Hip-Hop Made: Sugarhill Gang and the stories behind the song

Part 2 of our exploration of the birth of Hip-Hop
The Sugarhill Gang
Photo credit Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Back with a Hip-Hop Made takeover of the Beyond Black History Month podcasts, in this episode Femi Redwood takes you through the history of graffiti, breakdancing and the first Hip-Hop song ever to chart.

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It’s important to note that Hip-Hop is more than just scratching records on a turntable and controlling the crowd. "Think about those who didn’t have access to turntables or didn’t know how to MC but still wanted to be a part of the Hip-Hop culture that was suddenly developing, they had to forge their path somehow," Grandwizard Theodore explained.

Thus, came the birth of graffiti.

Now while there are a few groups that can be credited with the birth of graffiti, like American soldiers who used to draw on walls in the 1940s or street gangs in the 1950s who used to mark their territory, many people will tell you, graffiti was born in Philadelphia.

In 1965, after leaving a detention center with the nickname, “Cornbread,” 12-year-old Darryl McCray was one of, if not the first taggers. Developing a crush on a girl named Cynthia, he would tag “Cornbread loves Cynthia” throughout his bus route.

As you could imagine, people caught on quickly.

Next, there was “Julio 204” in New York City who ultimately inspired “Taki 183.” The difference between Taki, Julio and Cornbread is that Taki is considered to be the first graffiti artist to have his tags be citywide and the first to be recognized by media outlets.

“Graffiti was bringing the art to life,” Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels said.

While officials in the city at the time definitely tried to criminalize the art by passing laws like making it “illegal to carry an open spray bottle,” this did not stop artists at all. And eventually, the recognition these artists deserved came rolling in.

“Eventually galleries in SOHO realized these kids were doing art and some graffiti artists traded sides of buildings for canvas,” Redwood said.

Transitioning into another essential element of Hip-Hop culture, breakdancing.

“B-boys were like real life superheroes,” McDaniels said, with the unbelievable and gravity defying dance moves, everyone at this time would be left mesmerized.

McDaniels went into how innovative and creative he thought b-boys and b-girls were, from utilizing cardboard boxes to spin on their heads to basically practicing gymnastics in junk yards on old mattresses to perfect the craft.

It's important to note that at this time, there still had not been a genuine Hip-Hop record. Maybe you got a hold of someone’s recorded tape from a block party but there was no Hip-Hop music in the mainstream which ultimately led people to believe that “Hip-Hop was a fad.”

But once the hit record, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, was released the world of Hip-Hop took a major shift. While Master Gee didn’t think it would be much, this song went down in history as many Hip-Hop legend’s first time falling in love with the genre. “I knew that I was a part of something that was going to last a very long time,” Grandwizard Theodore added.

The song peaked at number 36 on the Billboard charts in 1980 list and was the first Hip-Hop record to ever make the list. Ultimately, “'Rapper’s Delight,' pushed an underground culture into a commercial art,” Master Gee added.

But this momentous turn in the genre of Hip-Hop was not shy of controversy. The song brought out the first scandalous story of ghostwriting, and while it’s more acceptable now, back then you’d basically be considered a fraud.

It was revealed that Big Bank Hank was actually using raps from Grandmaster Caz, and while Caz did grant Hank permission to use some of his rhymes, he didn’t think it would blow up the way it did.

But ending on a more positive note, Master Gee shared that he “appreciates the evolution of the music,” and how far it has come as a genre.

For more, listen to the full first episode of Hip-Hop Made above. Follow the show now for more episodes to come.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images