The Untold Truth Of The Sugarhill Gang - Grunge (2024)

Weird Untold Truth

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ByBrian Boone/

Rap music started in the 1970s with house parties in the Bronx borough of New York City. DJs would spin funk and R&B records while self-appointed MCs made up rhythmic, rhyming verses on the spot and recited them in time to the music. It would eventually trigger a musical and cultural phenomenon, but it took a handful of acts to bring it to the masses. One of those pioneers was the Sugarhill Gang. A trio of rappers from New Jersey but named for an area of New York City's Harlem, Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee recorded the catchy to the point of hypnotic "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. It went on to be the first certifiable hit single in the emerging genre of rap.

The Sugarhill Gang introduced millions to the biggest thing in pop music in years, and the group carried on in various forms for decades, performing their innovative hits and serving as hip-hop ambassadors. Now what you hear is not a test — this is the story of the Sugarhill Gang.

The Sugarhill Gang was assembled by a record executive

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Sylvia Robinson was a minor music star in the mid-20th century. As half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, she topped Billboard's R&B chart in 1957 with the single "Love is Strange," and again in 1973 with her solo release "Pillow Talk." In the late '60s, Robinson, along with her husband, music industry veteran Joe Robinson, started a soul and R&B label called All Platinum Records. The company had some successful soul singles in the early '70s, but by the end of the decade, the label's influence had faded and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Robinson saw a potential financial save at a Harlem club one night in 1979 — rap, the relatively new, New York-centric party music made by guys talk-singing over R&B and disco records. "She saw where a DJ was talking and the crowd was responding to what he was saying, and this was the first time that she ever saw this before," Robinson's son, Joey, told NPR. "And she said, 'Joey, wouldn't this be a great idea to make a rap record?'"

First, Robinson would need a bass groove for rappers to rap over, so she paid 17-year-old New Jersey session musician Chip Shearin $70 to do it. Meanwhile, the label recruited some rappers, and they all made "Rapper's Delight" together. Attributed to the Sugarhill Gang, it became the first release on All Platinum's imprint, Sugar Hill Records.

How Big Bang Hank and Master Gee joined the Sugarhill Gang

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After Sylvia Robinson got the idea in 1979 to create a rap imprint to release a rap record, she realized she'd need a rapper to perform it. Robinson lined up a candidate, and she arranged to meet him at a McDonald's in Englewood, New Jersey. He decided not to do the song, but Robinson had another candidate on her shortlist: a guy from the rap center of the Bronx who worked at a place called Crispy Crust Pizza ... which happened to be across the street from that Englewood McDonald's. That performer was Henry Lee Jackson, or Big Bank Hank.

Meanwhile, while all this went down, budding rapper Guy O'Brien — who performed under the name Master Gee — happened to be walking past Crispy Crust with his friend Mark Green, who knew Sylvia Robinson and her son, Joey. "Joey told him that they were looking for rappers, and Mark told them that I could rap, so I got in the car and started rhymin','" O'Brien told That Foundation.

Now he is Wonder Mike, and he'd like to say hello

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That night, Jackson and O'Brien ventured to Sylvia Robinson's house and took turns rapping their audition. Robinson couldn't decide which guy she liked better, so she opted to hire both. A third rapper, Michael Wright — Wonder Mike — was present for the tryout, according to Tha Foundation. A few months earlier, he'd joined Sound on Sound, his cousin's DJ group, as a rapper. One of those DJs was Ron the Mad Master Mixer, who brought him along to Robinson's home and who had also suggested that the record they were planning should include a hook based on Chic's "Good Times." Wright told Robinson he could rap, and she let him audition. That's when he presented what would become the introduction to "Rapper's Delight": "I said a hip-hop, the hippie the hippie, to the hip hip hop you don't stop..." before freestyling a bit. Wright got the job, and the Sugarhill Gang became a trio.

When it became clear that the Sugarhill Gang would become a group and not a solo act, plans were made to include a fourth performer on "Rapper's Delight." According to Wright, another member of Sound on Sound, a smooth-voiced rapper known as Casper, pulled out of the project. "His father was an executive at Atlantic Records, and he told him not to do the record," Wright said.

There were no second takes on the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"

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"Rapper's Delight" is a definitive moment in time — the first major rap recording, and the first one heard by millions of mainstream music fans. It's also almost literally a moment because the song was recorded in one take — the music was captured in one session, and then the lyrics were laid down all at once, too. The song's primary melody is the groove from Chic's "Good Times," but it isn't sampled or even looped, because the equipment to do those now-standard practices wasn't available. Session music Chip Shearin played it over and over again, in a studio, for 15 minutes straight. "The drummer and I were sweating bullets because that's a long time," Shearin told the Charlotte News-Observerbecause they couldn't make any mistakes.

