Though not the first group to officially record a rap song (that distinction is usually given to the Fatback Band featuring King Tim III), it was the Sugarhill Gang that undoubtedly deserves credit for dropping the genre's first hit single, effectively introducing hip-hop music to an entire generation of listeners.
Released in October 1979, “Rapper's Delight” was an overnight sensation. Clocking in at 15 minutes long, propelled by a crack-shot interpolation of Chic's then-recent smash “Good Times,” the record featured three unknown MCs: Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O'Brien (replaced in 1989 by Joey Robinson Jr.). The trio rapped about their superhuman prowess with the ladies, how fresh they were with the rhymes and dealing with sketchy food at a friend's house. The song was an immediate hit, selling millions of copies (at one point shipping 50,000 a day) and soaring to Number 4 on the R&B charts.
It wasn't the lyrical skills that carried it, nor the revamped disco groove; it was the whole package — a classic example of the sum being greater than its parts. “Rapper's Delight” took the world by storm because it was something new, something different, the first real taste of a revolutionary style of music that 99 percent of the population had never heard before. It was hip-hop.
In late 1970s-era New York City, hip-hop was still in its formative stages, but it was definitely poppin' if you knew where to find it. Born in 1974 at Bronx rec centers, house parties and park jams, by the time the Sugarhill Gang came around, it was already a crowd-rocking staple at select uptown nightclubs. Sylvia Robinson, a sharp-minded singer/guitarist/producer-turned-label-owner, attended a show at Harlem World, where she watched DJ Lovebug Starski inciting the crowd by dropping call-and-response rhymes over music. After 20-plus years in the industry, she knew this was something big.
As fate would have it, Robinson and her husband, Joe (with initial help from a Mob-connected figure named Mo Levy), started a new label after the bankruptcy of their previous endeavor, All Platinum. Based in Englewood, N.J., the newly minted Sugar Hill Records did not have a single artist on its roster. What they did have was funding, experience and inspiration thanks to Starski's party-rocking antics.
One day, Robinson, her son Joey Jr. and his friend Warren were rolling in an Oldsmobile 98 when they approached pizza-shop employee Hank, a friend of Warren's who also worked the door at Disco Fever and managed a group called Cold Crush Brothers. Hank broke out some rhymes over a cassette tape, and it was on.
Two other guys, vague acquaintances of Robinson's son, were soon drawn to the Olds, performing instant auditions for the budding rap impresario. Wonder Mike and Master Gee were now onboard, signed on the spot and instructed to appear at Sugar Hill Studios the following Monday.
The session itself went down in mostly one take, with Robinson pointing at each MC when it was time to switch over. The trio of men didn't know each other, had never performed together, nor practiced their routines, but the stars were aligned just so, and before they knew it, the song was complete. They were dubbed the Sugarhill Gang, and 12-inch singles were pressed. WESL in St. Louis was the first radio station to add the song to its playlist, and the comical single took off like wildfire.
Almost instantaneously, “Rapper's Delight” lit up radio dials and dancefloors around the world. Listeners were in awe of this strange new music, which jump-started countless rapper aspirations. But the true pioneers — Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Spoonie Gee, et al — were far from impressed. Although they had literally given birth to hip-hop, they were beaten to the punch by an upstart trio that clearly lacked their serious skills and credibility.
Especially irked was Grandmaster Caz, the Cold Crush MC who lent Hank his rhyme book. Many of the song's lyrics were jacked directly from it, though Caz was never given a heads-up or compensated. Hank denies the plagiarism claim, saying that the two wrote together and exchanged ideas, but it has long been accepted as common knowledge.
The Sugarhill Gang would go on to release more records, though none would make the profound impact of its debut. Meanwhile, Sugar Hill Records flourished during the early '80s, putting out quintessential work from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky 4 + 1 and Melle Mel. But artists signed to the label complained loudly of shady accounting methods, and changes within both rap music and the record industry itself did not help. An ill-advised deal with MCA resulted in the dissolution of the label. After years of lawsuits, Robinson and her husband lost millions but retained ownership rights. In 1995, the catalog was sold to Rhino Records.
Regardless of decades of drama, the song “Rapper's Delight” remains an endearing classic more than 25 years after its release. Frequent appearances in film, TV, nightclubs and wedding receptions have earned the song a universal appeal and longevity, which is rare in rap music. “Rapper's Delight” is consistently name-checked as the song that first introduced many hip-hop artists (especially those over 30) to the game, launching careers and dispelling notions that this “talking over a beat” thing was nothing but a fad. For these reasons alone, the Sugarhill Gang deserves respect.