a band together.
The Sugar Hill Gang were closer to a boy band than they were to the streets
There were no Soundcloud links to pass around, and there weren't even mixtapes being passed around at this point in time, so Robinson had to pound the pavement in order to find the right guys to be in her act. Luckily her son knew a few people.
Joey Robinson, Sylvia's son, brought his mother along in his Oldsmobile 98 to visit Henry "Hank" Jackson at his job slinging dough at Crispy Crust Pizza. Jackson took a break from work and climbed into the Oldsmobile to rap along with a backing track that Sylvia had in the cassette deck. Guy O’Brien, later known as Master Gee, was hanging out near Crispy Crust and hopped in on the audition, and the same goes for the incredibly tall and laconic Mike Wright. In an afternoon the Sugar Hill Gang was born.
This isn't the way that groups normally come together, more often than not they're friends who spend their days banging things out at house shows and in garages, they're rarely put together by a mastermind in the back of a car, and in that way the Sugar Hill Gang is more Backstreet Boys than Wu-Tang Clan. Oliver Wang, author of the 2003 book Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide said:
There's this idea that hip-hop has to have street credibility, yet the first big hip-hop song was an inauthentic fabrication. It's not like the guys involved were the 'real' hip-hop icons of the era, like Grandmaster Flash or Lovebug Starski. So it's a pretty impressive fabrication, lightning in a bottle.
"Rapper's Delight" was recorded in one take
In one 15-minute take "Rapper's Delight" went from the concept in the mind of an R&B producer to an extraordinary song that shaped a generation of music lovers. Most of the band Positive Force was hired as the backing group for the song, and they were instructed to play the same groove with no mistakes for 15 minutes straight. Rather than write something entirely new the group played their take on "Good Times" by Chic, a decision that came back to bite everyone shortly after the song's success.
When it came time to record the band start playing and the three rappers stood around a mic in their ramshackle booth in Englewood, New Jersey. Sylvia Robinson produced the track like the seasoned pro she was, pointing to each rapper when it was their time to get on the mic. Inspiration was in the air that day as three strangers with barely any rehearsal time rapped through a 15 minute track full of trade-offs and spontaneous riffs -- and did it so well that when they were done, they were done. They had to be, Hank was going to lose his job as a pizza cook if he didn't get back to the restaurant.
Everyone in the studio that day knew how special their song was, but there remained the question of whether they could get the son on the airwaves.
The Sugar Hill Gang didn't write "Rapper's Delight"
Since the release of "Rapper's Delight" there's been a large contingent of the New York City hip hop community who insist that the bulk of the song's lyrics are lifted straight of the notebook of Grandmaster Caz, a rapper who was once managed by Big Bank Hank. Caz says that he didn't think that anyone borrowing a lyric notebook would even come close to finding success so he didn't think twice about it, but when he heard the song on the radio and in clubs he realized that he made a huge mistake. In 2006, Caz spoke to Vanity Fair about the mind boggling lyrical theft happening in the song:
The story that he told at the end? ‘Since I was six years old I knew never let an M.C. steal my rhyme’? He’s stealing a line about stealing a rhyme!
In 2014, when the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Caz spoke to the New York Post about the hip hop swindle that is "Rapper's Delight," and the many hurdles in place to simply be credited on the track:
It’s been an ongoing thing to get credit. But I’m gonna take another shot at it now. My people contacted the Grammys and they said, ‘Well, it’s not like the song is gonna be on the Grammys. They just send out a certificate saying it’s been inducted.’ But I’d like a certificate, you know? If this is about the song itself, then it’s about the writers — and though I may not have been credited, I’m still the writer!
Hank denies that he stole anything from Caz. He says that he and the rapper were writing partners who traded off on ideas and concepts often, but no one else in the New York hip hop community thinks that Hank came up with any of his own rhymes. The thing about "Rapper's Delight" is that it's the sum of its parts that make it great. The bass line lifted from a Chic track, the lyrics cobbled from another rapper's notebook, and the nascent vocal stylings of the three M.C.s all come together to make the song what it is.
"Rapper's Delight" owes its groove to Chic
There's an unmistakably funky groove at the heart of "Rapper's Delight," and while it was recorded by a live group, they didn't write the track. They essentially sampled "Good Times" by Chic in a live setting. If the track wasn't so popular then it's possible that Chic wouldn't have known, but Chic founder Nile Rodgers was on the dance floor of New York club Leviticus when he heard the unmistakable bass line of his own disco hit playing under new lyrics.
Rodgers spoke to the DJ about where he bought the album, and as soon as the lawyers were awake in New York City they were getting calls from Rodgers and his partner in the group Bernard Edwards. After filing a lawsuit, Edwards and Rodgers were awarded writing credits on the track, and as frustrating as that must have been Rodgers now says that it's one of his favorite tracks. He explained:
As innovative and important as 'Good Times' was, 'Rapper's Delight' was just as much, if not more so.
So why take a chance and use "Good Times" as a backing track? While speaking with The Guardian in 2017, Master Gee explained that it's just a great groove. He said:
Chic’s 'Good Times' was great to rap to. The tempo was right and the bassline was high. That became the basis of Rapper’s Delight. The intro came from 'Here Comes That Sound Again' by a British group named Love De-Luxe. There were no samplers at the time, so the backing track was laid down by Sugar Hill signees Positive Force, who played the Chic rhythm, which we rapped over.
Writing credits aside, the song remains way more popular than anyone ever expected
"Rapper's Delight" is a Frankenstein's monster of a track. It's got a baseline from a dance song, raps allegedly stolen from a legit M.C. and a verse about macaroni and cheese that makes ZERO sense in context with the rest of the song. But somehow it connects with people. The song was a hit from the jump, hitting number 4 on the U.S. Hot Soul Singles chart in December 1979 and peaking at number 36 in January 1980 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. And that's just in the United States. "Rapper's Delight" was much more successful internationally, topping the charts in Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain, and reaching the top 5 in nine other countries.
The song has that perfect amalgamation of something new and something nostalgic to connect with audiences everywhere, which lead to the 12-inch 15 minute single selling two million copies. That's a big deal for everyone, but for the hip hop community it was proof that what they were making in warehouse parties and in clubs could translate to record sales. Regardless of the strange way in which this song came together, it blazed the trail to the pop charts for every rapper and hip hop group that followed.