At a Harlem birthday party in may 1979, Sylvia Robinson heard a new kind of music. An ex-R&B singer who ran the All Platinum label, she immediately grasped the potential of what the partygoers called ”rap.” The next day, Robinson, 43, and her son, Joey Jr., 17, set out to round up some rappers—and a radical pop genre (with roots in the African-American tradition of ”doing the dozens” and the talkin’ blues) was born in the back of their Oldsmobile.
They stopped first at an Englewood, N.J., pizza parlor, where pie maker Henry ”Big Bank Hank” Jackson jumped into the car—still covered with dough—to spout his stuff. Michael ”Wonder Mike” Wright climbed in next to him, chiming in with the irresistible hook ”…hip hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop, you don’t stop…”
A week later the group—along with a local band, who at Joey’s suggestion played the groove from Chic’s 1979 ”Good Times”—convened to create ”Rapper’s Delight.” ”Sylvia was pointing at each person, going ‘Your part, your part,”’ remembers Joey (a.k.a. Master Gee). ”Nothing was written out.” It took just 20 minutes to record the 15-minute song, which was released under Sylvia’s new Sugar Hill label. And on Jan. 12, 1980, the Sugarhill Gang’s ”Rapper’s Delight” hit its peak at No. 36 on Billboard‘s pop chart.
But the single’s success was far more significant than its sales (which were never accurately tallied). The Sugar Hill label became synonymous with rap: In the next five years, it would release such classics as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s ”The Message” and Melle Mel’s ”White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).” As other labels joined in, a flood of rap hits followed, from Run-D.M.C.’s ”Walk This Way” to M.C. Hammer’s four top 10 hits. Despite the controversial nature of gangsta rap—which, some critics say, glorifies violence and misogyny—rap continues to cross racial and class lines: According to SoundScan, Americans bought more than 57 million hip-hop albums last year, much to many rappers’ delight.
For the Sugarhill Gang, however, success was less enduring. Their follow-up, ”8th Wonder,” reached only No. 82 on the pop charts. By 1984 their old-school sound had fallen out of fashion, and the group split up. Wonder Mike started a construction company; Big Bank Hank retired from music and moved to the Bronx; and the second Master Gee, Guy O’Brien (who traveled with the Gang after Joey Robinson’s father forbade him to quit school to tour), founded a marketing firm in Chicago. But after a DJ remixed ”Delight” in 1990 to create a No. 1 pop hit in France, the group reunited; they’ve been on the road ever since, performing in the U.S. and Europe throughout ’97, and planning to release a new album in ’98.