Everybody knows this song. Thanks to the revitalization of disco in the late 1990’s and several remakes (include one by a grandmother), the words “Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rappin’ to the beat/ And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try and move your feet” are recognizable. But how did this happen? Who were these guys? That’s this month’s topic.
First of all, “Rapper’s Delight” was not the first rap record. Earlier in 1979, a funk group called The Fatback Band, or simply Fatback, released a single on Spring Records called “You’re My Candy Sweet.” That song held little significance, but the B side entitled “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”, was picked up by radio stations and surprised everyone.
Returning to “Rapper’s Delight”, the group that recorded it, The Sugarhill Gang, was not exactly a well known crew before the song. In fact, they weren’t a crew at all. Sylvia Robinson, co-founder of newly created Sugar Hill records, heard this new sound from her kids and decided she could take advantage of it.
Wonder Mike was a buddy of Sylvia’s oldest son. Master G heard through the grapevine that Sylvia was making a record and arranged an audition for himself. Both of these guys were in previous groups. The final piece of the group, Big Bank Hank, is the real mystery. Hank picked up rapping as a bouncer at an NY club. Sylvia heard him rhyming in the kitchen and signed him up. While that may be an unusual break, the rhymes he was using were the real problem- they weren’t his. They belonged to Grandmaster Caz of The Cold Crush Brothers. Hank helped manage Cold Crush and asked Caz if he could use his rhymes on the record. Caz agreed under the assumption that Hank would help him if anything good happened. Hank even went so far as to spell out Caz’s original name, Casanova Fly, in the verse, proving that he didn’t write it.
The song used the backing of Chic’s popular disco track “Good Times” a deejay favorite when it was released in 1979. Originally the song’s composer Nile Rodgers was not credited on “Rapper’s Delight” but that was later changed.
Once the record was finished Joe Robinson, partner/wife of Sylvia, was quoted as saying she brought him a 15 minute record and he had no clue how to get it played on the radio. Once he heard the song, however, he knew it would only take one play on any station and that would be enough to start the momentum. One of the big breaks came in St. Louis, MO when station WESL played it once and jammed the phone lines for the next 12 hours. Chuck D of Public Enemy said, “It wasn’t how long the 15 minutes were, but how short the 15 minutes were.”
Once the song started playing heavily on the radio, other New York MC’s and DJ’s were stunned and amazed. And not so much because rap was on the radio, but because of who the group was that was being played. Grandmaster Flash recalled thinking, “The Sugarhill who”. It was inevitable that a rap record would hit, but most people thought it would be The Cold Crush Brothers, The Fantastic 5, Grandmaster Flash, or Kurtis Blow (who was in the studio at the same time recording “Christmas Rappin’).
The song sold over two million copies (the biggest 12” single ever) and hit #4 on the R&B Chart. At one point, the record was selling over 50000 copies a day.
The Sugarhill Gang was never able to recapture the same success although they did have other hits included “8th Wonder” and “Apache”.
They have been able to continue to tour even today on the success of “Rapper’s Delight”.