Today it feels like hip-hop has always been a part of the cultural fabric - but that wasn't always the case. The first signs of light began to poke through on Jan. 12, 1980, when a single by the Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight," became the first hip-hop track to reach the fabled Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100.
The Sugarhill Gang consisted of emcees Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson, and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien, all individual rhymers assembled into a trio by producer Sylvia Robinson, who founded the Sugar Hill label named after a neighborhood in Harlem. (Robinson, who died in 2011, scored a Top 20 pop hit in 1957 as one half of Mickey & Sylvia with the song "Love is Strange.") But neither Robinson nor either of the three hailed from New York; they lived across the river, in New Jersey. "Hank rapped and made pizzas, so she auditioned him in front of the pizza parlor," Gee later said. "I rapped in her car, then Wonder Mike was next. 'I can’t choose,' she said. 'So I’ll put you all together.'”
"Rapper's Delight" was a rarity in its time: back then, most emcees felt rapping was best done in live performance, not on record. Robinson sought to channel that live energy, with the help of a backing band - not a turntable - recreating a sample of disco band CHIC's chart-topping "Good Times." The free-floating lyrics find all three members of the Gang introducing themselves, shouting out their skills, wooing fictional music journalists, and - in the song's strangest sequence - dealing with a family friend's terrible home cooking.
Not all the lyrics were original, either: Hank's intro was cribbed in part from a rapper named Grandmaster Caz, and Mike was inspired by a cousin for the iconic opening lines. "I’d heard the phrase [hip-hop] through my cousin and just started going: 'Hip-hop, hippie to the hippie, to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop.'" he said. "[It's] basically a spoken drum roll. I liked the percussive sound of the letter B."
Within weeks of releasing the single, the Sugarhill Gang found themselves onstage with CHIC at The Palladium in New York City, where they shared a bill with Blondie and The Clash. At the urging of local street artist Fab 5 Freddy, the Gang freestyled some of their lyrics to "Good Times" - but guitarist/songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers was surprised when he later heard "Rapper's Delight" playing in a club. (Rodgers and musical partner Bernard Edwards threatened legal action but relented when they received songwriting credits; the guitarist now considers the song "as innovative and important" as "Good Times.")
The Sugarhill Gang never had another Top 40 pop hit after "Rapper's Delight" (which soared to No. 3 in England), but placed several tracks on Billboard's R&B charts, including "8th Wonder" and Fresh Prince favorite "Apache." And more than 40 years later, thanks to this sweet "Delight," rap is as integral to music as any other genre today.