Rapper's Delight By Sugar Hill Gang, The First Top 40 Hip Hop Tune: Rare Facts And Stories

By | September 14, 2020

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Sugar Hill Gang (L-R Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Guy "Master Gee' O'Brian and Henry "Big Bank" Jackson) perform on stage circa 1979 in New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

"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

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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.