The Canon, Examined: Sugar Hill Records, Part 1

As Alfred noted in another post, this has not been a banner year for hip-hop. Very few artists seem to have tried for greatness in 2007, and yet fewer have achieved it. Aside from the mawkish-to-the-point-of-absurd Sean Kingston single “Beautiful Girls,” virtually nothing even in the vicinity of hip-hop has interested me in the last 8ish months. For this reason, I’d been listening to little rap new or old lately.

Fast forward to last weekend. I took my friend Gabby with me to a DJ gig and she started dropping this old school shit – first it was DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, which just brought the LOLz, and yeah there was some Queen Latifah, and that was cool and all, but then she dropped a track I’d never heard before: “It’s the Joint” by the Funky 4+1.

I know, I know; “‘It’s the Joint’s’ a classic, you fucking philistine!” But I had grouped the Funky 4+1 with Kurtis Blow and other archaic hip-hop forgettables. For me, hip-hop history had always started in 1987 with Criminal Minded.

I am an Adult now; I can admit it when I’m wrong, and I realize now that I was pitifully wrong in overlooking Sugar Hill Records.

The label that housed the Funky 4+1,and more significantly, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugarhill Gang, the Treacherous Three, and more, has recently captured my fancy, with the help of Rhino‘s The Sugar Hill Records Story boxed set. I plan to share some of it with you now.

There is impressively little writing about Sugar Hill Records, which surprised me given the scope of its influence. I hope to bring the music to you, then, according to my own organization, rather than according to the Pop Canon. There are two towering tracks that beg to be consulted first.

According to Wikipedia, Sylvia and Joe Robinson founded Sugar Hill Records in 1974, yet it wasn’t until 1979 that the label dropped its first single, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Cobbled together from plagiarized rhymes (including “C-A-S-an the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y,” borrowed from DJ Casanova Fly) and a plagiarized beat (supposedly a band performing the break from Chic‘s “Good Times” in-studio, though I have heard it questioned whether the break isn’t just lifted from the original record), the song was the first top 40 hip-hop track, and according to legend the first single ever pressed solely on a 12″.

While a landmark, the seminal hip-hop hit is smothered in lyrical cheese. (“Super sperm?” What the hell? Ludacris pumps out better innuendo in his sleep.) To be fair though, the Sugarhill trio thought they had to compete with disco in the track-length department and pumped out 14 minutes of rhymes (!) for the unedited version; just by the law of large numbers, a track of this length was bound to produce some clunkers. The lyrics do touch on some themes that hip-hop still follows: Bragging about oneself, one’s car, one’s ability to please the ladies, one’s fashion sense, and food.

I don’t reckon the line “Guess what, America? We love you!” has been repeated too many times, though.

The Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”: mp3

The other landmark is “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” which itself elevated turntablism to a wider audience, though in a much different way – it wasn’t a hit – and with much greater tact. Unlike “Rapper’s Delight,” whose lyrical novelty destines it for an audience 8th grade white boys, years later “Adventures” remains the gold-standard for a DJ mix. Flash’s technical skills here are not jawdropping, but with the simple combination of a few party tunes and some choice vocal samples – he even incorporates the first-ever mix watermark with his sample of Debbie Harry proclaiming “Flash is cool” – the track is still sure to light up any party.

Grandmaster Flash – “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”: mp3

-Greg Katz


The Canon, Examined is a weekly series spotlighting the finest records to ever slip through the cracks. For previous installments, click below.