Friday, March 4, 2011

The Sugarhill Gang -- "Rapper's Delight" (1979)

Now what you hear is not a test
I'm rappin’ to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends
Are gonna try to move your feet

They say that mighty oaks from little acorns grow.  From the little acorn that was "Rapper's Delight," the mighty oak that is hip hop – the world's dominant pop-culture genre – has grown.

"Rapper's Delight" – if it was not the first rap record, it was certainly the first successful rap record – was a very little acorn indeed.  The story of its success is further proof (as if we needed any) of the old cliche about truth being stranger than fiction.  

The person who deserves most of the credit for this record is Sylvia Robinson, a singer who was half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia.  Their "Love Is Strange" was a big hit in 1957, and Sylvia later had a solo hit with the rather risque "Pillow Talk" in 1973.

Sylvia and her husband Joe – a former Harlem numbers runner – owned several record companies, none of which were doing very well in 1979.  One of them, the Sugar Hill label, had been named after a Harlem neighborhood favored by affluent African-Americans since the 1920s.  "Rapper's Delight" was the first record Sugar Hill issued.

Sugar Hill townhouses
Up until then, rap music was a phenomenon limited to clubs and street corners in Harlem and the Bronx.  But when Sylvia went to a birthday party at a Harlem disco and saw the impact that an early rapping DJ named (I kid you not) "Lovebug Starski" had on the crowd, she decided to make a rap record.

Lovebug Starski turned her down when she approached him, and so did another local rapper who was all too familiar with Joe Robinson's reputation for screwing over his recording artists.

A friend of Sylvia's teenage son told Sylvia that he knew a guy who was a great rapper, and the three of them hopped in her car and drove to a neighborhood pizza joint (the Robinsons lived in Englewood, New Jersey) where the wannabe rapper worked.  The son's friend brought him out to Sylvia's car, and he sat in the back seat and rapped to a cassette tape of the instrumental track of Chic's disco hit, "Good Times," which Sylvia had decided would be a good template for a rap record.   

Word about the impromptu audition got around, and pretty soon two other neighborhood rappers showed up and asked if they could try out as well.  The group retured to the Robinsons' home, where Sylvia decided she liked how the three of them sounded together. 

The Sugarhill Gang

The Robinsons christened them the Sugarhill Gang and brought them into their recording studio along with some of the studio musicians who regularly worked for the couple's labels.  With Sylvia directing from the control room, "Big Bank Hank" (the pizza maker), "Wonder Mike," and "Master Gee" recorded "Rapper's Delight" – which was fifteen minutes long – in one take.
When the record was played on a late-night show on a low-powered community radio station in New York City, word of it spread like wildfire.  The Robinsons had to order records from several different pressing plants to keep up with the demand for the 12-inch, 45-rpm single.  

"Rapper's Delight" eventually became a top ten hit in not only the US, but also Canada, the UK, West Germany, and the Netherlands.

Joe and Sylvia Robinson
Joe Robinson didn't want to pay the fee to have his sales figures officially audited by the Recording Industry Association of America, and he may not have wanted the IRS to know too much about his business either.  But it is estimated that "Rapper's Delight" sold two million copies in the US and eight million copies worldwide.

The lyrics of "Rapper's Delight" are interesting and, above all, amusing.  This song is not "gangsta rap," full of four-letter words and misogynistic references to 'hos and bitches and threats to kill the police.  This is just three neighborhood guys trying to top one another's rhymes and, above all, attract the attention of hot chicks.

Here are some excerpts from the lyrics.

You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali 
And I dress so viciously . . .
I got a Lincoln Continental
And a sunroof Cadillac . . .
I got a color TV so I can see
The Knicks play basketball

As the French say, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Rap lyrics today often include long lists of brand-name luxury goods in celebration of the singer's material success. 

(You can tell how old this song is by the fact that the luxury cars of choice were Lincolns and Cadillacs – not Bentleys or Lamborghinis – and that the Knicks were still worth watching on TV.)

Everybody go ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn
If your girl starts actin' up 
Then you take her friend

Yeah, baby!  You livin' large when you're such a big star that your girlfriend's friend would happily take her place and accompany you to the Holiday Inn for a night of debauchery!  (When you still live with your parents in a housing-project apartment, a Holiday Inn probably seems like a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.)

