Today I found this box set in a store. It was a rainy day so I spent some time to type over the inlay: a nice story about Sugar Hill records. Enjoy this reading.
SUGAR HILL HIP HOP BOX SET
Sugar Hill Records was a black-owned in dependent label that first put rap on the map some 23 years ago. They put sample-based dance music on wax and sold it to the world. It created the world’s first superstar DJ who wrote the rules for today; they were home to the biggest selling twelve-inch single of all time and released a single that became the blueprint for ghetto life. This label was never short of controversy. This is the Sugar Hill story.
Every place needs its alpha and omega - its beginning and end - and Sugar Hill is the beginning of rap, for me at least. But that’s not the beginning of the music. That all started out in the BX — the Bronx. In the early 1970s a musical genre was born in the crime-ridden neighbourhoods of the South Bronx. Gifted teenagers with plenty of imagination, but little cash, began to forge a new style from spare parts. Hip-hop, as it became known, was a product of pure streetwise ingenuity; extracting rhythms and melodies from existing records and mixing them up with poetry chronicling life in the ‘hood.
KK Rockwell from the Funky Four Plus One More picks up the story; “I learnt from being around the people who really started it, like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. They used to play in my neighbourhood all the time and I said to myself: ‘I can do that’. I was still in high school, and I remember doing my work and then pulling out my rhyme. Every Friday we had a show. We stayed playing in parks for hours. That’s why we had the lyrics: ‘On and on till the break of dawn’..."
In 1979, Jeffrey ‘Jazzy Jeff’ Myree, Keith-Keith’s fellow MC in the Funky Four, thought they were at the forefront of the hip-hop game. Then he heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang. “We were shocked that somebody had made a record; that didn’t even seem possible to us.”
“When I heard the Sugarhill Gang it was on a bright sunny day,” recalls Rockwell. “It’s summertime, I’m comin’down the block. I’m happy, and I’m one of the hottest young artists in New York on a street level. Every Friday and Saturday my parties are packed. I’m making money, I’m doin’ pretty good. So I'm walking down the block and I hear music comin’ outta speaker from a record store. So I’m like. I’ve never heard of these guys, cause I knew everybody. Who are these dudes? I thought it was a tape, but it was a record and it was the Sugarhill Gang. First thing I said was: “We gotta make a record'; that was just automatic.”
“I’m making pizza and all of a sudden I hear Pucko on the radio saying: “We have this new record by the Sugarhill Gang”. I’m like, wait a minute, I’m the Sugarhill Gang!” remembers the Gang’s Big Bank Hank. “After they play the record the DJ says: ‘Please do not call the radio station anymore telephone lines are blocked’. He played the record twice. That’s 32-minutes of one song. ”A good-natured, near-15-minute party jam, ‘Rappers Delight’ wasn’t the first rap single; The Fatback Band’s ‘King Tim III’ preceded it by a few weeks. But it became rap’s first hit - reaching No. 34 on the Hot 100; more importantly it became the best-selling 12-inch single ever. “We just couldn’t keep up with the demand for the record,” says the labels Joey Robinson Jr. “We were selling an average of 50-60,000 copies per day and we’d gone platinum by the end of the month. We were topping charts in every country on the face of the planet”
Tommy Silverman, who started Tommy Boy Records in ’81 inspired by the success of Sugar Hill, remembers with clarity the events of October 1979; “When ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out it was mind-blowing. There were people inside and outside the store - they didn’t even put it in the racks they couldn’t sell it fast enough. As soon as they got them in they sold out, and it was that way in every store in New York - There was no competition - they owned the whole pie! That’s what was special about it; it was the first It was the birth of a new genre.”
Sugar Hill invented the formula that still forms the basis for modern rap - clever, boastful rhymes and funky dance music inspired from records that were both radio hits and block party anthems; but there are differences too. The music was live rather than sampled - Wood Brass & Steel, a smooth, supercharged house band backed most Sugar Hill artists and recreated Chic’s ‘Good Times' as the basis for ’Rapper's Delight’. Atop was added handclaps, whooping, and that now famous party rap. The Sugar Hill formula was an instant success - ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went multi-platinum and rap went global. The impact was massive, but some of the original pioneers of the scene were disgusted!
