The Untold Truth Of The Sugarhill Gang

Rap music started in the 1970s with house parties in the Bronx borough of New York City. DJs would spin funk and R&B records while self-appointed MCs made up rhythmic, rhyming verses on the spot and recited them in time to the music. It would eventually trigger a musical and cultural phenomenon, but it took a handful of acts to bring it to the masses. One of those pioneers was the Sugarhill Gang. A trio of rappers from New Jersey but named for an area of New York City's Harlem, Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee recorded the catchy to the point of hypnotic "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. It went on to be the first certifiable hit single in the emerging genre of rap.

The Sugarhill Gang introduced millions to the biggest thing in pop music in years, and the group carried on in various forms for decades, performing their innovative hits and serving as hip-hop ambassadors. Now what you hear is not a test — this is the story of the Sugarhill Gang.

The Sugarhill Gang was assembled by a record executive

Sylvia Robinson was a minor music star in the mid-20th century. As half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, she topped Billboard's R&B chart in 1957 with the single "Love is Strange," and again in 1973 with her solo release "Pillow Talk." In the late '60s, Robinson, along with her husband, music industry veteran Joe Robinson, started a soul and R&B label called All Platinum Records. The company had some successful soul singles in the early '70s, but by the end of the decade, the label's influence had faded and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Robinson saw a potential financial save at a Harlem club one night in 1979 — rap, the relatively new, New York-centric party music made by guys talk-singing over R&B and disco records. "She saw where a DJ was talking and the crowd was responding to what he was saying, and this was the first time that she ever saw this before," Robinson's son, Joey, told NPR. "And she said, 'Joey, wouldn't this be a great idea to make a rap record?'"

First, Robinson would need a bass groove for rappers to rap over, so she paid 17-year-old New Jersey session musician Chip Shearin $70 to do it. Meanwhile, the label recruited some rappers, and they all made "Rapper's Delight" together. Attributed to the Sugarhill Gang, it became the first release on All Platinum's imprint, Sugar Hill Records.

How Big Bang Hank and Master Gee joined the Sugarhill Gang

After Sylvia Robinson got the idea in 1979 to create a rap imprint to release a rap record, she realized she'd need a rapper to perform it. Robinson lined up a candidate, and she arranged to meet him at a McDonald's in Englewood, New Jersey. He decided not to do the song, but Robinson had another candidate on her shortlist: a guy from the rap center of the Bronx who worked at a place called Crispy Crust Pizza ... which happened to be across the street from that Englewood McDonald's. That performer was Henry Lee Jackson, or Big Bank Hank. 

Meanwhile, while all this went down, budding rapper Guy O'Brien — who performed under the name Master Gee — happened to be walking past Crispy Crust with his friend Mark Green, who knew Sylvia Robinson and her son, Joey. "Joey told him that they were looking for rappers, and Mark told them that I could rap, so I got in the car and started rhymin','" O'Brien told That Foundation.

Now he is Wonder Mike, and he'd like to say hello

That night, Jackson and O'Brien ventured to Sylvia Robinson's house and took turns rapping their audition. Robinson couldn't decide which guy she liked better, so she opted to hire both. A third rapper, Michael Wright — Wonder Mike — was present for the tryout, according to Tha Foundation. A few months earlier, he'd joined Sound on Sound, his cousin's DJ group, as a rapper. One of those DJs was Ron the Mad Master Mixer, who brought him along to Robinson's home and who had also suggested that the record they were planning should include a hook based on Chic's "Good Times." Wright told Robinson he could rap, and she let him audition. That's when he presented what would become the introduction to "Rapper's Delight": "I said a hip-hop, the hippie the hippie, to the hip hip hop you don't stop..." before freestyling a bit. Wright got the job, and the Sugarhill Gang became a trio.

When it became clear that the Sugarhill Gang would become a group and not a solo act, plans were made to include a fourth performer on "Rapper's Delight." According to Wright, another member of Sound on Sound, a smooth-voiced rapper known as Casper, pulled out of the project. "His father was an executive at Atlantic Records, and he told him not to do the record," Wright said.

There were no second takes on the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"

"Rapper's Delight" is a definitive moment in time — the first major rap recording, and the first one heard by millions of mainstream music fans. It's also almost literally a moment because the song was recorded in one take — the music was captured in one session, and then the lyrics were laid down all at once, too. The song's primary melody is the groove from Chic's "Good Times," but it isn't sampled or even looped, because the equipment to do those now-standard practices wasn't available. Session music Chip Shearin played it over and over again, in a studio, for 15 minutes straight. "The drummer and I were sweating bullets because that's a long time," Shearin told the Charlotte News-Observer because they couldn't make any mistakes.

