One Random Single a Day #14: “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by The Sugarhill Gang


“Rapper’s Delight” is widely considered the first official rap song by many. Although this is definitely untrue, it is the first true rap song to hit the Hot 100. Anyone who knows anything about rap and hip-hop is probably at least somewhat familiar with this song. At the very least, its opening phrase, “I said a hip hop / Hippie to the hippie / The hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it…” as synonymous with the origins of the genre as a whole. I wasn’t alive during the peak of this single, but I could only imagine that the response of the general public was nothing less than explosive. Not only was this an actual recording of a whole new genre of music entirely, but the whole song was a single take rap that ran at nearly fifteen minutes in length! My guess is that most listeners were particularly familiar with the four-minute single version, since that was the version that got played on radios and hit #35 on the Hot 100. Yet there’s no reason to believe that the long version didn’t get its own share of recognition as well – every verse is just too fun to pass over completely!

One of the most recognizable aspects of this song is the sampling of Chic’s 1979 hit single “Good Times”, particularly Bernard Edwards’ bass riff and Nile Rodgers’ guitar licks. “Good Times” itself is such a great song and one of the best representations of Chic’s unique sound, but the lengths that producer Sylvia Robinson go to loop these bits and make it synonymous with the rap beat is incredible and maybe even more groundbreaking. I couldn’t possibly imagine the lines spit by the members of the Gang to be over any other sample – the whole thing just sounds like the most bangin’ party imaginable. Robinson also produced Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, another landmark recording in the hip-hop genre. While “Rapper’s Delight”‘s production is definitely the most fun, her work on “The Message” may be even more important in crafting the quintessential image of inner-city life in the early 80s.

From the first listen, it’s very clear that hip-hop has travelled in leaps and bounds since the conception of this record. The rhythm and rhymes present here are exactly what younger folks, with heightened awareness of the more sophisticated raps of today, joke about when looking back on the early age of the genre. I’m not convinced that an up-and-comer in a freestyle battle could get away with a line like, “I’d like to say hello / To the black, to the white, the red and the brown, to the purple and yellow” without at least a few heckles and jeers. It’s absolutely silly, and that’s honestly one of the only reasons it’s worth listening to these days. The production, as cool as it is, rarely does anything else besides fold over itself a few times over the course of fifteen minutes. This totally flies in the pop music climate of 1979, but it’s slightly less than impressive these days. But, once again, it’s entertaining, energetic, and even a bit funny at points.

The personalities of each of the three rappers featured here are totally infectious. Wonder Mike, who introduces the whole recording, is the ringmaster of the whole party, the one person who everyone invites and hopes shows up. His verse about going over to a friend’s house for dinner, only to find that the food is disgusting, is completely nonsensical yet one of my favorite verses of the entire artifact. Master Gee is the smooth and mellow member of the group, with his signature “on-n-n, on-n, on” hook that threads through the whole piece so seamlessly. Big Bank Hank does the most boasting on the whole track, including an entire verse that disses Superman of all people (the inclusion of the word “fairy” in that particular verse is an unfortunate reminder of the homophobic tendencies that have been in hip-hop since its origins). It does damper the mood a bit knowing the fact that pretty much every verse from Hank was directly lifted from companion rapper Grandmaster Caz, who didn’t give permission for his rhymes to be used and then further capitalized upon. It’s a shame, because one of my favorite set of lines of the song comes directly from Hank and now seems very hypocritical: “Now there’s a time to laugh, a time to cry/  A time to live and a time to die / A time to break and a time to chill / To act civilized or act real ill / But whatever you do in your lifetime / You never let an MC steal your rhyme”.

The sphere of influence of this song is absolutely unparalleled – although I probably don’t need to tell this to most people reading this. Sure it’s hilariously dated by today’s standards and doesn’t really say very much in its fifteen minutes of straight rapping, but its bombastic partytime vibes and silly sense of humor exudes so much confidence it cannot be ignored. There’s a reason why so many who grew up with this track can boast having memorized the entire song verbatim (there was a time in my teens when I attempted this, but quickly realized I couldn’t rap and just gave up completely). But if you can’t appreciate it for the rhymes, it should at least be notable for Sylvia Robinson’s production and sampling of the Chic track, a method which has become a full-blown staple in hip-hop music as we know it today.

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1 Response to One Random Single a Day #14: “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by The Sugarhill Gang

  1. Pingback: One Random Single a Day #101: “King Kut” (1985) by Word of Mouth | Films Like Dreams, Etc.

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