It’s been 35 years since the song “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang made its debut on the radio, yet the track still holds a unique magic. It was one of the first commercial successes for rap music, and it got its radio start in East St. Louis.
“Rapper’s Delight” may now be considered a classic, but initially no one would play it on the radio. Sylvia Robinson, who co-founded Sugar Hill Records, produced “Rapper’s Delight.” According to hip-hop lore, Robinson tried to get stations in New York and across the country to play the song, but they refused, leaving a station in East St. Louis the opportunity to break the song.
If you ask Ronald Butts, or DJ G. Wiz, about the significance of “Rapper’s Delight,” he laughs.
“Even though ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was the first song commercially successful, people all over, they were rapping,” G. Wiz said. “They just happened to be the first ones to get on record and be successful.”
G. Wiz says a lot of principal MCs at the time didn’t think the track was even good.
“Some of the people that were rapping, they didn’t like it,” G. Wiz said. “They were like, ‘Those are some wack rhymes.’ It was just a bunch of braggadocio. But the ones who had primed it, they were past that stage.”
Hip-hop culture took shape in cities along the East Coast in the mid-1970s. In 1979, rappers were performing at live events, but not in the studio. Robinson, who died in 2011, was determined to make a rap record for her label, but she couldn’t find MCs interested in recording.
Eventually Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson and Guy “Master Gee” O'Brien agreed to put their rhymes on vinyl. They recorded “Rapper's Delight,” in a single take, over a version of the popular song “Good Times” by the group Chic.
After struggling to get the record made, Robinson couldn’t get the song on the radio. During the fall of 1979, she begged stations to play it, but many DJs didn’t like the style, length or the sampling.
Gentleman Jim Gates, program director at WESL in East St. Louis, heard something in the track.
“Wow, what is that?” Gates remembered thinking. “This is Chic’s music. That made it passable, because Chic had sold about 10 million records already. I said, 'I like that. I’m going to play that now.’”
The DJ on air then was Edie Anderson. Her radio name was Edie Bee. Edie says she had no desire to play the 15-minute record during the last few hours of her shift.
“The last hour of my show was always the special hour,” she said. “Usually it was ladies back to back: Aretha and Gladys. So when he came to me and asked me to play this song, that’s what was going on. I was in my last hour.”
Reluctantly, Edie played the track.
“When I put it on, it was like ‘ahippity hoppity hippity.’ I was like 'What is this?'” she said.
Others had the same question.
“Lo and behold, when I put it on the turntable, people just started calling up: ‘What is that? What is that?’” Anderson said.
Ronald Hodges of St. Louis remembers hearing the song on the radio in St. Louis in 1979.
“It was just something different coming out compared to what we were used to coming up,” Hodges said.” It was blues and Motown, and this was just something else.”
Soon “Rapper's Delight” was playing all over the country, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard R&B charts – the first rap record to crack the top U.S. Top 40. The album sold millions of copies, and its success helped usher new hip-hop artists into the spotlight.
Edited for length and reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.