The next excerpt talks about an encounter (no doubt fictional) that one of the Sugarhill Gang rappers had with a reporter:

Well I was comin' home late one dark afternoon
A reporter stopped me for a interview
She said she's heard stories and she's heard fables
That I'm vicious on the mike and the turntables
This young reporter I did adore
So I rocked a vicious rhyme like I never did before

I said, by the way baby, what's your name?
She said I go by the name of Lois Lane
And you could be my boyfriend, you surely can
Just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman
I said he's a fairy I do suppose
Flyin' through the air in pantyhose
He may be very sexy or even cute
But he looks like a sucker in a blue and red suit

I said you need a man who's got finesse
And his whole name across his chest
He may be able to fly all through the night
But can he rock a party 'til the early light?
He can't satisfy you with his little worm
But I can bust you out with my super sperm!

(Ah, you can see why the ladies loved Big Bank Hank!)

And last but certainly not least, the following excerpt is the most remarkable part of the song – no doubt the first time (and probably the last) that Kaopectate has been rhymed in a rap song:

Have you ever went over to a friend's house to eat
And the food just ain't no good?
I mean the macaroni's soggy 
The peas are mushed
And the chicken tastes like wood
So you try to play it off like you think you can
By sayin' that you're full

Nice try, buddy.  You may have fooled your friend, but his momma knows the score.

And then your friend says 
"Momma, he's just being polite, he ain't finished" --
"Uh uh, that's bull!"
So your heart starts pumpin' and you think of a lie
And you say that you already ate
And your friend says, "Man, there's plenty of food"
So you pile some more on your plate

While the stinky foods steamin'
Your mind starts to dreamin'
Of the moment that it's time to leave
And then you look at your plate 
And your chickens slowly rottin'
Into something that looks like cheese

(Yes, I admit it – some of the similes are a bit of a stretch.)

So you say, that's it, I got to leave this place
I don't care what these people think
I'm just sittin' here makin' myself nauseous
With this ugly food that stinks
So you bust out the door while its still closed
Still sick from the food you ate
And then you run to the store for quick relief
From a bottle of Kaopectate 

But don't worry – the song has a happy ending.

And then you call your friend two weeks later
To see how he has been
And he says I understand about the food
Baby bubbah, but we're still friends!
With a hip hop, a hibbit, a hibby-dibby
The hip hip hop, and you don't stop the rockin'
To the bang bang boogie . . .

By the way, those last lines are the reason rap music has come to be called hip hop music – that's how influential "Rapper's Delight" was.

In the last six months or so, I've gotten very interested in hip hop music (or rap music, if you prefer – I use the terms interchangeably).  The first two pushbuttons on my car radio are now set to the two most popular Washington, DC rap/R&B stations – not the classic rock stations.  My teenage son looks at me askance when I start singing a Kanye West or Lil Wayne song, and informs me (with scorn dripping from his voice) when I get the words wrong, which is quite often.

I'm not sure why I've suddenly become a hip hop fan.  I admit I am something of an intellectual dilettante, jumping from enthusiasm to enthusiasm every few months – I get bored easily.  

But there's more than just the novelty factor at work here.  But I'm a reader and a writer above all else, and hip hop songs are full of entertaining and provocative and clever wordplay.

Hip hop songs tend to have about 10 times as many words as your typical rock/pop song.  "Rapper's Delight" is well over 300 lines long and contains almost 3000 words. By contrast, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" has fewer than 300 words (and that's counting the chorus three times). "I Can See For Miles" has just over 300 words – over half of which consist of "I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and," etc.

Hip hop really got off the ground in 1979, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last 30-odd years.  My knowledge of hip hop history – compared to my knowledge of "British Invasion" and psychedelic music from the sixties, or punk rock from the seventies, or new wave/power pop from the eighties – is about an inch deep.  I'm familiar with a few big rap hits, but there are huge gaps in my personal hip hop music database.

But with the help of the local public libraries and the $15 iTunes gift card my wife gave me for Valentine's Day this year, I'm going to roll up my sleeves and dive right in.  If you are old and white and desperate to be cool, I invite you to join me for this magic carpet ride into the world of hip hop. 

Over the next few months, 2 or 3 lines is going to attempt to provide a "Hip Hop 101" course for you – it will only skim the surface, of course, but we've got to start somewhere.  So you can expect every 3rd or 4th post to feature a classic rap song – chosen with the help of rap maven Mahbod Moghadam of "Rap Genius."  The rest of my posts will feature the same eclectic mix of music that has made 2 or 3 lines the wildly popular blog it is.

Here's "Rapper's Delight":

Here's "Good Times" by Chic, the song that is sampled in "Rapper's Delight":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

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