The Best of Sugar Hill Records
The Origins of New York Hip-Hop
Several things were key to the early development of hip-hop. One was location: The style started at block parties in the South Bronx and (later) Queens, in forbidding neighborhoods notable for their abandoned tenement buildings and neglected playgrounds. Following the example of Jamaican artists, the early pioneers of rap set up on street corners, with just turntables and primitive amplification. They drew curious listeners by spinning thumping disco records and encouraging young poets to rhyme over them.
Equally fortuitous was the presence of Sylvia Robinson, the founder of Sugar Hill Records. At the exact moment hip-hop started to bubble, Robinson, a music business veteran who'd run disco labels in the '70s, got involved with several of its most promising personalities. She not only perceived the commercial potential of hip-hop, she knew what it would take, business-wise, to make it more than a momentary fad—it was her idea to unite three of the nascent scene's individual rappers as a unit called the Sugar Hill Gang.
There are fifteen tracks on this anthology of early Sugar Hill. Some sound dated now, some are surprisingly entertaining, and at least two remain absolutely essential to the canon. First there's the 1979 "Rapper's Delight," the pioneering yarn featuring Robinson's handpicked team of rap talents. The first rap smash hit, it was built around the beat of Chic's disco gem "Good Times" rerecorded by studio musicians, and featured boasts and taunts in common circulation at the time. Seeing the notoriety Sugar Hill got for the track, which has sold over eight million copies, the DJ Grandmaster Flash—the developer of the techniques of "cutting" and "scratching" vinyl records in rhythmic ways that became the backbone of hip-hop rhythm—signed with Sugar Hill in 1980. After several head-spinning singles, Flash and his rappers dropped "The Message" in 1982.
This was Sugar Hill's second genre-rocking explosion. To this point most rap hits were little more than idle boasts; here Melle Mel bluntly describes street life, talking about "Broken glass everywhere, people pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care." Many rappers who rose to prominence later, including Chuck D of Public Enemy and Queen Latifah, have said that it was "The Message" that first inspired them, and it's easy to hear why. Latifah once called it a "crystal ball perspective of life in the ghetto," but it's more than that. It's also a monster on the dance floor.
Released: 1994, Sugar Hill/Rhino
Key Tracks: Sugar Hill Gang: "Rapper's Delight." Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: "The Message," "White Lines (Don't Do It)"
Catalog Choice: Grandmaster Flash: Salsoul Jam 2000.
Next Stop: Run-DMC: Raising Hell
After That: Kurtis Blow: Kurtis Blow
Book Pages: 804–805