The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was the go-to song that got everyone on the floor and became the seminal song in hip hop history. (Courtesy photos)

By Lisa Donaldson
Special to the AFRO

I fell in love with hip hop when I watched the kids bring their best moves to the roller disco. It was 1979 in Baltimore and kids dressed to kill, instead of being killed for their dress and shoes. Falling in love with hip hop didn’t happen overnight. It happened gradually and came down to my relationship and a connection that I felt was easy, natural and organic.

Hip hop wasn’t always embraced, especially by R&B. In the 70s, hip hop was an underground culture with a unique and special groove that found its way into your neighborhood. My parents often misunderstood our compatibility. Hip hop in 1979 and the early 80’s was like rock and roll in the 50’s. It was something people had never seen before. By 1980, hip hop as a culture broke into two different styles, the GQ crowd and the sneaker, break dancing, graffiti and beat artists. The two dimensions commingled with very little hostility.

I owe my uncle Mark or DJ Slice, as he was known around the local skate culture. I remember Painters Mill Skate Land and Rhythm Skate were only two skating rinks in Baltimore that played hip hop music.  “Wait until you hear this new track,” my uncle would say as I was often trying to get my homework done. The new track was Rapper’s Delight. I was sidetracked and hooked ever since.

Rapper’s Delight was the go-to song that got everyone on the floor and the seminal song in hip hop history. On May 16, 1981, The Sugar Hill Gang performed Rapper’s Delight and 8th Wonder on the nationally syndicated television program, Soul Train. The Sugar Hill Gang made hip hop fun. They were the cool cats, dressed in blazers and wingtips. They created melodies that were soulful and purposeful, with rhymes about everything and anything from “…your grandma’s chicken that taste like wood,” or “when your girl starts actin’ up, then you take her friend.” 

One might argue the creation myth of hip hop to DJ Kool Herc, GrandMaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Early hip hop of the late 70s was inspired by the disco scene. No one can deny the disco influence on hip hop culture. It’s style, sound and look was copied by DJ Kool Herc and Bambaataa. But it was the rise of the Sugar Hill Gang that opened the door for everything else that happened afterward ever associated with hip hop. Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee created the number one selling hip hop single and first rap album in history according to The Source. The Sugar Hill Gang was the first voice of hip hop breaking mainstream and opening the world’s eyes to see it. They released three albums between 1979 and 1984, all going platinum and creating a seminal moment for rap music. 

Tangible success for the heroes of rap was never fully realized. It is no secret the toll of the darker side of the music industry can have. In a nutshell, the members of the Sugar Hill Gang were caught up in legal battles with their producers Joe and Sylvia Robinson for many years. Eventually each of the members went through hard times, stolen money, stolen fame and stolen identities.

The group eventually split, forming two separate Sugar Hill Gangs, “The Real Sugar Hill Gang” with founding members Wonder Mike, Master Gee adding Hen Dogg and DJ T. Dynasty and the “Fake” Sugar Hill Gang, with only one original member, Big Bank Hank and Joe Robinson Jr., performing as Mike Gee.

Despite their hard times, the Sugar Hill Gang persevered through it all. Big Bank Hank passed away in 2014. Joe Robinson, Jr., passed away in 2015. But in recent years, the Real Sugar Hill Gang with Wonder Mike and Master Gee performed on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, doing major tours throughout the U.S. 

Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee created a masterpiece in Rapper’s Delight. Rapper’s Delight is number 251 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and number 2 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs. It is also included on NPR’s list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. It was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2011 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. 

Rap and hip hop owe the Sugar Hill Gang. Hip hop has grown into a full-blown creative expression of real life, based on the experiences in song, dance and graphic arts and language. 

It’s 40 years later and I still love hip hop. Today, hip hop is a community of doctors, lawyers, architects and even politicians that embrace it as a lifestyle, an intellectual movement and a platform to inspire social change. Songs like Rapper’s Delight and Apache have lived on forever, played and remixed worldwide. 

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