If you’d rather listen to this story, check out this episode of the podcast.
In January of 1980, just one week into what would be a decade full of firsts, the Billboard 100 would memorialize the first hip hop track to hit the prestigious Billboard Top 40. After nine weeks of dominating radios and clubs, the song climbed steadily from number 84 to number 36. But the jubilance evoked by the popular jam was in contrast to its cynical creation. While the lighthearted lyrics of the song celebrate hotels, motels, and buttered toast, the behind-the-scenes story is one of unacknowledged talent, stolen art, and pilfered royalties. This is Good Crimes: the true tale of “Rapper’s Delight.”
By 1979, Sylvia Robinson’s career in music played out like a warped record; two decades of highs and lows. But after a string of setbacks, Robinson’s first record label appeared to be fading out. All Platinum records had collapsed.
It was in the midst of this tumult that Robinson visited Harlem World, one of the few New York spots to bring the burgeoning street culture of beats and rhymes indoors. Arriving for a party, she was floored by the sight of Lovebug Starski rapping over the break from the hit of the summer, Chic’s “Good Times.” Fresh from a religious retreat to salve her burdened soul, Robinson decided that she had found her deliverance. Something, perhaps the voice of god, told her: Put this on wax. Curiously, Robinson had a similar experience twenty years earlier.
By 1956, Sylvia Robinson was already poised to be a music icon. A rising star, she and her partner, Mickey Baker, shared a bill with Bo Diddley at a concert in Washington, D.C. From backstage at the Howard Theatre, the duo watched Diddley perform with guitarist Jody Williams, who played a captivating riff. Inspired, Robinson and Baker asked Diddley for permission to use the melody in a new song.
And with Diddley’s blessing, Baker and Robinson, who performed as Mickey & Sylvia, recorded “Love is Strange.” Released in November of 1956, it became their biggest hit. It dominated the charts, sold more than one million copies and was certified gold. In 1956, however, there was a problem with Diddley’s approval. He didn’t write the music alone.
Indeed, the guitar line that had so enthralled Mickey & Sylvia was composed by the very guitar virtuoso they had witnessed playing on that Washington, DC, stage. In 2012, Williams recalled:
“I remember playing onstage…and seeing…movement behind the curtain. [There] I see Mickey Baker, stealing all he can get. Bo ended up letting Mickey and Sylvia have that song. To this day, I haven’t seen a dime of that money.”
Although he eventually filed a lawsuit, Williams lost the case. And following that experience, the promising guitarist abandoned his musical career.
Sadly, for Williams, in 1987 the song’s popularity resurged, when it appeared in one of the most successful films of that year—and on the movie’s companion album, which at 14x platinum, is one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of all time. The song “Love is Strange” was one of the most popular featured in “Dirty Dancing.”
“Love Is Strange” gave Sylvia Robinson a hit that proved impossible to follow. Fortunately, Robinson had the talent and the ability for a plan B — songwriting and production. Unfortunately, there was little precedent for a woman in that role. And in what was most likely the result of sexism—and not karmic retribution (for screwing over Jody Williams)—Robinson’s own early production work, which included a Grammy-nominated song for Ike and Tina Turner, went uncredited.
Being denied recognition throughout her secondary career may have fueled Robinson’s drive in the decades that followed, through boom times to bankruptcy and back again. But her successes did not satisfy a hunger for credit that ultimately metastasized into greed and tarnished her reputation.
In 1968, Sylvia and her then-husband Joe leveraged Sylvia’s experience, and some alleged mob investments, to create All Platinum Records. Sylvia built the roster, signing groups like The Moments, while Joe handled the operations and scavenged for projects to promote. Their combination of intellect and intuition garnered a string of classic soul hits for the new record label.
But in the mid-1970s, All Platinum made an expansion play for the venerated Chess Records catalog. But when the Robinsons couldn’t monetize the assets, that partnership ended in litigation. Compounding their troubles, Joe’s under-the-table dealings resulted in a payola investigation and a conviction for tax evasion, driving All Platinum’s artists to flea rather than forfeit their careers. And by the end of the decade, All Platinum had filed for bankruptcy.
Payola, tax evasion, bankruptcy. It was this confluence of events, that found Robinson staring uncomfortably at DJ Lovebug Starski at that hip-hop party at Harlem World in 1979. “Put this on wax.” Without hesitation, Robinson sent her niece Diane to the DJ booth to tell Starski that she’d like to record him. Bewildered by the request, Starski flatly refused.
