The Eternal Delight of “Rapper’s Delight”

rappers delight

The late 70’s: disco is the hottest genre of music all across America, but the backlash against it wouldn’t take too long to appear. At the same time, far from the glamour and glitz of Studio 54, another movement is brewing, one that — in a few years –would take the world by storm. Namely, rap/hip-hop.

It would take some time for hip-hop to really break into the mainstream. At that moment, it was still limited to certain spaces, like block parties in the Bronx. But some ears were already listening.

“Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang occupies a very special place in pop culture and American music. We’re talking about the very first rap/hip-hop song to make it onto the Billboard charts. It was part of a shift that eventually turned this genre into a mainstay of music.

The song is still remembered and referenced, enjoyed by listeners of all generations. And yet, there’s a fair discussion about how it’s not really part of the natural growth of the genre, that it was a commercial imitation of the real thing. The story goes that the song emerged during freestyle sessions with Fab Five Freddy and members of the Sugarhill Gang after they literally jumped onto the stage at concerts with Blondie and The Clash.

A few weeks later, an early version of the song was circulating around discotheques. Nile Rodgers from Chic got his hands on a recording of “Rapper’s Delight.” He first considered taking legal action due to the sampling of his group’s  “Good Times,” but later, declared it “one of his favorite songs of all time.”

So now, you have people in the industry that know about your demo. Is that enough to make a song a hit? Record execs struggled to find any rapper willing to record the track. Many doubted it would translate well to the radio.

The problem was solved when producer Sylvia Robbinson assembled three musicians, those freestyling guys from Englewood, New Jersey: Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. The trio was named after the Harlem neighborhood of Sugar Hill.

The song became a hit, if not an overwhelmingly huge one; it peaked at number 36 in Billboard in January of 1980. For most Americans, this was their very first introduction to a new style of music.

The Sugarhill Gang had some other hits in European markets, but this was their only entry on the American charts. And yet, the label of “One-Hit Wonder” feels wrong. After all, the song’s place in pop culture has been tested and there’s a reason why it remains. It has a timeless quality of being just plain cool.

Some argue that the very first rap song to make it into the Top 40 didn’t speak about the harsh realities and experiences of African Americans: it was a party song, from a manufactured group. Does this fact dilute its legacy?

Well, you could argue that you gotta start somewhere; since then, we haven’t lacked talented individuals and groups who took rap/hip-hop to bolder, riskier heights. If this genre has shown anything, it’s that there’s a place for both fun-loving material and that which deals with harsher subjects.

In 2011, “Rapper’s Delight” was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress; it’s been a mainstay in publications like Rolling Stone on their “500 Best” lists.

In the end, the impact of “Rapper’s Delight” is undoubtedly deep. Considering that disco didn’t even make it out of the 70s-early 80s alive, the fact that this song still lives on is proof enough of its lasting influence.

-Anthony Arrieta

Fair use image from “Rapper’s Delight” cover



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1 comment on “The Eternal Delight of “Rapper’s Delight”

  1. Michael Jones

    Hi Anthony, Correction: There was a real band playing on “Rappers Delight” in the studio. The band known as Positive Force backed the rappers that you cited on the song – they did NOT sample Chic’s “Good Times.” Albert Williams (now Pittman) on guitar, Bernard Roland on Bass, Moncy Smith, and Burnie Stevenson on keyboards actually played the music from Chic’s “Good Times” song. I just wanted you to know that. I grew up with these guys, and they mentored my band back in the 70’s. Respectfully, Michael Jones

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