Sugar, Sugar

The Sugar Hill Gang and the label that made them famous

The first time I ever heard the Sugar Hill Gang's “Rapper's Delight,” it was introduced on a Memphis R&B radio station by a disc jockey who clearly had little use for the song but was honoring a call-in request. I can't remember what he said, but his sneer was audible, his contempt palpable, yet it was all undermined by the enthusiasm of the young girl who requested it and the unique, bizarre thrust of the music and the verbal pyrotechnics of the three Sugar Hill vocalists.

Actually, to some at least, they weren't even vocalists in the traditional sense: They were something new, something called “rappers,” and their debut single, issued in the early fall of 1979, was a celebration of both themselves and this new music: rap. And to the ears of folks like that ruffled Memphis DJ, it wasn't even music; if it was, it was pilfered. The song itself was built on a rhythmic chasse provided by the percolating bass line from Chic's 1977 disco hit “Good Times,” itself a toast to the scene that sprouted around yet another maligned mutation of R&B. And the sound emitted by the trio certainly wasn't singing. The MCs, as they were called, were letting loose a flurry of syllables, talking over the beats and grooves, cracking jokes, bragging of their sexual prowess and their skills with a microphone. The radio version of the song was a staggering nine minutes long, and the twelve-inch single of “Rapper's Delight,” issued by the nascent Sugarhill label, clocked in at just under a quarter-hour.

Whether you hear it as a pop-music relic or a mere novelty hit, “Rapper's Delight” was rap's first full-blown hit, the song that ushered in the most important development in black music since James Brown shattered the foundation of R&B in the Sixties with “Out of Sight” and “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.” And like the most vital moments in any music revolution, “Rapper's Delight” was something you either loved or hated. The animosity that greeted the song upon release crossed racial barriers and perplexed pundits as it scaled Billboard's R&B and pop charts.

The old-schoolers who helped found the freshest sound in decades
The old-schoolers who helped found the freshest sound in decades

I wasn't sure why, but I loved the song and immediately secured a copy of the twelve-inch the same day I heard it for the first time on the radio. Most of my friends, on the other hand, hated it. (“Man, I thought disco sucked,” remarked one of the older kids on the block, whose musical tastes leaned toward Journey, Loverboy, and REO Speedwagon.) I played it constantly, and after finding nothing about the Sugar Hill Gang in the pages of Rolling Stone or Circus, located something about the group in a copy of Jet. It revealed that the Gang was part of an East Coast contingent of rappers, turntable wizards, graffiti artists, and dancers who had been perfecting their respective trades since the mid-Seventies on street corners and basketball courts, at house parties, and in nightclubs. The DJs would provide the music, using a vast array of singles and album cuts to construct a rhythm-heavy sonic collage that drew mostly from soul pioneers such as James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, and the better disco hits of the day. The rappers would then add the words -- wise-guy boasts, locker-room humor, gross-out insults, and, in time, observations on the poverty and hardship that plagued their turf in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Harlem.

The Sugar Hill Gang was the brainchild of Sylvia Robinson, a veteran of the Fifties duo Mickey & Sylvia (“Love Is Strange”) and a Seventies hitmaker via the 1973 crossover smash “Pillow Talk.” By the mid-Seventies Robinson and her husband, Joe Robinson, had founded the independent label All-Platinum/Vibration, which had little success and lots of financial trouble. Following an encounter with rap at a Harlem house party, Robinson and her talent-scout son Joey set about assembling a group to document the sound of this burgeoning underground and, hopefully, revive her foundering label. An audition was held at a pizza joint in New Jersey, and three New York MCs -- Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O'Brien -- were rushed into Robinson's studio to cut “Rapper's Delight,” kicking off a string of singles that established the Sugar Hill Gang as rap's first commercial success and Sugarhill as the new genre's leading label.

Although the Sugar Hill Gang never strayed far from the comedic formula of “Rapper's Delight,” the artists who followed -- most notably Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., and, later Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Boogie Down Productions -- used rap as an outlet for commentary on drug abuse, economic oppression, racial discrimination, and political injustice. The music would become increasingly sophisticated, with producers and turntable masters incorporating rock, reggae, jazz, and punk into rap's funk-and-soul bedrock. Grandmaster Flash landmarks such as “The Message” and “New York, New York” would give way to the Nineties wave of scathing gangsta rap, while ensembles including De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and P.M. Dawn dabbled in psychedelia and quasi-hippie spirituality. Indie labels flourished, none more so than DefJam, which introduced the masses to the often-brilliant work of LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and 3rd Bass, among many others.

Ironically the label and the artists who jump-started rap were silent throughout the music's creative and commercial zenith. Sugarhill basically was kaput by the mid-Eighties, and the Gang's last charting single, 1984's “Livin' in the Fast Lane,” didn't even touch the R&B Top 40. But as more and more rap artists began to acknowledge the pivotal role of the old-school players, the Sugar Hill Gang returned to the road and continue to perform for thousands across the globe. Meanwhile the label was feted in 1997 with Rhino's The Sugarhill Records Story, a stunning five-disc box set that attests to the label's lasting legacy and the contributions of the group it first made famous. And, for that matter, the continuing impact of what supposedly was just a silly-ass novelty song.

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