Sugarhill Gang, 'Rapper's Delight'
Non-album single, 1979
It took three guys from New Jersey to put hip-hop, a still-underground New York club phenomenon, on Top 40 radio for the first time. Three years before "The Message," Sylvia Robinson's Sugar Hill Records was facing bankruptcy when she made a discovery in a Harlem club. "She saw a DJ talking and the crowd responding," remembered her son Joey. "She said, 'Joey, wouldn't this be a great idea to make a rap record?'"
Robinson (who passed away in 2011) assembled the Sugarhill Gang – Joey discovered Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson working at a pizzeria, listening to an early hip-hop tape, and asked him if he knew how to rap. The original 12-inch single, "Rapper's Delight," was 15 minutes of undeniable urban-playboy bragging – some of it "borrowed" from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers – over a rhythm track that blatantly quoted the bass line in Chic's 1979 hit "Good Times." Bassist Chip Shearin had to play that lick for a quarter-hour. "We were sweating bullets because that's a long time," he said. (Shearin, then 17, was paid $70. Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did much better, getting writer credits after legal action.)
"Rapper's Delight" was edited down to six and a half minutes and reached Number 36 on the pop charts, and suddenly rap was a viable genre for recorded music. Bronx hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash were shocked: When he first heard it on the air, he asked, "The Sugarhill who? Who are these people?"