Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April 7: Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight"

Artist: Sugarhill Gang
Song: "Rapper's Delight"
Album: The Sugarhill Gang
Year: 1979

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As one goes back further and further in music history, perhaps the most interesting times in the progression of music is when one genre begins to give way and transform into another.  Whether it was blues turning into rock or the various stages of jazz, these times of musical crossover often yield the most unique and exciting music.  In the late 1970's, as disco began to fade, a number of new musical styles, mostly born from the want of youth to separate themselves from their elders, began to appear across the glove.  Creating sounds like nothing that had been heard previously, styles like punk and new wave began to dominate the music landscape, and the other major new style of music was one that came out of New York City, and it was called "hip hop."  Within these times of change, over the decades, one of the many consistent trends is that of those who were truly the "first" to formally perform in a new style are often overlooked when it comes to receiving such credit.  In many cases, another artist who came about a short time after gets this credit, as they gained more commercial success.  Standing as a shining example, while many see the first formal hip-hop record to be Fatback's "King Tim III," the song remains relatively unknown, especially when compared to the classic song, "Rapper's Delight" from The Sugarhill Gang.  Emerging out of nowhere in 1979, the song became a hit across the globe, and one can make the case that the hip-hop genre would not be where it is today had it not been for The Sugarhill Gang and "Rapper's Delight."

Truth be told, The Sugarhill Gang were about as "manufactured" a group as one will find anywhere in music history, yet this was simply a sign of the times, and in no way detracts from the overall importance of the song.  Finding herself with a fledgling label, Sylvia Robinson decided to attempt to capture the new sound that was coming from the streets, and she had her son recruit local rappers to come in for a studio session.  The trio that were selected, Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Big Bank Hank went into the studio and recorded a number of different raps, all over the breakdown-hook from Chic's "Good Times."  These raps were eventually worked together, and the resulting track, "Rapper's Delight," remains one of the most infectious and unforgettable songs in history.  The brilliantly funky bassline, originally performed by Chic's Bernard Edwards provided a perfect background for the emcees to throw their rhymes against, and the deep disco groove of the original song still rings through on "Rapper's Delight," and spotlights how the genres of disco and hip-hop were both heavily in play on the song.  Due to the strong presence of the disco sound, "Rapper's Delight" was almost instantly a club hit across the globe, and this is certainly one of the main reasons for the songs' success, and one can also make the case that this "partnership" with disco is largely responsible for the entire genre of hip-hop taking off in the manner that it did.

Yet as fantastic as the music is on "Rapper's Delight," it is the lyrics and the style in which they were delivered that makes the song a true classic.  While one can find small examples of the rap style being performed on record previously, there are only a handful of songs that "only" have rapped lyrics before "Rapper's Delight."  More to the point, the song represents the original, freestyle spirit of the genre, as each emcee is given all the time they wish to present their rhymes.  We all now live in an era when a solid three minutes of rapping seems to be a difficult task for most performers, so the fact that "Rapper's Delight" runs will over fourteen minutes is nothing short of mind-boggling in comparison.  Nearly every line from the song, whether it is the almost scat-style opening to each part of the three verses is considered a classic hip hop rhyme, and the song perfectly captures the more laid-back, almost jovial nature of the early hip-hop movement.  Each emcee takes their own, unique approach to the song, and in some ways, the song is almost three "smaller" songs all blended together as a single unit.  There is perhaps no more an iconic opening line than one finds here, as in many ways, Sugarhill Gang "announced" the arrival of the hip-hop style with the line, " what you hear is not a test, I'm rappin' to the beat..."  Each of the three emcees performs brilliantly on the song, and the lighter, more danceable nature of the song sounds just as good today as it did thirty years ago.

Though rapping had been going on in the underground of New York City for years, and had found its way onto records here and there, one can see Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" as the "official" beginning of the hip-hop era.  The song shot up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as finding a firm foothold in many other countries, and the disco-based sound clearly played a large part in the songs' overall success.  While there were many emcees in the New York City underground who questioned exactly "who" Sugarhill Gang was, there was no denying the catchy sound and surprise success of the song.  Each of the three emcees brings their own unique sound to the song, yet they blend perfectly with one another.  Simply put, the masses of the world had not heard anything quite like "Rapper's Delight," and the song was clearly the perfect "ambassador" to mainstream music.  Not only a landmark for the genre's sound, it was also "Rapper's Delight" that began the still-running battle over royalty money, as rappers no longer enjoyed the "free" use of samples of other songs.  In the three decades that have passed since the song first appeared on the music scene, lines have been borrowed by countless other rappers, and the entire song has also been covered a number of times over the years.  With an unforgettable hook and some of the most memorable verses in history, there are very few songs of any genre that carry the same importance as Sugarhill Gang's 1979 classic, "Rapper's Delight."

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