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In the late ’70s, a new sound was blossoming in New York. It began at block parties, rec centers, and parks, with a DJ splicing the breakdowns of soul, funk, and disco records, a crew of dancers gyrating and flipping, head-spinning and windmilling, and some kid clutching a microphone, uttering rhyming bars to get the party hyped. It started in the South Bronx, but within a short time it had taken New York’s black and Latino neighborhoods hostage, and every Friday and Saturday night you could find some kid amping the crowd with rhymes while a DJ cut vinyl across twin turntables.
Whole crews assembled themselves around this budding culture with a simple missionto rock the party. Today, their names read like a roll call from hiphop’s ValhallaGrandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Funky 4 + 1. But while New York’s underground thrived off what had come to be called rap, the rest of the world remained oblivious.
That is, until 1979. But it wasn’t any of the legendary New York cliques that would play Prometheus to the rest of the world. History assigned that role to three New Jerseyites, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, and Mike “Wonder Mike” Wright, collectively known as the Sugarhill Gang. They were signed to the fledgling Sugar Hill Records, and when they grafted 15 minutes of verbalistics to Chic’s “Good Times,” they introduced the world to recorded rap.
“Rapper’s Delight,” as the cut was known, began the Sugar Hill dynasty’s domination of the early years of what would later become known as hiphop. From 1979 through 1984, the label released a barrage of early hiphop classics, each expanding the empire of Rapdom.
Now the war journals of hiphop’s first dynasty have been released as a five-CD collection, The Sugar Hill Records Story, which assembles such famous firsts as the first rap record, the first women to rap on record, the first social critique in rap, etc. Moreover, the collection resurrects the pre-crack age of block parties and Jheri curls and allows the listener to trade today’s pounding drum machines and rugged machismo for the blaring horns and bubblegum lyrics of yesteryear.
For most of the world outside New York, hiphop begins with the thumping “Good Times” bass line and Wonder Mike smoothly laying down a set of primal vocalistics: “I said a hip hop/The hippy the hippy to the hip hip hop/Ya don’t stop the rock/To the bang bang boogie, say up jump the boogie/To the rhythm of the boogedy beat.”
The Sugar Hill compilation begins appropriately with the track that broke rap. Sugar Hill officials estimate that “Rapper’s Delight” at one point sold upward of 75,000 records a week. The album claimed the No. 4 spot on the R&B charts and the No. 36 spot on the Pop charts. Statistics aside, a co-worker of mine makes the crossover power of “Delight” as clear as fiber optics: “It was the greatest thing I had ever heardand I’m a white girl.”
But “Delight”‘s success was not exactly met with wide smiles by the B-boys, MCs, and DJs who’d been laboring in obscurity for years. “The Sugarhill who?” vinyl god Grandmaster Flash would retort, echoing the feeling of most of New York’s hiphop scene. But while the underground looked at “Rapper’s Delight” as if it were a bastard child, the rest of the world viewed it as an injection of spontaneity into the syrupy repetition of disco.
Obviously, the Sugarhill Gang gets a good amount of exposure on the collection. All the group’s major hits, such as “Apache” and “8th Wonder,” are included. The set also includes a healthy serving of some of the frisbees that touched neither the pop charts nor the underground. Included among this arsenal of duds are “Livin’ in the Fast Lane” and “The Down Beat.”
Equally well represented are Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, arguably the greatest rap group ever. Included are several of their hits, such as “The Birthday Party” and “Beat Street.” Melle Mel’s high-voltage style stands in contrast to the subdued, rugged rasp of today’s rhymers. The Furious Five were showmen, no doubt, but they also opened the gates for today’s basement hardheads, specifically with 1982’s “The Message,” the progenitor of a long lineage of rhymes dealing with the ills of society.
Like other records containing social commentary (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”), “The Message” made label bosses nervous. Up until that point, Sugar Hill, and indeed hiphop as a whole, had a party image. Who wanted to groove to some guy talking about “stick-up kids” and “8-year bids”? But groove they did to the record’s mellow drum track and sliding key riff. All anxiety about social commentary evaporated when “The Message” matched “Rapper’s Delight” by hitting No. 4 on the R&B charts.
The track was the direct ancestor of hiphop classics such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, and X-Clan’s To the East Blackwards. But perhaps more importantly, “The Message”‘s grim realism was an ancestor of today’s ruffneck standard for hiphop. “The Message” proved that rap could be more than party music. It is the ultimate irony that while only 15 years ago the party record was the essence of hiphop, today it is vilified by many a hiphop head. “The Message” began that process, while Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” blew the door wide open.
Other contributions come from some of Sugar Hill’s lesser-known nobility. Rap pioneer Spoonie Gee serves up a few of his later cuts. Unfortunately, most of his best work was done for Sugar Hill rival Enjoy. The earliest appearance on wax by an all-female rap group, the Sequence, was “Funk You Up,” which marries a repetitive bass line to a smattering of simplistic lyrics. But what the hell, it was 1979, and “Funk You Up” hit No. 15 on the R&B chart early the next year.
Sha-Rock of the Funky 4 + 1 provides a much better representation of women in rap. Her group’s contribution, 1980’s “That’s the Joint,” is old-school at its finest. The band pumps, and the MCs exchange lyrics like cousins. But Sha-Rock stands out as the tightest MC in the group. I’m convinced that she could have taken out almost any MC at that time. People usually begin the debate over female MCs with Lyte and Latifah; they need to begin with Sha-Rock.
One thing the compilation also clearly proves is that gimmicks are nothing new to hiphop. Wayne and Charlie’s “Check It Out” features a call-and-response between an MC and his plastic dummy. And on “Super-Wolf Can Do It,” the titular rapper predictably howls over a repetitive hook.
The compilation also features a cut from the District’s own Trouble Funk. The fact that a go-go group was on a hiphop label shows just how closely related the two genres really are. Unfortunately, the editors of the compilation did not include Trouble Funk’s big hit on Sugar Hill, “Drop the Bomb.”
The Sugar Hill compilation is an important one that helps chronicle the history of an art that many pronounced dead in the cradle. Most exciting is seeing how much the label gave to today’s hiphop and R&B. It is from Sequence that KRS-One got part of his hook for his classic contraceptive cut “Jimmy.” Dr. Dre also drew from the same well to extract the chartbusting “Keep Their Heads Ringing.” Bahamadia and the Roots would resurrect the Funky 4 + 1’s “That’s the Joint” for their “Da Jawn.”
The Sugar Hill Records Story is a portrait of rap before it was ever really even rap. A sense of optimism pervades almost every cut, and in the world of Sugar Hill every day seems like a party. The innocence of “That’s the Joint” or “The Birthday Party” is light years away from the bleak, crack-infested world of Heltah Skeltah, Nas, and the Wu Tang Clan. So while the set jams and is sure to take you back to block parties and barbecues, it also serves as historical marker, an eerie reminder of how much we’ve left behind.CP