Undeterred, Sylvia contacted the DJ/MC after the show. But Starski refused to do business with Robinson because of her underworld ties. Returning to her home across the Hudson River, Robinson began searching for what she learned was called an MC or rapper. It was this quest, and not an empty stomach, that led Robinson to Crispy Crust Pizza on West Palisade Avenue in Englewood, NJ.
Rumor had it, that in addition to slices, one employee at Crispy Crust Pizza was serving up hot and fresh rhymes. As she entered the pizzeria, Robinson spied one particularly large employee rapping along to a song playing on a boombox perched nearby. Impressed, Robinson invited the young man, who she would come to know as “Big Bank” Hank Jackson, to audition for her in the Oldsmobile 98 parked outside.
And as fortune would have it, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien walked by during Jackson’s trial and tossed his name and rhymes into the hat. Thrilled, Robinson invited them to her mansion for further discussion. There, they were joined by “Wonder Mike” Wright, a homeless man who had been rapping for just two months when had heard of Robinson’s auditions. And while Robinson intended to sign only one rapper, she was unable to choose. So, she dubbed the entire trio The Sugarhill Gang.
With rappers in place, Robinson was missing a critical element: a DJ. And while she may not have understood how Starski’s live backing track was created, she knew she needed one long-ass version of an instrumental to serve as the bed for her new music group. To emulate the technique pioneered by DJ Kool Herc years earlier, one that could extend the break of a song ad infinitum, Robinson did what she had done for countless previous tracks: She employed a band.
Robinson directed Positive Force, recent signees to her nascent Sugar Hill Records, to lay down a track. And while they would parrot a hit song, the performance demanded by Robinson would differ than that of original band’s in two ways: one imperceptible, another unmistakable.
Having decided to forgo college in 1979, 17-year-old Chip Shearin travelled from his North Carolina home to visit a friend in New Jersey. Once there, Shearin’s friend invited Shearin to tour Sugar Hill’s production studio. While Shearin was fascinated to see how records were pressed into vinyl, the skilled bass player became part of the record-producing machine itself.
As it turned out, Robinson needed a bassist. She asked Shearin if he could play “Good Times.” A fan of Chic bassist Bernard Edwards, Shearin answered in the affirmative. Grateful, Robinson asked Shearin if he could play it, but slightly differently. Uncertain about this unusual request, Shearin agreed. He would play the infamous riff on the “downbeat rather than the upbeat.” “And,” Robinson added, “I need you to play it for 15 minutes without interruption.”
Just days later, the Sugarhill Gang stepped up to the microphones, and after just one take, “Rapper’s Delight” was complete. Refusing to edit the 15-minute track for length, Robinson found it difficult to find a radio station willing to play it. Finally, Jim Gates, a jock at WESL, in St. Louis, spun the lengthy song, and success immediately followed.
While orders flooded the small NJ record label, stations throughout the country began playing the track. At its peak, production hustled to press more than 50,000 copies per day. And with 2 million units sold within just a few weeks, the song reach 36 on the Top 40, the first hip-hop record to do so. But the overwhelming success also brought some unwanted attention from those from whom the song had been stolen.
On September 20, 1979, Chic performed a concert at New York disco Bond’s with new wave band Blondie. Also present, was future name-check in Blondie’s “Rapture,” Fab 5 Freddy. And when Bernard Edwards finally dropped the bass line to “Good Times,” Freddy seized the stage to rap, surprising the band, and thrilling the audience. Chic founding member Nile Rodgers, who had only witnessed rap for the first-time weeks earlier, was equally charmed.
Shortly thereafter, however, Rodgers’ opinion changed. Just a few months later, while visiting the midtown Manhattan dance club Leviticus, Rodgers was excited to hear the opening bass line of his hit blasting through the hall’s speakers. But when Rodgers realized heard Wonder Mike’s now iconic opening line, Rodgers was enraged. What he heard was not a test.
Rodgers and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards quickly contacted their lawyer. And when the Robinsons scoffed at a deal, Sugar Hill’s chief investor, Morris Levy, who had ties to the Genovese crime family, and was later convicted or extortion, intervened. Ultimately, a settlement avoided a trial and gave Rodgers and Edwards writing credits and royalties. Not everyone from whom Sugar Hill stole, however, was so lucky.
