The Sugar Hill Gang: Rappers Delight (Sugarhill Records, 1979)

Previously unbeknownst to me until my colleague handed me a clipping, the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn recently reviewed a few Sugar Hill related compilations a few weeks ago, two of which I wrote the liner notes for. These are part of Rhino’s new Definitive Groove series and (among others), I wrote for the Sugar Hill Records and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

In his review, Hilburn is kind enough to quote my notes for the Sugar Hill comp and I wanted to elaborate on what he said about “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang:

    “…the song wasn’t original in most fundamental ways. The verses drew heavily from other rappers in the area, and the song echoed the bass riff in Chic’s “Good Times.”

As someone who is fascinated by hip-hop’s early years and those moments where the music goes from local to global, “Rappers Delight” is such a remarkable document, especially as the song that helps spark off the popularization of hip-hop.

To clarify however: the Gang didn’t just “draw heavily” from other rappers – they straight up BIT (or copied if you prefer) their lyrics from other rappers, especially Grandmaster Caz who was acquaintances with Big Hank. And the bassline didn’t simply “echo” the riff from Chic – it was the riff from “Good Times.” It’s just that, in this era, digital sampling wasn’t affordable yet so the the Sugar Hill house band replayed the bassline note for note.

None of this history is particularly new. Any of these books cover the same basics. However, the point here is just to remind people that hip-hop’s entry into the popular world began as a fake, a construction, a bite of a variety of different artists’ work. And I’m not saying this as condemnation, only that it’s important to remember that so much of what makes hip-hop hip-hop is posturing and that the idea of “authenticity,” prized as it is, is far more of an ideal than reality in most cases. Yet, what matters in the grand scheme of things is how the music is received and perceived. Despite the stories behind “Rappers Delight,” no one denies its important or influence and even if its origins weren’t as mythical as we’d like to think, it’s still a song that arguably changed the world.

I like the idea of hip-hop having that kind of play and internal conflict and complexity, rather than ascribing this suffocating ideal of purity that so many want to cloak it in.