The Sugar Hill Gang: 40 years of Rapper’s Delight
Things that are 40 years old this year: The very first Millennials. Kim Kardashian. The Sony Walkman. Rapper’s Delight. That’s right, the track that would forever shape hip-hop is now 40 and to celebrate, The Sugar Hill Gang are coming to Avoriaz as part of this winter’s Snowboxx Festival.
“I’ve got these kids who can talk real fast” is how record producer and President of Sugar Hill Records’ Sylvia Robinson described Guy ‘Master Gee’ O’Brien, Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright and Henry ‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson back in 1979. She couldn’t decide which rapper she liked the most as they auditioned for her in cars or outside pizza joints. “I’ll put you all together,” she said, changing the landscape of music forever.
Rapper’s Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang was the first rap single to become a Top 40 hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Sampling wasn’t really a thing back then and Chic’s Nile Rogers wasn’t best pleased about their use of Good Times; these days he calls it one of his favourite tracks of all time and he’s in good company. Who doesn’t know the opening lines of this iconic track for goodness sake?
We caught up with Guy ‘Master Gee’ O’Brien and Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright (Henry ‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson sadly died of cancer in 2014, aged 58) at their homes on the East Coast of the US, where they’re “still going strong as a group!” they tell me. “We continue to do what we love and that’s being able to perform, giving our audiences and our die-hard fans an experience that they can enjoy and reminisce over for the rest of their lives.”
“It makes us all feel very blessed to be a part of a song that has stood the test of time.”
It could have been recorded yesterday though, don’t you think? In a world of crap pop where most ‘hits’ sound the same, Rapper’s Delight sounds as fresh as a daisy. I wonder how this massive milestone makes them feel? “Well, it makes us all feel very blessed to be a part of a song that has stood the test of time. Still to this day there’s a big demand for The Sugar Hill Gang. Thanks to Sylvia Robinson and the family for being a big part of making this rap industry come to life and for introducing it to the world.”
It can be argued that, following the global success of Rapper’s Delight, The Sugar Hill Gang were always more successful in Europe than back home in the US. They’ve performed at multiple festivals across the continent throughout their careers, always to huge crowds. Does it feel good to be touring and performing again now? “There’s no greater high in the world than to feel the energy of your fans screaming and directing all that positive energy towards you and to know that somewhere out there in that crowd you have put a smile on someone’s face who may have been having a bad day for what ever reason. We as humans are affectionate and passionate beings, so music is an important part of life.”
It’s been suggested for a long time that Rapper’s Delight was recorded in just one take. I wonder how true that it? And where did those opening lyrics come from? “Yes, it was with the one exception of one stoppage with Hank. The producers never stopped us,” Wonder Mike explains. “All the rapping was done in one take, but we cut it to 15 minutes.” “And I liked the percussive sound of the letter B, so those opening lyrics are basically a spoken drum roll. The part where I go, “To the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”
Sampling wasn’t really a thing back then and Chic’s Nile Rogers wasn’t best pleased about their use of Good Times; these days he calls it one of his favourite tracks of all time
To date, more than 14 million copies of Rapper’s Delight have been sold and the group seem to have just as much energy as ever before. How many times do they think they’ve performed the song over the years? “Wow, that’s impossible to put a number on, but I know that again we are extremely blessed for Rapper’s Delight to still be in demand.” And what about favourite performances? There must be some standout gigs after 40 years? “I’m sure each of us have our own moment on stage which we’d call our “finest moment on stage together”, but for me it was Hong Kong!” Master Gee tells me.
A quick skim through the Snowboxx lineups of recent years demonstrates a who’s who of fresh musical talent, alongside stalwarts of the music industry such as Fatboy Slim. It’s impressive that The Sugar Hill Gang are still relevant now, as much as ever before, for their sampling skills. “We recorded all our songs back in the day with a live band but as far as sampling goes, there’s definitely not a lack of talent at the moment. It just proves that technology will always evolve and get better. But to make great music and great songs, there’s no replacing a real musician in the studio playing what’s in his hear and in his soul…”
Forty years on, there’s no rest for the wicked and the group continue to make new music. 2009’s ‘Lala Song’ with French DJ Bob Sinclar reached the number 1 spot in parts of Europe and they’ve just released a new track on the UK-based Defected Records label called Fever with Melle Mel and Scorpio. So what can we expect from their Snowboxx set, where the crowds are notoriously enthusiastic and up for anything? “It’ll be a non-stop, high-energy show that is guaranteed to leave you speechless.”