Melle Mel had nothing but contempt for rap’s first superstars: “Garbage! When I first heard it I thought garbage. I thought it was a rip off, a carbon copy of real hip-hop, because hip-hop is from the streets and from the heart. When that record dropped it became rap, and rap is what they do now to make money. When that song came out every traditional rapper was fuckin’ mortified. It was like: ‘What the fuck are they doing with our art form?’ It's like they axe-murdered the shit" Yet as Melle’s colleague Flash conceded the Sugarhill Gang had upped the ante. "Once you heard that record it was definitely a consideration to wanting to become an artist as opposed to just performing. Definitely it enlightened all hip-hoppers.”
"I would guess that anyone who had anything negative to say about ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is just biter or a wannabes,” retorts pioneering ‘80s producer Arthur Baker. "The Sugarhill Gang were not one of the crews that were pegged to be one of the stars of the rap scene, and they really weren't that great But what you have to say is that the raps that they did you remember."
Sugar Hill was alien to the Bronx rap scene; their base was in New Jersey - named after an affluent area in Harlem. They knew about the street culture kicked of by Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, but the street didn’t know about them until it was too late. While everybody else was partying, they were cutting records. The person responsible for the label's success was Sylvia Robinson, an ex-pop star herself, she was street-wise and knew the record industry inside out having previously built the All Platinum/Stang empires in the ‘70s. Aided by husband Joe, and son Joey, she was A&R, producer, songwriter and hardnosed businesswoman rolled into one.
In 1979, Robinson could not have had any idea of how rap would evolve. All she knew was she heard something she liked, and ‘the kids' seemed to like it too. By the time she stumbled onto rap, she was a 43-year-old music industry veteran. By her own admission she wasn't particularly interested in discovering anything new, but when her niece threw a birthday party for her at the New York disco, Harlem World, and Robinson heard something she couldn't resist. “As I was sitting there the DJ was playing music and talking over the mic, and the kids were going crazy,” she recalls, "all of a sudden, something said to me: 'Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing’. I didn’t even know you called it rap."
Almost overnight Sugar Hill changed from one-hit-wonder to hit factory. Sylvia manufactured the Sugarhill Gang from local teenagers who were friends with her son, but she also pursued new acts in clubs and at parties. The Sequence went to see the Sugarhill Gang live on tour and the rest is history as Angie B recalls: “The road manager got us in back stage. We sang: ’We gonna funk you up right on up, we’re gonna funk you right on up’ and that was our one shot to get a record deal. Sylvia was there and luckily for us she looked up one time and said: ‘I’m gonna make you girls stars’. She was responsible for turning us into the first female international rap group. Back than you could do ‘A-B-C 1-2-3’— that was a rap. The rappers now get millions off dollars but we were satisfied with hundreds. We were very content because our spirit was free and our longing and desire to have fun was more important than buying a home or a car.” Today Angie B is Angie Stone renowned soul singer and multi-platinum selling artist who’s worked with the likes of Prince and D’Angelo.
Like Motown before them, Sugar Hill kept their ears to the street, predicted what was coming, and put it on wax before their competitors. The label's talent scouts scoured nightclubs and jams in search of the era’s most popular breaks; they listened to word of mouth and discovered which MCs listed on flyers had skills and needed deals. Some artists arrived at Sugar Hill harder than they left, but most became international stars. In a male-dominated industry, Sylvia was a woman able to make things happen. When an artist was on a rival label, she aggressively pursued them until they finally signed. The Funky Four were one such acts as Sha Rock recounts: “We were first signed to Enjoy Records, but a scout come to us and said: "We want y’all to come over to Sugar Hill’. When we were sold it was like passing a little baby off to another mother and the kid don't have any say. We were still teenagers, maybe 14-15, and didn’t really understand what was going on, all we wanted to do was rap and perform. It was like going from the minors to the majors overnight - from an amateur to a professional.”
