Hip-hop was born in the Bronx. But the hip-hop industry was born in New Jersey via the 1979 release, on Englewood-based Sugar Hill Records, of the first rap hit single, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
“Rapper’s Delight” is, to hip-hop, basically what Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” is to rock ‘n’ roll. Not the first or the coolest song in the genre, nor the launching point for a group with a long list of indelible hits, but a song that, through its sheer likability and accessibility, brought a burgeoning art form to the attention of the masses.
It was Sylvia Robinson, who co-founded Sugar Hill Records (named after a section of Harlem) with her husband Joe, who was really the driving force behind the song. A showbiz veteran who had had hits as half of Mickey and Sylvia (“Love Is Strange”) and as a solo artist (“Pillow Talk”), she happened to hear some rapping at the New York disco Harlem World. At the time, you could only hear rap at clubs and parks; it had no mainstream presence at all.
“As I was sitting there, the DJ was playing music and talking over the music, and the kids were going crazy,” Robinson, who died in 2011, told me in a 1997 interview for The Star-Ledger. “All of a sudden, something said to me, ‘Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing.’ I didn’t even know you called it rap.”
Back in suburban Englewood, she told her teenage son, Joey Robinson Jr., that she was looking for rappers, and he directed her to a local pizzeria, where they found Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson. He auditioned for her in her car, rapping along to the music on an eight-track tape player, and while he was doing so, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien walked by and asked to audition, too. Later in the day they found the third member, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright.
The Sugarhill Gang’s first recorded effort was the smooth, catchy “Rapper’s Delight” (musically based on Chic’s “Good Times”), with Sylvia Robinson producing. It was a Top 40 hit — the group’s only Top 40 hit, though it later made the Top 100 with “8th Wonder” and “Apache.” But by introducing this new form of music to the previously unaware world, it secured the Sugarhill Gang a bit of immortality.
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.