My little one asked me other day if I had any “Hip-Hop” music. This caused me to dust off my Sugar Hill Records anthology from Rhino Records. I had forgotten what a total blast this “old-school” rap music is. With bands like the The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Funky 4 +1, The West Street Mob, etc. Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, out of Englewood, New Jersey, had the pulse of the powerful sounds emanating from the streets of the South Bronx in the late 1970’s.
Sylvia Robinson had a long career in music prior to starting Sugar Hill Records with husband Joe. She was the “Sylvia” half of “Mickey and Silvia” who had the 1957 smash hit of Bo Diddley’s “Love is Strange” with guitar slinger Mickey Baker. In the 1970’s she recorded one of the great semi-pornographic R&B/Soul/proto-disco records with the song “Pillow Talk.” She wanted Al Green to record “Pillow Talk” but it proved to be too suggestive for him so she recorded it herself. In her song “Didn’t I” (from the same era) she sang “at last you know I'm not margarine - but I am a high-priced spread!" – gotta love that!
Ms. Robinson was instrumental in putting together The Sugarhill Gang and recording what is considered the first rap record with the song “Rappers Delight” in 1979. It is important to note that a tradition of rap singing had existed in African American music since (probably) the late 1800’s but it had not been formalized into a style of music as it was on the streets of New York City in the late 1970’s. In the way Elvis Presley’s first record catalyzed rockabilly music in the south in the mid-1950’s the release of “Rappers Delight” opened the floodgates on groups performing rap.
Rap began around the same time as the punk/new wave movement in Rock, and like punk, Rap was a voice of the street and of the disenfranchised. Also like punk, with its rudimentary musical skills and DIY approach, rap groups played records as backup music to their raps. The DJ’s put together the backing tracks by sampling directly from records on duel turntables. The Bronx DJ’s also invented a variety of percussive techniques by manipulating the records as they played called scratching. I remember seeing Grandmaster Flash live one time, it was amazing how he played 2 turntables at once, changing records at exactly the right moment and moving disks backwards creating great rhythmic patterns. He was able; live, to create instant montages of sound, music, rhythm and percussion.
I think what is appealing about the so-called “Old School” rap of labels like Sugar Hill Records is that they used real bands (the funky Sugar Hill house band was included drummer Keith Leblanc, along with guitarist Skip Macdonald and bassist Doug Wimbish). At Sugar Hill Sylvia Robinson would take the raps performed by the groups with their DJ’s and put them in the studio with an actual band. Later groups like Public Enemy or N.W.A. made heavy use of sequencers, drum machines and other electronics that took some of the soul out of the music (for me).
Sugar Hill records, under the creative hand of the Robinson’s, was responsible for 26 gold records and such revolutionary recordings as the Grandmaster Flash classic “The Message” & “White Lines.”
Now of course my 6 year old does not care about any of this shit but just danced like crazy when The Sugar Hill Gang rapped (in “8th Wonder”);
Once upon a time not long ago everybody had on their radio
And then a fella came on with a groovy noise
To put the wiggle in the women and girls and boys
Or when the Funky 4 + 1 rapped (in “That’s the Joint”);
These words we say we want ya’ll to hear
Make a lot of sense
Make it clear
Rock this place
Use some class
Do our best
Make it last
Rhymes in our minds
Rockin’ in our hearts, and now the things we do you can call it arts
We’re bad, We’re slick, We’re doin’ it hip
We’re gonna rock this record and don’t you forget
That’s the Joint!