The Funky Four were not the only act to defect from Enjoy, along with Spoonie Gee came a group who were set to deconstruct, reconstruct, loop, scratch and mess up musical history beyond recognition, they were called Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Flash did everything --scratching, mixing, the needle-drop, backspin... if you took away everything that Flash did and you won’t have a DJ. Like Norman Cook, and a generation of contemporary DJs and producers, I too owe Flash a huge debt for starting me off muting records, cutting them and reconstructing them as opposed to just playing them. “The first tune that he did that I’d heard was ‘Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel - that just turned me onto records and what you can do with them as opposed to playing ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ at weddings! I immediately rushed out and bought decks and worked out I had no idea how he did it. The first time he came over to England he played at the Venue in Victoria; most of the people who are making dance music now were there. Everybody else was dancin’ but we were down at the front watching going: ‘Oh I see... you do that then you pull that back, and you do that...' Basically Flash started what is modern day sample-based dance music. ‘Adventures... ’ was basically just 10 different records glued together and that's pretty much still my formula of how to make records."
I was at that very gig, as was Coldcut's Jonathan Moore: “The "Wheels Of Steel" is a moment in time, as a marker in history for what is now a standard expectable kinda thing. I remember playing that record in a club and the manageress coming across and ripping the arm of the turntable off the record. It shows in a way how revolutionary it was and, like punk, how it upset quite a lot of people."
Grandmaster Flash invented DJ culture as we know it, but Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five also reinvented rap lyrics. Mike Gee from the jungle Brothers was there: “I was at this block party in Douglas Projects and it was the first time I’d seen Flash. He was this skinny guy with Kangol tilted to the side, and Melle Mel was short with glasses rockin' on the on the mic lookin’ like a gangsta - a street emperor. They were so theatrical in telling stories it was like them being on the news, reporting live and direct You hear everybody talking about party rhymes on records, but you really didn't hear MCs talking about street issues other than at block parties. And then to hear ‘The Message’ was like someone planting a flag: this e earth baby!”
It was 1982 and Flash and his Furious Five had just dropped what would become the blueprint for ghetto life and would single-handedly change the shape of rap forever. Exposing the harsh realities of eighties America ‘The Message’ put pay to the feel-good, name-chanting formula upon which rap's foundations had been laid. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ had proved that rap could sell, but ‘The Message' proved that it could do more than just entertain. With its Surreal synth hook, vivid images ("I can’t walk through the park, 'cause it’s crazy after dark/Keep my hand on my gun, 'cause they got me on the run") and memorable refrain ("Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge! I'm tryin'not to lose my head"), it was an instant classic ‘The Message’ advanced the vocal innovations of early rap and combined them with the socio-political ambitions of the black rockers who had been popular a decade eariler. The song, written primarily by Sugar Hill Records house band's percussionist Duke Bootee, would never have been recorded without Sylvia Robinson's enthusiasm, says Melle Mel. "We didn't want to do it; our thing was party tracks and stuff like that. But Mrs Robinson wanted us to do it" Her instincts were right. ‘The Message’ became another global hit.
By now the rap form was gaining in seriousness, variety and complexity, but Sugar Hill no longer had the whole pie to themselves. Tommy Boy, Profile and Def Jam were now leading the way, and in mainstream America rap exploded with Run DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, Puffy and a million other MCs, and soon the cracks were starting to appear in the Sugar Hill empire. Many of their artists who signed young started to regret their naivety. Sha Rock felt that due to their tender years they hadn’t fully been aware of the business aspects affecting their careers. "After a couple of years had gone around, we started to see that everybody is prospering... everybody but us. We were young and dumb and full of bubble gum! Yes we were part of the beginning of this scene, but at the same time I felt sad that so many of my peers are struggling. We were any of the groups that are big today - the only thing was we didn't receive the money like they do today."