With a 15-minute long tape ready for a vocal overlay, Robinson brought in the rappers. According to NPR, Robinson hired the trio who would comprise the Sugarhill Gang — Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee — on a Friday. The following Monday, they were in the studio rapping to the beat. Each took turns to deliver their sections of "Rapper's Delight" and in one take, each. The released recording contains no overdubs, so it's essentially a live recording.

The "Rapper's Delight" hook came from a very Chic source

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It's impressive to capture any song in one take — let alone a historic, influential, and forever popular one. It all hints at some magical improvisation or the power of fate, which is undercut somewhat on account of how so much of "Rapper's Delight" pre-existed and was totally stolen by the people who made the recording. Rappers at New York parties in the late 1970s performed over pre-existing R&B records, so Sylvia Robinson re-created that formula for the making of "Rapper's Delight" — she didn't sample the bass line from Chic's "Good Times," but had a studio musician imitate it. That's some blatant copyright infringement, and nobody at Sugarhill Records had bothered to clear anything with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

In an interview with PopBox TV, Rodgers said he first heard "Rapper's Delight" — or rather, noticed the groove as well as a lifted bit of the strings part of "Good Times" — on the dance floor at a New York club called Leviticus. The DJ told Rodgers he'd bought the record in Harlem, prompting Rodgers to "threaten a lawsuit." The parties reached a settlement out of court, resulting in future pressings and releases of "Rapper's Delight" crediting Rogers and Edwards as co-songwriters, entitling them to a share of the profits in perpetuity.

Some of the "Rapper's Delight" lyrics were stolen

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The Sugarhill Gang raps with confidence, precision, and perfect rhymes for the lyric-heavy duration of "Rapper's Delight," which, in its original form, lasts nearly 15 minutes. That's no small feat, but the group had a little help. Not only did the creators of "Rapper's Delight" take the musical portion of the song from a well-known and existing source whole cloth, but some of the lyrics were also swiped, too.

Before joining the Sugarhill Gang, Big Bank Hank was Henry Jackson, who managed Grandmaster Caz, a.k.a. Casanova Fly, a.k.a. Curtis Brown, an early rapper in the Bronx in the 1970s with his group, the Cold Crush Brothers. According to Brown, Jackson borrowed money from his parents to buy the Cold Crush Brothers a better sound system. To pay it back, he got a job at Crispy Crust Pizza, which is where record label head Sylvia Robinson discovered him and hired him — because he was rapping some of Brown's lyrics, which formed the basis of "Rapper's Delight." Jackson even identifies himself as Casanova Fly at one point — "Check it out, I'm the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y." "It was his job as my manager to introduce me to Sylvia. [But] he was an opportunist and he just jumped on it for himself," Brown told the New York Post. "Hank couldn't rap a package. He didn't change one word of the song — I was Casanova Fly, not him."

"Rapper's Delight" can stake claim to a number of firsts

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The Sugarhill Gang didn't invent rap — the group's boss, record executive Sylvia Robinson, simply determined the time was right to capitalize on a sound that had been growing in popularity since the early 1970s, according to The Boombox. Not counting the speaking-over-music recordings of avant-garde artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets in the 1960s, the first single that's a recognizable example of modern rap music is "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" by The Fatback Band, a B-side of the early 1979 single "You're My Candy Sweet." A few months later, the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100. In January 1980, the song would peak at #36 on that pop chart, making it the first rap song to make the ever-important Top 40, per History.

Additionally, "Rapper's Delight" became the first rap smash hit on R&B radio, reaching #4 on Billboard's chart for that genre. For a song from an emerging and new musical style to get crucial radio airplay is remarkable on its own, but for "Rapper's Delight" to do it is even more surprising, on account of how the song's two original versions are extremely long. Mainstream commercial radio stations prefer songs that are no more than three or four minutes long — "Rapper's Delight" got airplay in both its six-and-a-half minute "short" version and its full-length, 15-minute iteration.

The Sugarhill Gang released the first ever rap album (sort of)

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The Sugarhill Gang expanded from releasing very long singles in 1979 to making a whole album of music in 1980. In February of that year, the trio's self-titled full-length LP, Sugarhill Gang, hit record stores around the United States. That's a big moment for the group and for rap in general — according to The Source, it's the first rap album in history. It consisted of just six tracks, including yet another version of "Rapper's Delight" (which clocks in at just under five minutes), along with the group's second single, the little-noticed "Rapper's Reprise (Jam Jam)."