Even though it was a mainstream success, the consensus from uptown rhyme purists was that popular track was a joke. The group’s labelmate Melle Mel, of the celebrated Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, dismissed the Sugarhill Gang as fake Garden State interlopers. Worst of all—one of the rappers featured on the breakthrough track had committed high-treason in the hip-hop community—he had stolen another’s rhymes.
In 1979, before the release of “Rapper’s Delight,” the hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Caz, who went by DJ Casanova Fly at the time, was the leader of the Mighty Force crew. Noting that other rap acts, like Funky 4+1 and Grandmaster Flash, had managers who helped them book gigs, Caz sought representation. He offered the role to the bouncer, whom he had befriended at a hip hop club in the Bronx. And Hank Jackson accepted.
Success on his mind, Jackson immediately borrowed money from his parents to purchase a sound system for his new clients. To repay the parental loan, however, Jackson took on another job, one closer to his home. One at Crispy Crust Pizza in Englewood, NJ.
Excited about his new managerial prospect, “Big Bank” Hank Jackson brought two items to work each day: a boombox and a cassette featuring his clients, DJ Casanova Fly and the Mighty Force. While cutting circles into 8 rather similarly sized pieces, Jackson rapped along to the lyrics spit by Caz on the tape.
It was there that Sylvia Robinson first saw Big Bank Hank performing, only she didn’t realize that he was singing along with another’s rhymes. And she may have never known, in spite of one, very obvious clue. While Master Gee spelled his name out in Rapper’s Delight, as was—and is—the practice of many rappers, Jackson—who went by Big Hank—spelled out C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A F-L-Y, the very moniker of his client.
And while Sylvia Robinson is credited on the hit as a songwriter, something she did with all of her acts, Grandmaster Caz is not.
In spite of its detractors, Sugar Hill Records was on top. Any street cred the label may have initially lost, was earned quickly with the release of 1981’s groundbreaking “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” the first record to showcase the turntablism that was a hallmark of hip-hop. And by 1982, Sugar Hill’s roster included rap pioneers like Melle Mel, the Treacherous Three, the Funky 4+1, and Spoonie Gee.
Soon, the Sugar Hill Revue hit the road on an international tour, the first of its kind. Robinsons’ artists, which also included gold-selling trio the Sequence, were now opening arena gigs for R&B and funk stars the O’Jays, Parliament-Funkadelic and Rick James. But the label’s momentum quickly cratered.
With the overwhelming success of the genre-creating “Rapper’s Delight,” the industry Robinson had built was hers to lose. And following a series of bad financial deals, and a pattern and practice of swindling her artists, that is precisely what she did.
Not included in any of the group’s profits or royalties, the trio who helped launch the label was no better off than before they had up jumped the boogie to the beat. Within about five years of travelling the world, Mike was forced to paint houses to make ends meet, while Gee was penniless. And while she may not have been empathetic, a series of lawsuits would teach Robinson how being broke is no joke. And how it’s “hard as hell to fight it. (So, don’t do it.)”
While “Rapper’s Delight” interpolated “Good Times,” to the ultimate fortune of Chic’s founder, Melle Mel’s “White Lines” went further. That track, which reached no. 5 on Billboard’s dance chart, borrowed the melody, music and lyrics from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.” Like Nile Rodgers before them, the band sued, only with different results. When death threats against the owner of the band’s record label failed (which may have included a machete), the case dragged on for 15 months. And while the court ultimately awarded the plaintiff’s $660,000 in damages and legal fees, Sugar Hill filed for bankruptcy, before being forced to pay—a day after the IRS moved to seize the label’s assets for the alleged non-payment of more than $200,000 in payroll taxes. Indeed, the money gets divided.
While their own underhanded financial dealings had tarnished their reputation, an evolving landscape led by the harder beats-and-rhymes swagger of Run-D.M.C. pushed Sugar Hill to the brink. Def Jam Records, with its growing all-star roster that included LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, made the New Jersey label obsolete. And after 26 gold records, the Robinsons lifted the needle off of Sugar Hill in 1986.
In 2011, nearly a decade after Joe had passed, Sylvia Robinson died at age 76. Ten years later, she was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, joining her former artists Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which became the first rap group inducted into the Rock Hall in 2007.
Regardless of her checkered past, one must give props where props are due: From Melle Mel to Kurtis Blow, and Russell Simmons all the way up to Cardi B, every dollar hip-hop has earned, Robinson made possible.
And Sugar Hill records, with its instantly recognizable powder-blue candy-striped logo, will be forever credited with introducing rap to the masses.