Keith LeBlanc, drummer for the Sugar Hill’s house band echoes those same views: "Everybody always points at Sugar Hill and says that they were ripping people off, but they were ripping people off and doing it right in front of the people. They’d rip you off wearing a mink coat or a diamond as big as an apple on their finger!"
“If you ask people how Puffy ran his company or Suge Knight ran his, you’d hear the same kinda stories," says label mogul Tom Silverman. “This is a wicked industry and if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll get taken left and right That is how business is done on that level — it’s a street level thing. That’s old school record business. All the labels did it; if you had a hit record you’d try to exploit it quickly and make as much money as possible. Put it this way: Sylvia was a black woman at the head of a record label in the late-70s, she was tough."
But success didn’t last long; within a few years, the label's momentum slowed down to a crawl. Grandmaster Flash left for an undistinguished solo career, the Furious Five continued to record without him with little success, while the Sugarhill Gang foiled to repeat their earlier impact with a string of poorly received singles. The new wave of rap had arrived - most prominently through acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, EPMD and Pubic Enemy with their stripped-down sound and lean, hungry vocal style; Sugar Hill artists just weren’t able to change with the times - They were also squabbling among themselves and with the record company. “I got tired," says Joey Robinson. “When something isn’t fun, I lose interest. When it’s business, I can’t deal with it" Melle Mel says that the label’s warm, family-like atmosphere was offset by a “dog-eat-dog” edge, with artists competing against each other for the label’s support “It was Sylvia’s idea to put out ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and to do ‘The Message’ - so she did two of the most pivotal things to make hip-hop what it is. She cut the first record, and then she cut the best record. I made more money with Sugar Hill than I did without them so that's the bottom line."
Joey Robinson however saw the label’s demise as a music business reality: “The industry changed in the late-80s and that’s the reason why we went to major label distribution, although at that time that really was not seen to be the best thing for us. It didn’t work for us, it didn't work for Motown and a lot of her independent black-owned companies at the time." But the bottom line was that Sugar Hill was now tied to the majors and could no longer keep up with the street trends, and when it came to signing established talent the majors won every time because those artists the highest bidder.
Whatever the truth regarding payment or alleged non-payment of rap crews, as a business they were finished. Some, like Method Man, simply felt Sugar Hill got what it deserved: “Through pettiness and not wanting to share, I think is what messed them up more than anything. If they had maybe done 25% of what they were supposed to do, I think they could’ve become the biggest black-owed record company ever."
Sugar Hill Records folded in the mid-80s amidst controversy and bitterness. Some artists felt resentment not only to their old label, but also to the new generation of rappers who they felt messed up something they had created. "I look at hip-hop and rap as my baby,” reflects Melle Mel. "I helped to give birth to this concept I look at myself as a bad father because I pulled myself out of the industry, so I abandoned my my child, My child has become derogatory, it has become degrading, it has become negative, it has become vulgar, and so nasty. When we were coming up we said: ‘Throw your hands in the air wave ’em like you just don’t care, and if you're having a ball at our affair somebody say oh yeah!” They say: 'Throw your guns in the air and bu-bu-bup like you just don't care’."
Today, the violence Melle Mel and the Furious Five denounced in their music has become the norm. Where rappers once called hoodlums and punks, and rightfully chastised them for preying on their own kind, ’gangsta rappers’ rule the charts. Where groups once warned about the evils of drug use, today rappers glut the market with drug-related albums. Where artists once sought to move the crowd, today no one dances. “When hiphop first came out, we had a lot of people thinking It would just be a fad,” concludes Joey Robinson Jr “I guess we proved them wrong.”
From Its roots In the Bronx hip-hop spread to Europe. Asia, Africa, and beyond, gaining more cultural significance as the years rolled by. Today it is one of the most potent and successful musical forms of the 21 st Century. The Sugar Hill legacy is not simply a CD box tee. UK dance culture and US hip-hop are a living, evolving entity, and a lot of that It down to Sugar Hill Records
Lewis Dane (Blues & Soul / DJ / Update magazines) - October 2002