When discussing the history of hip-hop, you can’t leave out The Sugarhill Gang. The group is important to the evolution of the genre as a commercial force, and at a time when many considered the sound a fad and not capable of producing hits, the trio from Edgewood, New Jersey proved everyone wrong.
The group consisted of Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, and they came together in 1979 just as the hip-hop scene was exploding in the New York area. Before Sugar Hill Records owner Sylvia Robinson formed the group, she was having a hard time getting rappers to record tracks at her studio, as back in those days, rappers preferred not to record their material, opting instead to perform in clubs around the area.
But Robinson was convinced that the sound could be a moneymaker if put on wax, and she sent her son, Joey Robinson, to recruit talent. He met Jackson outside of a pizzeria and auditioned him on the spot. Soon after, Wright and O’Brien saw the sign to audition, and after winning the last two roster spots, the Sugarhill Gang was born.
Using the break from Chic’s 1979 smash “Good Times”, the group recorded “Rapper's Delight”, using some lyrics from other MC’s in the area. When the single was released that summer, the record took off, with radio stations all over spinning the song.
By 1980, “Rapper's Delight” was at number four on the Billboard Hot 100, making the single the first ever rap song to hit the charts. It also was a worldwide smash, as the track hit number one in Canada and number three in the United Kingdom.
Looking to quickly capitalize on their new found fame, Robinson rushed out their self-titled debut album (#4 R&B), and many were surprised that the record had mostly R&B filler (there was one other rap song, “Rapper’s Reprise”, that was a minor hit), and this may have dented the group’s hopes of making it big.
In 1982, the group released their second album, 8th Wonder, and although it contains the minor hits in the form of the title track (#15 R&B/#82 Hot 100) and the cult classic “Apache” (#13 R&B/#53 Hot 100), it wasn’t at the same level of “Rapper's Delight”, and the group would go into a downslide both creatively and commercially.
Adding insult to injury, rappers that were once reluctant to record were now issuing their own records, and with those rappers expanding on the sound, the Sugarhill Gang suddenly found their material out-of-date. Their next two albums, 1983’s Rappin Down Town and 1984’s Livin’ In the Fast Lane, both failed to chart, and by 1985 the group was gone from the charts.
But no rap purist will ever forget the single that put the genre on the map, putting the music world on noticed that what they were hearing was not a test.