The Sugarhill Gang is an American hip hop group. Their 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” was the first rap single to become a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
The members, all from Englewood, New Jersey, consisted of Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. The three were assembled into a group by producer Sylvia Robinson, who founded Sugar Hill Records with her husband, record producer Joe Robinson. The group and the record company were named after the Sugar Hill, Harlem, neighborhood.
The Sugarhill Gang never had another U.S. hit, though it had multiple European hits, such as “Apache”, “8th Wonder” (which was performed on the American music show Soul Train in 1981), “Rapper’s Reprise (Jam Jam)”, and “Showdown” (with the Furious Five). Later in 1999, the trio reunited and recorded Jump on It! a hip hop children’s album.
In late 1978, Debbie Harry suggested that Chic’s Nile Rodgers join her and Chris Stein at a hip hop event, which at the time was a communal space taken over by teenagers with boombox stereos playing various pieces of music that performers would break dance to. Rodgers experienced this event the first time himself at a high school in the Bronx. On September 20 and 21, 1978, Blondie and Chic were playing concerts with The Clash in New York at The Palladium. When Chic started playing “Good Times”, rapper Fab Five Freddy and the members of the Sugarhill Gang (“Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Mike Wright, and “Master Gee” O’Brien), jumped up on stage and started freestyling with the band. A few weeks later, Rodgers was on the dance floor of New York club Leviticus and heard the DJ play a song which opened with Bernard Edwards’s bass line from Chic’s “Good Times”. Rodgers approached the DJ who said he was playing a record he had just bought that day in Harlem. The song turned out to be an early version of “Rapper’s Delight”, which also included a scratched version of the song’s string section. Rodgers and Edwards immediately threatened legal action over copyright, which resulted in a settlement and their being credited as co-writers. Rodgers admitted that he was originally upset with the song, but later declared it to be “one of his favorite songs of all time” and his favorite of all the tracks that sampled (or in this instance interpolated) Chic. He also stated: “As innovative and important as ‘Good Times’ was, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was just as much, if not more so.”
A substantial portion of the early stanzas of the song’s lyrics was borrowed by Jackson from Grandmaster Caz (Curtis Fisher) who had loaned his ‘book’ to him—these include a namecheck for “Casanova Fly”, which was Caz’s full stage name. According to Wonder Mike, he had heard the phrase “hip-hop” from a cousin, leading to the opening line of “Hip-hop, hippie to the hippie, to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop”, whilst he described “To the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat” as “basically a spoken drum roll. I liked the percussive sound of the letter B”. The line “Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rappin’ to the beat”, was inspired by the introduction to The Outer Limits (“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture”).
Before the “Good Times” background starts, the intro to the recording is an interpolation of “Here Comes That Sound Again” by British studio group Love De-Luxe, a dance hit in 1979.
According to Oliver Wang, author of the 2003 Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide, recording artist (“Pillow Talk”) and studio owner Sylvia Robinson had trouble finding anyone willing to record a rap song. Most of the rappers who performed in clubs did not want to record, as many practitioners believed the style was for live performances only. It is said that Robinson’s son heard Big Bank Hank in a pizza place. According to Master Gee, Hank auditioned for Robinson in front of the pizza parlour where he worked, whilst Gee himself auditioned in Robinson’s car. A live band was used to record most of the backing track, including members of the group “Positive Force”: Albert Pittman, Bernard Roland, Moncy Smith, and Bryan Horton.