On 12 January 1980, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang peaked #36.
So, a while back, I said that the music industry was ready for a change, and I said that change was coming in the shape of new wave. That was true, but only half-true. In the short term — through to 1985, it was correct. In the long term, there was to be another solution, and that’s rap, which has more or less taken over the pop charts now, and subsequently become part of the problem. But back in 1980, rap was only a phenomenon at certain inner city block parties.
Until “Rapper’s Delight” hit the charts. It is the rap song: not the first one (that’s arguably “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil-Scott Heron), but the first one to hit the top 40, and the first one to set the standards for what rap should be.
First, a procedural note: I think the version that I linked to above is the one that made the charts, butt there’s a fourteen minute version with a lot more lyrics (including a brilliant call-out to Kaopectate), and that’s the one I’ll talk about here.
So, the first thing you might notice about “Rapper’s Delight” is that the actual music is derivative, in this case the bassline and violin accents are lifted right out of “Good Times” by Chic. This is an industry standard: rap isn’t about the music itself (though that helps), it’s about being able to do something interesting vocally over preexisting music. This isn’t just a factor in rap music (“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen uses the same bassline) but it is something that rap songs (and derivative genres like techno and hip hop) do a lot more often than songs in other styles. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is especially true in rap: if you write a catchy backbeat that makes people dance, it’s only a matter of time before some rap guy gets his ears and hands on it and raps something completely different over it.
As lyrics go, “Rapper’s Delight” does everything a rap song is supposed to do. It’s undeniable that these guys are really good rappers: they syncopate their syllables and hit every beat for over fourteen minutes. And they rap about rap stuff. The first verse is rap guys rapping about who they are, and how good they are at rapping, marking their turf, so to speak. And there’s a verse bragging about all the swag the rapper has: cars, a pool, more clothes than Muhammad Ali (say what?!), and a color TV to watch the Knicks play (this is back when a color TV was still a big deal; my family didn’t have one until 1982). But more importantly, there are verses in this song that are funny. Somewhere along the line, people forgot that rap music could be, maybe should be, funny. There’s a verse here where the rapper is macking on Lois Lane, bragging that he’s a better lover than Superman (can you possibly hear about the rapper comparing his “super-sperm” to the little worm of a panty-hose clad fairy without laughing?) And then there’s a verse about being subjected to the awful food at a friends house, food so bad the rapper has to go pick up that bottle of Keopectate. Boasting with clever turns of phrase and coaxing your fans to laugh while they dance, this is what early rap was all about; it’s what inspired Will Smith and The Beastie Boys, and it’s where rap would be until the much more serious, and much edgier, gangsta rap started to burble up from the projects in the later 80s.
How influential is “Rapper’s Delight”? Pretty soon, you’ll hear Kurtis Blow borrowing some of these lyrics in a song. Ditto with Blondie, who will take rap to number one. More unusually, twenty years later, Las Ketchup will have a hit with “Asereje“, which is about a guy trying to request “Rapper’s Delight” at a club, but, because he can’t remember the title, he sings a mangled Spanish garble of the lyrics. A song that’s inspiring hits two decades on in a completely different language? That’s an influential classic.