And that's just about all the actual rap that appears on this first rap album. According to The Boombox, Sugar Hill Records founder (and the album's co-producer, co-engineer, and vibraphone player) Sylvia Robinson didn't think a 39-minute LP of rap music was commercially viable. So, she had the album filled out with selections of tried-and-true musical forms, like soul and disco.

The Sugarhill Gang struggled to repeat its early success

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The Sugarhill Gang made monumental history with "Rapper's Delight," but the group never had much tangible success on the music charts, nor was it especially prolific. It had its big moments with one of the most pivotal songs ever released, but the Sugarhill Gang was technically a one-hit wonder, and barely, at that. "Rapper's Delight" scraped into the top 40 in 1979, peaking at #36. Two follow-up singles couldn't land much radio airplay — "8th Wonder" and "Apache" were top 20 R&B hits in the early 1980s, but they barely made a dent on the pop chart.

A succession of singles followed, but none registered much with the public, not even a potential comeback attempt in 1989, a remix of "Rapper's Delight." None of its four albums, released between 1980 and 1984, went gold or platinum, leading to the band going on a long recording hiatus. The group's last release, to date: the 1999 album Jump on It!, a rap album for children. It features "Kids' Rapper's Delight (Kid's Rap-Along)," a toned-down version of "Rapper's Delight" with kids voices added to the mix, as well as a family-friendlier cover version of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" called "It's Like a Dream Sometimes."

The Sugarhill Gang vs. Snapple

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"Rapper's Delight" made millions for the Sugarhill Gang, and Sugar Hill Records. It sold around two million copies, but the band scored a huge payday for the song more than 20 years after its original recording because of a lawsuit. In 1998, the group alleged in its legal filings (according to Jet), that Turner Broadcasting had commissioned a performance of "Rapper's Delight." The rappers were told the clip would appear only on closed-circuit TVs at the Studio 54 nightclub in New York City as part of a pre-Goodwill Games promotional event.

Instead, the footage showed up in a television advertisem*nt for Snapple, a Goodwill Games sponsor. In their defense, the beverage company and broadcaster both contended that the Sugarhill Gang were told beforehand about the commercial in question. In 2002, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the rap group. The musicians were awarded $165,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $2.8 million in punitive damages.

The Sugarhill Gang fought for the right to be called the Sugarhill Gang

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Sugar Hill Records head Sylvia Robinson died in 2011, and control of the company — and lucrative intellectual properties — passed to her son, Joey Robinson, Jr. According to AllHipHop, he toured (along with some hired rappers) under the name the Sugarhill Gang, for which he had the legal right (per BET). This all led to some market confusion for fans of old school rap. Robinson's so-called Sugarhill Gang toured for years, but the performers who actually recorded "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 — not counting Henry Lee Jackson, Big Bank Hank, who died in 2014 — weren't a part of it, and had to do their own thing.

In the U.S., the rappers performed for a while as the act Rapper's Delight Featuring Wonder Mike and Master Gee. However, trademark laws are different in Europe, where the rappers were able to exploit "a couple of loopholes" and perform under their individual stage names, boasting that they were "formerly of" and the "original members of" the Sugarhill Gang. By 2016, shortly after Robinson died and his version of the classic rap collective fell apart, the original members of the group had successfully worked out legal arrangements to perform as the Sugarhill Gang once again.

The Sugarhill Gang warned the world about coronavirus

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The Sugarhill Gang remains an active hip-hop collective, albeit with some necessary lineup changes. According to Rolling Stone, original member Henry Lee Jackson (Big Bank Hank) passed away in 2014 after a battle with cancer, and rapper Henry Williams (Hen Dogg), who joined the group later, ostensibly occupies his place in the Gang. In 2019, the trio toured to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its breakthrough single "Rapper's Delight," alongside fellow early rap pioneers The Furious Five.

Like most other musical acts, the Sugarhill Gang couldn't tour in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in June 2020, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City brought in the group to promote mask-wearing to limit COVID-19 transmission. According to the HABC, it's the group itself that found out about the agency's "Everybody is at Risk" campaign and offered its services. The Sugarhill Gang made a public service announcement in the form of a PSA targeted at the city's African-American population (disproportionately represented in Baltimore's coronavirus infection rates), asking people to cover their faces with masks to prevent the transmission of coronavirus. It's personal for the group: Member Guy O'Brien, or Master Gee, lives in the Baltimore area, and the combo's DJ, Rob "Da Noize" Temple, died from COVID-19. The video features the Sugarhill Gang's 1981 single "Apache," urging hygienic and safer practices with the song's repeated refrain, "jump on it."

