by Sean Smith
On September 16, 1979, 37 years ago tomorrow, The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight.” This is the song that put rap music on the map, and the genre has done nothing but gain popularity in the years since.
When “Rapper’s Delight” was released in 1979, it was only the second rap single to be officially released. The first being a little known song “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the Fatback Band. “Rapper’s Delight” was also the very first time a rap single would become commercially successful, eventually entering into the Top 40 mainstream charts. If you look at the Billboard Hot 100 this week, or any week nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to skim the chart and go a few spots without seeing a rap song or a song featuring a rapper on it. The rap genre has come a long way, and it is now a part of the mainstream. However, it wasn’t always that way.
Rap music was originally born out of the Bronx, New York in the early part of the 1970s. DJ Kool Herc is widely credited with birthing rap music at a block party in the Bronx in 1973. While the budding genre grew in popularity first in the Bronx, and then to the rest of the boroughs, it was a genre that was living at the street level. It was party music performed by Mc’s from various “crews,”but no one had attempted to commercialize it yet. That is, until 1979.
In 1979 a New Jersey based music label called All Platinum, which was being ran by Sylvia Johnson and her husband was facing financial uncertainty. It should be noted that Sylvia Johnson was an accomplished singer in her own right, as she scored a number one hit on the R&B charts in 1973 with her hit “Pillow Talk.” The story goes that one night Sylvia was at a Harlem night club when she heard rap being performed for the first time. She came to the conclusion that night that perhaps recording and releasing a rap song could be the answer to her label’s financial problems.
Sylvia Robinson had her son Joey, the 18-year-old vice-president of promotion for her label, find some MC’s to feature on their rap song. He found three guys from Englewood, New Jersey and called them The Sugarhill Gang. The name for the group stemming from the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem, which is known for it’s contributions to art going back to the days of the Harlem Renaissance. The three MC’s chosen for The Sugarhill Gang were Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. Legend has it that the budding rappers met with Sylvia Robinson on a Friday, and the song “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in just one take by that Monday. The fascinating thing about the song being recorded in one take is that the original song is nearly 15 minutes long. An edited shortened version of the original would later by used as the radio single, which came in just under the four minute mark.
The song features a prominent sample of the Chic hit “Good Times,” a very popular mainstream track at the time. This sample of a prominent song undoubtedly helped “Rapper’s Delight” gain in mainstream popularity, and it also marked the first time that a rap single included a sample. This being a new thing at the time, Chic was not asked for permission to use the sample nor was the group originally credited on “Rapper’s Delight.” However, this changed after members of Chic threatened to sue.
While “Rapper’s Delight” was exposing the world to rap music, many of the originating “crews” and MC’s who helped birth and grow the genre took exception to its success. Many saw the New Jersey native Sugarhill Gang members as outsiders who co-opted and sold out the genre that was essentially their baby. Something they nurtured to the point in 1979 to where it was just waiting for the right opportunity to gain a wider audience. Another controversial piece of history regarding the song involves the stealing of lyrics by Big Bank Hank from rap pioneer MC Grandmaster Caz. As Caz tells the story, Hank called him shortly after joining The Sugarhill Gang asking for raps he could use with the group. Caz agreed to give Hank some raps expecting to receive some credit in return, which to this day never materialized.
Despite these controversies, there can be no questioning the importance of “Rapper’s Delight” to the popularization and growth of the rap music. Without that song blazing the path for future rappers and rap songs, the Billboard Hot 100 as we see it today would simply not exist. So today we take a minute to remember “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, released 37 years ago tomorrow. Enjoy.
SugarHill/All Platinum Records