Though not the first rap record every laid to vinyl, Sugar Hill’s “Rapper’s Delight” brought hip-hop into the mainstream, feeding into the U.S.’s thirst for the genre, and introducing the rest of the world to what would become a major musical breakthrough. The recording of the song was the brainchild of Sugar Hill Records studio owner Sylvia Robinson, who was also a member of the soul duo Mickey & Sylvia. Hip-hop was blowing up in New York in the late 70’s, and Robinson wanted to put out a single of the genre – an ambassador for the genre, if you will. The trick was finding a rapper who was willing to record. The story goes that Robinson’s son, Joey, heard a guy working in a pizza shop rapping, so they convinced him to come to her studio to record. The plan was for him to record someone else’s words while Chic’s disco hit “Good Times” played by a live band – for fifteen minutes!
That’s right folks, the band was expected to play “Good Times” for fifteen minutes straight with no mistakes, and they did it too – “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in a single take. The bass player hired for the job (and paid $70), Chip Shearin later described the session to News & Observer, saying, “The drummer and I were sweating bullets because that’s a long time. And this was in the days before samplers and drum machines, when real humans had to play things. … Sylvia said, ‘I’ve got these kids who are going to talk real fast over it; that’s the best way I can describe it.’” These kids she was referring to were “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, who had caught wind of Robinson’s son recruiting “Big Bank Hank” Jackson from the pizza place, and asked to audition too. Within days of the birth of the Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded and was soon receiving tons of air time on R ‘n’ B radio stations.
The significance of the song’s success is generally accorded to the fact that most rappers performing in clubs at the time wouldn’t record, and that “Rapper’s Delight” was synthetic. As Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide author, Oliver Wang pointed out, “There’s this idea that hip-hop has to have street credibility, yet the first big hip-hop song was an inauthentic fabrication. It’s not like the guys involved were the ‘real’ hip-hop icons of the era, like Grandmaster Flash or Lovebug Starski. So it’s a pretty impressive fabrication, lightning in a bottle.” Regardless of it’s artificial aspects, the song gained popularity with the youth and where there are youths, there is money to be made. The hip-hop industry has steadily grown over the past three and a half decades to the point of practically overshadowing other genres in the music world. Artists like Diddy, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Birdman, 50 Cent, Methodology all routinely make hundreds of millions of dollars a year and release dozens of platinum records each year. Without “Rapper’s Delight” to spark the hip-hop fire, the world might never have had the opportunity to warm to hip-hop.