Several years after hip-hop culture began to take shape at parties in the Bronx and Queens, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released via Sugar Hill Records on Sept. 16, 1979. Nearly one month after its release, the watershed single made its first appearance on a Billboard chart on Oct. 13, 1979 — 35 years ago today.
While the story of its genesis is almost as complicated as the birth of hip-hop itself, it’s safe to say “Rapper’s Delight” wouldn’t exist without the efforts of Sugar Hill Records founder/CEO Sylvia Robinson.
Robinson — who notched an R&B chart No. 1 hit more than 20 years earlier with Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” — specifically set out to record a hip-hop song for her label after hearing someone rhyme over a beat at her niece’s birthday party.
As you might expect from a group named after their record label, Sugarhill Gang wasn’t a real hip-hop group. It was cobbled together by Robinson because — incredible as it seems now — she had difficulty persuading professional MCs to put their rhymes on vinyl. At this point, hip-hop was about performing at parties and clubs — not studio releases.
Eventually, Robinson pulled together a trio — Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee — to record rhymes over Chic’s recent Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Good Times.” The result was a 14-minute single, cut in one take, that found the trio bragging about their sexual prowess, money, peerless skills on the mic and complaining about stomach ache. Kaopectate shout-out aside, it’s impressive to think that three out of the four central themes in “Rapper’s Delight” still resonate in hip-hop today.
“Rapper’s Delight” entered the Hot Soul Singles chart — now the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart — at No. 61, peaking at No. 4 later in 1979. Less than a month later, on Nov. 10, 1979, it entered the Billboard Hot 100, eventually peaking at No. 36 on Jan. 12, 1980.
Despite its international success and inestimable influence on future generations of rappers, “Rapper’s Delight” remains one of the most controversial rap tracks. Not only was Chic’s disco groove used without permission (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards would eventually be credited as co-writers), but Big Bank Hank’s verses — including the line “never let an MC steal your rhymes” — were allegedly stolen outright from Grandmaster Caz of the Bronx hip-hop group Cold Crush Brothers.
And although it’s often credited as the first hip-hop single, that distinction is also in dispute. Some point to NYC funk outfit Fatback Band’s 1979 b-side “King Tim (Personality Jock)” — an R&B track featuring rapping from radio DJ Tim Washington — as a better contender for that title.
Even if its authorship, credibility and status as “the first” are in dispute, there’s no denying its influence, endurance and quality. While the next year saw the release of other pioneering hip-hop singles — Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “Superrappin’,” Spoonie G’s “Love Rap,” Jimmy Spicer’s “Adventures of Super Rhyme (Rap)” — none made the same impact on the charts.
And few, if any, are as compellingly listenable as “Rapper’s Delight.” While Grandmaster Flash would go on to create another hip-hop breakthrough with “The Message” in 1982, “Superrappin'” is more of historical interest than anything else. “Rapper’s Delight,” on the other hand, still moves feet decades after “party rap” went out of style.
So for the 35th anniversary of this breakthrough song hitting a Billboard chart for the first time, listen to “Rapper’s Delight” again — it’s still “like hot butter on a breakfast toast.”