The Story Behind Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”

The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” is widely known as one of the most important and unique hip-hop songs in the 50-year history of the genre. With five different mixes spanning from nearly 15 minutes long to a mere four minutes long, “Rapper’s Delight” is still the best-selling 12-inch vinyl record single of all time.

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But, even though the song was able to reach No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first rap track to ever land on the chart, its beginnings could not have been humbler.

The Pizza Shop

Esteemed, New York-bred singer Sylvia Robinson founded the label Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s, which is named for the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem, New York. Towards the late 1970s, she was hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning, underground-at-the-time hip-hop scene, but emcees who performed live with DJs were reluctant to record actual songs.

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With her upstart group Sugarhill Gang, comprised only of Wonder Mike and Master Gee at the time, Robinson sought out more members to record and release new music. One day, while stopping by the local New Jersey pizza shop, Crispy Crust Pizza, she overheard an employee rapping along to a song playing on his boom box. That employee turned out to be Big Bank Hank, who would eventually become the third and final addition to Sugarhill Gang.

In an interview from 2014, Grandmaster Caz retold the whole story. Caz, who went by DJ Casanova Fly at the time, was the leader of the group DJ Casanova Fly and the Mighty Force. The group was managed by Hank, who never saw himself as a rapper or artist.

Hank took out a loan from his parents to get the group a sound system for their shows and rehearsals. To repay his parents for the loan, he got a job at Crispy Crust. There, he would bring a boombox to work and play tapes that had DJ Casanova Fly and the Mighty Force’s music on it. That’s when Robinson eventually walked into the shop and saw Hank singing along to the tunes. On the spot, Robinson had Hank audition for Sugarhill Gang, where he would rap along to Caz’s verse from one of the group’s performances. Hank would immediately be added to Sugarhill Gang, and would use the same verse that Caz rapped as his own verse on “Rapper’s Delight.”

“Wonder Mike and Master Gee, they were pretty much recruiting people on the street,” Caz said. “These guys parked right outside on the street with people walking up and down asking, ‘Hey you! Can you rap? Come over here!’ They took (Hank) in and they recorded. I think they recorded ‘Rapper’s Delight’ that day.”

Caz did not receive writing credits for “Rapper’s Delight” until years later, which he is still understandably irked about. Below is a portion of Hank’s verse, which sees him refer to himself as Casanova Fly.

Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y
You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you why
You see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a tee
You see, I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously

Why No Plaque?

Although “Rapper’s Delight” went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, it never earned any certification from RIAA. This is because Joe Robinson, the head of Sugar Hill Records and the husband of Sylvia, refused to pay for an RIAA membership.

[RELATED: Master Gee of the Sugarhill Gang Joins the ‘Stay Human’ Podcast]

“Rapper’s Delight” could have been the first hip-hop single to ever achieve gold status by RIAA, but Robinson’s unwillingness to pay RIAA’s fee, which was 2% of Sugar Hill’s gross profit, made the song ineligible for certification. Still, the song lives on as one of the most impactful hip-hop hits in American history.

Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

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