Yesterday, November 11, rap pioneer Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson of the Sugarhill Gang died of cancer at the age of 56.
Hank, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, and Guy “Master G” O’Brien were the three rappers on rap’s first and arguably most identifiable hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” While not the first commercially released rap single, “Rapper’s Delight” is often identified as the record that took rap from house parties to store shelves.
The effects “Rapper’s Delight” had on the music business cannot be overstated. This was an entirely new genre, realistically only seven years old, that had no real precedent on radio. It was an avant-garde exercise disguised as a novelty that gave birth to an entire multibillion-dollar industry.
The runaway success of “Rapper’s Delight” came as a shock not just to audiences hearing rap for the first time around the country, but to the New York hip-hop community itself. While MCs getting local fame by “rockin’ the mic to the break-a break-a dawn” was already an established scene in a growing number of neighborhoods, the Sugarhill Gang were, by some estimates, only barely a part of it. In fact, we spoke to the Hip-Hop Culture Center’s Curtis Sherrod, who don’t mean to brag don’t mean to boasts the largest collection of late-’70s flyers from early hip-hop events, and in his dozens upon dozens of flyers, the names “Big Bank Hank” and “Sugarhill Gang” don’t make a single appearance. Legend has it their “outsider” status, along with Hank’s alleged but fairly conclusive plagiarizing of Cold Crush Brother’s and rap pioneer Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes (hence why Big Bank Hank begins his verse not by spelling his name “B-I-G B-A-N-K” but “THE C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A…” which was Caz’s trademark opening), made them unpopular with their contemporaries.
But “Rapper’s Delight” ‘s impact was undeniable, and took hip-hop from a phenomenon that was slowly initiating more and more of New York’s residents (by some estimates, the culture had just started to penetrate Queens at the time of the track’s release) to one blasting all over the world. Sherrod put it in perspective for us as hip-hop going beyond neighborhood recognition to international fame. In one year Hank surpassed every name on those flyers as “Rapper’s Delight” touched down in Iowa, China, and Lithuania (despite its creators’ likely never having left the city).
While some hip-hop purists view “Rapper’s Delight” ‘s landmark achievements with an eye-roll, the song’s existence is absolutely essential to the entirety of hip-hop today. Given that none of the hottest MCs at the time were willing to record their hours-long rap routines, Sugarhill Gang and label head Sylvia Robinson created the blueprint for what the rap single morphed into. If it wasn’t for “Rapper’s Delight,” we wouldn’t have “The Message,” “Sucker MCs,” or any rap recording from the past 35 years.
But the Sugarhill Gang story doesn’t begin and end with “Rapper’s Delight.” There’s also the famously infectious “Apache,” which has become a mainstay of any and every get-together involving mass dancing. Our favorite Sugarhill Gang single happens to be “8th Wonder,” whose call-and-response between the Gang’s members was probably their tightest recorded performance. “8th Wonder” also begat Hank’s screaming of “Woo-hah! Got you all in check!” which was later immortalized in Busta Rhymes’ song of the same name and sampled in the Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump.”
While the original Sugarhill Gang disbanded, Hank and Sylvia Robinson’s son Joey, who took the “Master Gee” moniker, had become the core of the new Sugarhill Gang, which spent the years following “Rapper’s Delight” as something of a hip-hop goodwill ambassador, still performing their hit all over the world for audiences of all ages. The accessibility of the group’s material led to their recording a children’s album, 1999’s Jump on It.
Big Bank Hank’s death is a startling reminder of how long hip-hop’s been a part of our culture. Being a youth culture, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that hip-hop began and an overwhelming number of its originators are still walking among us. Until yesterday, all three voices heard on the song that kick-started rap were still alive. There aren’t not many genres of music you can safely say that about. While discussion of the various controversies of the Sugarhill Gang re-emerged in 2011 with both Sylvia Robinson’s death and the documentary I Want My Name Back, about the group’s legal struggle to retain the Sugarhill Gang name, one would have to be incredibly biased to deny “Rapper’s Delight” ‘s rightful place as a modern American standard and rite of passage for anyone with the slightest curiosity about music history.
Every person listening to a rap song anywhere in the world today has Hank to thank for that. If there’s a heaven, we hope there’s a color TV, so Hank can see the Knicks play basketball. He was 56.