Big Bank Hank, one third of pioneering rap group the Sugarhill Gang, has passed away from cancer at the age of 58. David Mallie, manager of the group’s other members Wonder Mike and Master Gee, confirmed the rapper’s death to Rolling Stone, saying the two surviving members were informed of his death on Tuesday morning.
Hank, born Henry Jackson, was best known as the splashiest and most colorful voice on 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the runaway 12-inch that served as rap’s musical ambassador and the record that almost single-handedly brought hip hop culture from the crumbling streets of the South Bronx to the rest of America and beyond.
“So sad to hear about our brothers passing,” his bandmates Wonder Mike and Master Gee said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “The three of us created musical history together with the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ We will always remember traveling the world together and rocking the house. Rest in peace, Big Bank.”
Thirty-five years later, there still remains some debate as to whether the timeless, 14-minute rhyme spree was technically the first recorded hip-hop song; and controversy still shadows it, as the Sugarhill Gang were mostly New Jersey interlopers borrowing directly from Bronx-born Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book. But there is no question that the vivid, hilarious tales of dinnertime manners and cuckolded superheroes of “Rapper’s Delight” was suburbia America’s first experience with the nascent culture. It reportedly sold millions upon millions of copies, though Sugar Hill Records, notoriously close to their own accounting, never had it officially certified.
Jackson had lived in the Bronx during hip-hop’s inception, attending high school with pioneers like Kool Herc and Coke La Rock and briefly having a managerial role with Caz himself. By 1979, rap music had spent a half-decade as live-performance party music, powered by street lights and youthful energy. However, it had never made it to vinyl until record producer Sylvia Robinson and her son Joey recruited Hank from an Englewood, New Jersey pizza parlor, where he was saving up money after getting a degree in oceanography from Bronx Community College.
Covered in pizza dough, he auditioned in the back of Joey’s Oldsmobile 98, causing enough commotion to bring both Master Gee and Wonder Mike over. A late night cipher in Sylvia Robinson’s home on a Friday night formed a group that started recording that Monday. The session, little more than a take or two of the three men rapping over the studio band playing Chic’s “Good Times,” made music history almost instantly.
“I mean one minute you’re walking down the street,” Hank said in the book Yes Yes Y’all, “The next minute you’ve got bodyguards and being chased down the street.”
Though the “hotel, motel” rhyme was originally floating in the hip-hop atmosphere from Coke La Rock, Hank’s impassioned performance of it on “Rapper’s Delight” marked its first appearance on wax. It’s ultimately been transmuted, via American folk tradition, into a Number Three hit for Chingy (“Holidae In”), a Number Eight hit for Pitbull (“Hotel Room Service”) and bars for everyone from Wu-Tang Clan and 50 Cent to De La Soul and TLC.
The Sugarhill Gang had their share of success throughout the early Eighties with 1980’s giddy “8th Wonder” and 1981’s crowd-starting “Apache,” still a staple of sporting events the world over. But once Run-D.M.C.’s drum-machine-pummel and shouted delivery exploded in 1983, their disco-inflected sound instantly became dated. The 2011 documentary I Want My Name Back alleges that the Robinsons wouldn’t let the crew evolve with the times.
Since they originally disbanded in 1985, Jackson had been estranged from the other two members of the group. He continued using the Sugarhill Gang name alongside Joey Robinson performing as “Master Gee.” This iteration performed at the 2004 BET Awards, the inaugural VH-1 Hip-Hop Honors and Justin Timberlake’s Old School Jam in 2011. Though Wonder Mike himself performed with this version for 11 years, the Robinson-led Sugarhill Gang ultimately invoked years of legal wrangling.
But no matter who was on stage, the music of the Sugarhill Gang remained musical bedrock. “Rapper’s Delight” made a memorable appearance in the 1998 film The Wedding Singer and was turned into a high-energy single by Spanish quirk-pop trio Las Ketchup that went Number One in more than 20 countries. Hank’s cry of “Woo-Hah! Got them all in check” also became a hit chorus for Busta Rhymes in 1996.
“I see groups that are hot one minute and next time you see them they’re asking if you want a soda with that Happy Meal,” Hank told Maryland’s Herald-Mail in 2013. “We’ve had the ability to transcend generations and that’s a gift. That’s a blessing and I’m grateful for that.”