On Jan. 5, 1980, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip hop song to break into the Billboard Top 40. With that, hip hop’s run as a commercial phenomenon officially kicked off.
The New Jersey trio’s tune took what was a New York-centric music sensation—particularly in the Bronx and Harlem—and brought it to the masses, who had otherwise been listening to Billboard favorites like the Eagles, ABBA and Stevie Wonder. None of this would have happened, however, were it not for the work of New Jersey businesswoman Sylvia Robinson, who she set out to put hip hop on the map.
After Robinson saw a live hip hop show in 1979, she sent her son Joey to recruit some DJs and MCs for a studio recording. He came back with his friend Big Bank Hank and two Manhattan MCs named Master Gee and Wonder Mike. Sylvia dubbed them the Sugarhill Gang based off of the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, threw on the back track of the disco hit “Good Times” and let Big Bank Hank and the boys take over.
“I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie…” didn’t break into fame without controversy, however: Big Bank Hank ripped his lyrics straight out of his former friend Grandmaster Caz’s notebook.
“[Hank] asked me if he could borrow my rhyme book, so I just threw it on the table,” Caz wrote. “I was kinda nonchalant about it, I’m not thinking anything is gonna come from it. And if it did by happenstance, then all right well, hey, he comes from us, so if there’s any trickle-down, it’ll trickle down to us. Who thought it was gonna become an international hit? And as far as trying to protect myself, we didn’t know about lawyers and publishing and writers and mechanical royalties or nothing like that. We weren’t part of the music industry.”
Even though Caz didn’t receive a dime for his work, he didn’t sue. “I never went to anybody and demanded, ‘You owe me money, this is mine’ or anything like that. I never thought how deeply ‘Rapper’s Delight’ would come into play later on. Even when it became a hit back then I was like, ‘Yeah, ok, whatever,’ and kept it moving. We signed to Tuff City Records, and put records out ourselves.”
The Sugarhill Gang never had another U.S. hit.