The Untold Truth Of The Sugarhill Gang - Grunge (2024)


What genre was the Sugarhill Gang? ›

Upon its release in 1979, the Sugarhill Gang's song, produced by Sylvia Robinson, brought the never-heard before freshness of rap with the oddity of blending different rap styles and content into one big blend: hip-hop.

Is the Sugarhill Gang disco? ›

Aside from the two singles and "Sugarhill Groove", the remainder of the LP consists of several down-tempo soul tracks and a disco instrumental, as Sylvia Robinson did not believe an album consisting entirely of hip hop music would be commercially viable in 1980.

Did the Sugarhill Gang invent rap? ›

Rap music is usually traced back to such late 70s offerings as the Fatback Band's "King Tim III" and Sugarhill's "Rapper's Delight", which were the first rap/hip-hop records. However, The Last Poets' eponymous debut album (1970) which was a rap record in all but name, has a as good a claim as any to being the first.

Who was the first white rapper? ›

But in those early years, white rappers emerged, too. It's difficult to know who the first one actually was; technically it could be Debbie Harry of Blondie, who rapped on 1980's “Rapture,” or even Rodney Dangerfield, who dropped the deeply weird novelty single “Rappin' Rodney” in 1983.

Who was the top female rap group of the 1980s? ›

Salt-N-Pepa also dominated in terms of commercial success. Their 1986 debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious solidified them as the first female hip-hop group to sell over a million records. And with over 15 million records sold globally at the time of writing, they're one of the best-selling rap groups of all time.

What was the first rap song on Sugar Hill? ›

The Sugar Hill Gang's 12-inch single "Rapper's Delight" - released in 1979 - became the first rap song to be played on the radio. The 15-minute song was edited down to six and a half minutes and reached Number 36 on the pop charts, making it the first hip-hop single to become a Top 40 chart hit.

Who were the white rappers in the 80s? ›

In the late 1980s, the Beastie Boys (Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D) were among the first white rappers to be accepted by the larger hip hop community.

How tall was Wonder Mike? ›

However, during the "group round" stage of Hollywood Week, she was eliminated at the end of her group's performance. He is known for his large stature, standing 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m).

Who started hip-hop? ›

Who are the founders of hip-hop? While a number of people were influential in the creation of hip-hop, much credit is given to Kool Herc (Clive Campbell), a Jamaican immigrant who was the first major hip-hop disc jockey.

Who is the king of rap? ›

EminemKing of RapUnited States
EnyaQueen of New AgeIreland
Gloria EstefanQueen of Latin PopCuba/United States
Elvy SukaesihQueen of DangdutIndonesia
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Who is technically the first rapper? ›

co*ke La Rock (aka Coco La Rock; born April 24, 1955) is an American rapper from New York City who is sometimes credited as being the first MC in the history of hip-hop.

Who was the first female rapper? ›

Sharon Green (born 1962), also known as MC Sha-Rock, is considered the "first female rapper" or emcee. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, she grew up in the South Bronx, New York City during the earliest years of hip hop culture and rap music.

Who was the first black rapper? ›

Kurtis Walker (born August 9, 1959), professionally known by his stage name Kurtis Blow, is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record/film producer, b-boy, DJ, public speaker and minister. He is the first commercially successful rapper and the first to sign with a major record label.

Who is the fastest rapper in the world? ›

Eminem, the fastest rapper of all time, can spit out 7.5 words per second | Guinness World Records.

Is hip-hop funk? ›

Hip Hop is dramatically different than the previous 2, outside of the fact that in more recent times (like 90s era and up) the 2 genres can sound alike sonically at times. Funk and older R&B (called Soul during the 70s when Hip Hop was created) actually has a role in the creation of Hip Hop as well.

Is SugarHill Keem a drill rapper? ›

SugarHill Keem is a drill rapper from Sugar Hill, New York. Keem is also known by his moniker as, "Mr. Movelook".

Who really wrote Rappers Delight? ›

Rapper's Delight
"Rapper's Delight"
LabelSugar Hill
Songwriter(s)Bernard Edwards Nile Rodgers Sylvia Robinson (uncredited) Henry Jackson (uncredited) Michael Wright (uncredited) Guy O'Brien (uncredited) Curtis Brown (uncredited) Alan Hawkshaw (uncredited)
Producer(s)Sylvia Robinson
The Sugarhill Gang singles chronology
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How did Run DMC change hip-hop? ›

Run DMC were pioneers in introducing a more street style and culture to hip-hop. They wore big Cazal sunglasses, Kangol hats, leather jackets, varsity jackets, big rope gold chains and Adidas sneakers. Adidas in particular is unique to the Run DMC.


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