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This is the second in a series of Retropolis stories, set during the 50th anniversary year of hip-hop. The story follows five different events that took place during those 50 years when disco grooves and New Wave made an appearance on the Billboard charts; one was introduced by ‘New Orleans’ with its infectious bass line, infectious rhymes, and unbreakable run time.
The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’S Delight” appeared to be misinterpreted in retrospect because the majority of its members were from New Jersey rather than the Bronx and had little connection with the local rap scene.
The producer, whose previous label had been known for creating novelty songs that were on the rise, was driving them. The song’s bass line was taken from a popular disco track and its lyrics were borrowed from another artist. It took over two hours to complete the 14-plus minute full version, and it was recorded in one take.
In the summer of 1979, the master producer behind “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang was hoping to cash in on a club scene that had started happening in New York and her song turned out to be incredibly popular, selling 14 million copies and signaling the rise of hip-hop.
Kurtis Blow, a rap superstar, told The Washington Post this summer that “that was incredibly monumental for everyone.” He also mentioned the music being played on every car, bus, train, boombox, and radio station throughout the summer of 1979.
The whirlwind origin story of Sugarhill Gang members, Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee, began outside a New Jersey pizza shop after producer Sylvia Robinson was inspired by upcoming events at upscale discos.
Robinson, aged 43, and her spouse, Joe, were facing bankruptcy in 1979 when All Platinum Records went out of business. During a birthday party hosted by her niece at the Harlem World nightclub, Robinson heard Lovebug Starski spinning dance tracks with rhymes and catchphrases.
Robinson revealed in a 1997 interview with the Star-Ledger that he was sitting in his office and listening to music while the kids were going crazy. He said, “Sometimes I thought, ‘This song is called rap.'”
Prior to becoming one of the few female record producers and label owners at the time, Robinson had been a hitmaker herself, starting in the 1950s as half of Mickey and Sylvia. Her song “Love Is Strange” was famous for its use in movies like “Dirty Dancing” and later in her movie “Casino.” She recruited her teenage son to help her tap into the local rap talent.
Robinson was tipped off by her son about Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, who had been working at the Crispy Crust pizza joint in Englewood when he was caught rapping over tapes. In interviews, Robinson and Jackson have both mentioned how Jackson left the restaurant in his flour-covered apron and auditioned for Robinson in the back of her Son’s Oldsmobile 98.
Robinson remembered to the Star-Ledger that Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien was walking by Jackson during his audition and asked him to try it out. Later that day, an associate of Robinson and her son introduced them to Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, a teenager from Englewood who was homeless and auditioned at Robinson’s residence.
Before naming the group the Sugarhill Gang after a wealthy Harlem neighborhood, Robinson recruited new signees to her label Sugar Hill Records and used them as backing tracks. She found out that rappers were more comfortable playing familiar songs with their verses, so she chose the riff from Chic’s hit single “Good Times.”
It had chemistry, smooth vocals, and an infectious beat, but it was recorded in one take. Robinson acknowledged that she didn’t initially want the song to be shorter for radio-friendly purposes, which was later released on September 16th.
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The song quickly rose to the top of the charts, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles in December and reaching its highest point at No.” In 1980, a rap song made it to No 36 on both sides of America’s first major mainstream chart.
Although the song brought about a buzz in hip-hop, it was soon followed by other hits on Sugarhill Records, such as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song also served as censorship for legal disputes, label abuse, and credit concerns that have been lingering on within the music industry.
Nile Rodgers, the guitarist and co-founder of Chic, has both lauded and condemned “Rapper’s Delight,” which included his song “Good Times.” He also mentioned in an interview with Canadian Music Week in 2007 that during his show with the Clash and Blondie, an MC named Fab 5 Freddie suddenly appeared on stage and began rapping.
Rodgers remarked that the groove they played was similar to that of poets, just like when Prince and I performed on stage.
During a club visit months later, Rodgers came across ‘familiar’ bass line and the now-iconic opening of Wonder Mike.
The hip hop genre has a distinct sound, with its rhythm and beat being more prominent than the rock-it or blues music.
Rodgers mentioned that the string arrangements on his record were pre-sampled and he was happy about it. However, despite not being interested in performing live, recording without personal information made the album more popular than ‘Good Times’ as it felt like a new artistic medium.
After threatening legal action, Bernard Edwards and Rodgers settled the case and were awarded the songwriting credit for “Rapper’s Delight.”
The Washington Post reported that Curtis Brown, also known as Grandmaster Caz or Casanova Fly, was not fortunate and had been working at Crispy Crust with Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson. He requested Cazzard to create rhymes for him when “Rapper’s Delight” hit theaters in 2016.
Brown is not credited for the rhymes in “Rapper’s Delight,” but they are prominent in the song. Jackson even sings Brown’S name: “I’m the C-A-S-O-V-Y, O-v-B, and F-L-X.”
Despite the Sugarhill Gang’s efforts, their album “Apache” in 1982 only managed to sell 1.5 million copies and reached No. 53 on the Billboard Hot 100, short of the success of “Rapper’S Delight.”
The Library of Congress acknowledged “Rapper’s Delight” in 2011, acknowledging its cultural value and stating that it has not fallen into disrepute despite being widely publicized.