A world without the word hip hop in its lexicon just feels amiss, and the folk we’ve got to thank for its emergence are The Sugarhill Gang, who ushered its arrival into the public sphere with the landmark single, ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
The scene had been thriving in the underbelly of New York. Still, mainstream visibility was non-existent before The Sugarhill Gang managed to storm their way into the chart in 1979, and hip-hop has been omnipresent ever since. Admittedly, the group won’t be remembered on such a visceral level as the NWA or Jay-Z, but the impact of their work is seismic.
Before this song broke on to radio and raided the charts internationally, rap music was something you needed to know about to enjoy. Unless you went to block parties, then this otherworldy carnival sound wouldn’t be on your radar, it would have been a mere glimmer in the eye of your local DJ. That is, until The Sugarhill Gang injected it into the mainstream.
When Guy’ Master Gee’ O’Brien from the group was in 10th grade, his life changed forever when he went to a party and was introduced to rap. “I had started DJ-ing to make some money and added rapping to my repertoire,” he recalled to The Guardian in 2017.
He continued, “At this point, it was something we did at parties. Nobody thought of it as commercial. Then Sylvia Robinson, founder of the hip-hop label Sugar Hill, decided to make a record, and looked for talent in New Jersey, where she was living. Big Bank Hank rapped and made pizzas, so she auditioned him in front of the pizza parlour. I rapped in her car, then Wonder Mike was next. ‘I can’t choose, she said. ‘So I’ll put you all together.'”
The Sugarhill Gang weren’t a brotherhood who had grown up together, and they were manufactured in the same way that pop groups are on talent shows. However, they had all the attitude and swagger that made them seem like this legitimate act born out of the environment that they were expressing.
They weren’t the lynchpins of the hip hop scene by any stretch of the imagination, but they were rappers who made a catchy as hell song which hooked itself into the veins of the unsuspected masses.
Michael’ Wonder Mike’ Wright from the group’s life changed in a moment following the release. He’d suddenly gone from playing to friends at parties to being thrust in the limelight, and the ecstasy that followed them after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ sticks with him even over 40-years on.
“When I was seven, I saw the Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night, with all the screaming girls. When ‘Rapper’s Delight’ hit, there was a lot of hysteria,’ he said in 2017. “We were in a record shop and the manager had to ferry us out through the back. I remember thinking: ‘Man, this is just like A Hard Day’s Night.'”
The lyrics are iconic and revolutionary, even if they would make you cringe to death if they were released today, but context is imperative. Rap was a completely different genre compared to today, and even though Kendrick Lamar isn’t directly influenced by ‘Rapper’s Delight’, it played an immeasurable role in elevating the genre.
In truth, hip-hop is infectious, and in likelihood, it would have infiltrated the mainstream, but nothing is guaranteed. The genre could have got a different name for a start and veered off in an unrecognisable direction if it wasn’t the domino effect that all kicked off with ‘Rapper’s Delight’.