With a 15-minute long tape ready for a vocal overlay, Robinson brought in the rappers. According to NPR, Robinson hired the trio who would comprise the Sugarhill Gang — Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee — on a Friday. The following Monday, they were in the studio rapping to the beat. Each took turns to deliver their sections of "Rapper's Delight" and in one take, each. The released recording contains no overdubs, so it's essentially a live recording.

The "Rapper's Delight" hook came from a very Chic source

It's impressive to capture any song in one take — let alone a historic, influential, and forever popular one. It all hints at some magical improvisation or the power of fate, which is undercut somewhat on account of how so much of "Rapper's Delight" pre-existed and was totally stolen by the people who made the recording. Rappers at New York parties in the late 1970s performed over pre-existing R&B records, so Sylvia Robinson re-created that formula for the making of "Rapper's Delight" — she didn't sample the bass line from Chic's "Good Times," but had a studio musician imitate it. That's some blatant copyright infringement, and nobody at Sugarhill Records had bothered to clear anything with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

In an interview with PopBox TV, Rodgers said he first heard "Rapper's Delight" — or rather, noticed the groove as well as a lifted bit of the strings part of "Good Times" — on the dance floor at a New York club called Leviticus. The DJ told Rodgers he'd bought the record in Harlem, prompting Rodgers to "threaten a lawsuit." The parties reached a settlement out of court, resulting in future pressings and releases of "Rapper's Delight" crediting Rogers and Edwards as co-songwriters, entitling them to a share of the profits in perpetuity.

Some of the "Rapper's Delight" lyrics were stolen

The Sugarhill Gang raps with confidence, precision, and perfect rhymes for the lyric-heavy duration of "Rapper's Delight," which, in its original form, lasts nearly 15 minutes. That's no small feat, but the group had a little help. Not only did the creators of "Rapper's Delight" take the musical portion of the song from a well-known and existing source whole cloth, but some of the lyrics were also swiped, too. 

Before joining the Sugarhill Gang, Big Bank Hank was Henry Jackson, who managed Grandmaster Caz, a.k.a. Casanova Fly, a.k.a. Curtis Brown, an early rapper in the Bronx in the 1970s with his group, the Cold Crush Brothers. According to Brown, Jackson borrowed money from his parents to buy the Cold Crush Brothers a better sound system. To pay it back, he got a job at Crispy Crust Pizza, which is where record label head Sylvia Robinson discovered him and hired him — because he was rapping some of Brown's lyrics, which formed the basis of "Rapper's Delight." Jackson even identifies himself as Casanova Fly at one point — "Check it out, I'm the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y." "It was his job as my manager to introduce me to Sylvia. [But] he was an opportunist and he just jumped on it for himself," Brown told the New York Post. "Hank couldn't rap a package. He didn't change one word of the song — I was Casanova Fly, not him."

"Rapper's Delight" can stake claim to a number of firsts

The Sugarhill Gang didn't invent rap — the group's boss, record executive Sylvia Robinson, simply determined the time was right to capitalize on a sound that had been growing in popularity since the early 1970s, according to The Boombox. Not counting the speaking-over-music recordings of avant-garde artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets in the 1960s, the first single that's a recognizable example of modern rap music is "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" by The Fatback Band, a B-side of the early 1979 single "You're My Candy Sweet." A few months later, the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100. In January 1980, the song would peak at #36 on that pop chart, making it the first rap song to make the ever-important Top 40, per History

Additionally, "Rapper's Delight" became the first rap smash hit on R&B radio, reaching #4 on Billboard's chart for that genre. For a song from an emerging and new musical style to get crucial radio airplay is remarkable on its own, but for "Rapper's Delight" to do it is even more surprising, on account of how the song's two original versions are extremely long. Mainstream commercial radio stations prefer songs that are no more than three or four minutes long — "Rapper's Delight" got airplay in both its six-and-a-half minute "short" version and its full-length, 15-minute iteration.

The Sugarhill Gang released the first ever rap album (sort of)

The Sugarhill Gang expanded from releasing very long singles in 1979 to making a whole album of music in 1980. In February of that year, the trio's self-titled full-length LP, Sugarhill Gang, hit record stores around the United States. That's a big moment for the group and for rap in general — according to The Source, it's the first rap album in history. It consisted of just six tracks, including yet another version of "Rapper's Delight" (which clocks in at just under five minutes), along with the group's second single, the little-noticed "Rapper's Reprise (Jam Jam)."

And that's just about all the actual rap that appears on this first rap album. According to The Boombox, Sugar Hill Records founder (and the album's co-producer, co-engineer, and vibraphone player) Sylvia Robinson didn't think a 39-minute LP of rap music was commercially viable. So, she had the album filled out with selections of tried-and-true musical forms, like soul and disco.

The Sugarhill Gang struggled to repeat its early success

The Sugarhill Gang made monumental history with "Rapper's Delight," but the group never had much tangible success on the music charts, nor was it especially prolific. It had its big moments with one of the most pivotal songs ever released, but the Sugarhill Gang was technically a one-hit wonder, and barely, at that. "Rapper's Delight" scraped into the top 40 in 1979, peaking at #36. Two follow-up singles couldn't land much radio airplay — "8th Wonder" and "Apache" were top 20 R&B hits in the early 1980s, but they barely made a dent on the pop chart.

A succession of singles followed, but none registered much with the public, not even a potential comeback attempt in 1989, a remix of "Rapper's Delight." None of its four albums, released between 1980 and 1984, went gold or platinum, leading to the band going on a long recording hiatus. The group's last release, to date: the 1999 album Jump on It!, a rap album for children. It features "Kids' Rapper's Delight (Kid's Rap-Along)," a toned-down version of "Rapper's Delight" with kids voices added to the mix, as well as a family-friendlier cover version of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" called "It's Like a Dream Sometimes."

The Sugarhill Gang vs. Snapple

"Rapper's Delight" made millions for the Sugarhill Gang, and Sugar Hill Records. It sold around two million copies, but the band scored a huge payday for the song more than 20 years after its original recording because of a lawsuit. In 1998, the group alleged in its legal filings (according to Jet), that Turner Broadcasting had commissioned a performance of "Rapper's Delight." The rappers were told the clip would appear only on closed-circuit TVs at the Studio 54 nightclub in New York City as part of a pre-Goodwill Games promotional event. 

Instead, the footage showed up in a television advertisement for Snapple, a Goodwill Games sponsor. In their defense, the beverage company and broadcaster both contended that the Sugarhill Gang were told beforehand about the commercial in question. In 2002, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the rap group. The musicians were awarded $165,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $2.8 million in punitive damages.

The Sugarhill Gang fought for the right to be called the Sugarhill Gang

Sugar Hill Records head Sylvia Robinson died in 2011, and control of the company — and lucrative intellectual properties — passed to her son, Joey Robinson, Jr. According to AllHipHop, he toured (along with some hired rappers) under the name the Sugarhill Gang, for which he had the legal right (per BET). This all led to some market confusion for fans of old school rap. Robinson's so-called Sugarhill Gang toured for years, but the performers who actually recorded "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 — not counting Henry Lee Jackson, Big Bank Hank, who died in 2014 — weren't a part of it, and had to do their own thing. 

In the U.S., the rappers performed for a while as the act Rapper's Delight Featuring Wonder Mike and Master Gee. However, trademark laws are different in Europe, where the rappers were able to exploit "a couple of loopholes" and perform under their individual stage names, boasting that they were "formerly of" and the "original members of" the Sugarhill Gang. By 2016, shortly after Robinson died and his version of the classic rap collective fell apart, the original members of the group had successfully worked out legal arrangements to perform as the Sugarhill Gang once again.

The Sugarhill Gang warned the world about coronavirus

The Sugarhill Gang remains an active hip-hop collective, albeit with some necessary lineup changes. According to Rolling Stone, original member Henry Lee Jackson (Big Bank Hank) passed away in 2014 after a battle with cancer, and rapper Henry Williams (Hen Dogg), who joined the group later, ostensibly occupies his place in the Gang. In 2019, the trio toured to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its breakthrough single "Rapper's Delight," alongside fellow early rap pioneers The Furious Five.

Like most other musical acts, the Sugarhill Gang couldn't tour in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in June 2020, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City brought in the group to promote mask-wearing to limit COVID-19 transmission. According to the HABC, it's the group itself that found out about the agency's "Everybody is at Risk" campaign and offered its services. The Sugarhill Gang made a public service announcement in the form of a PSA targeted at the city's African-American population (disproportionately represented in Baltimore's coronavirus infection rates), asking people to cover their faces with masks to prevent the transmission of coronavirus. It's personal for the group: Member Guy O'Brien, or Master Gee, lives in the Baltimore area, and the combo's DJ, Rob "Da Noize" Temple, died from COVID-19. The video features the Sugarhill Gang's 1981 single "Apache," urging hygienic and safer practices with the song's repeated refrain, "jump on it."