Part I: The Rise of Sugarhill Records
Although “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang was a successful record, cassette tapes were still the biggest medium for hip-hop consumption outside of shows, especially for 1979 Rapper of the Year Grandmaster Caz and his group the Cold Crush Brothers. However, it was still primarily the events hosted by DJ’s and their MC’s where people could hear hip-hop in the Bronx from the original DJ Kool Herc or the other giants: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation.
The most successful man in the game, Kurtis Blow, is out touring Europe with his manager Russell “Rush” Simmons, promoting his singles “Christmas Rappin'” and “The Breaks” off of his record Kurtis Blow. As hip-hop grew however, it started to become too big for just the South Bronx. Two Harlem DJ’s by the name of Mike and Dave start a group known as The Crash Crew, named for their use of construction noises such as car horns, engines, and tire screeches.
The Crash Crew is approached by Afrika Bambaataa who shares some of his records with them, and one of those records, “Get Up and Dance” by Freedom, is looped to be their next big hit. Mike and Dave sell the record themselves, which they call “High Powered Rap,” becoming the first real independent hip-hop label.
Fun Fact: about 6:10 min. into the track you can hear the “girls, girls, girls” sample that Jay-Z later uses for the track “Girls, Girls, Girls” off of 2001’s The Blueprint.
Sylvia Robinson, head of Sugarhill Records, offers the Crash Crew a deal, but they aren’t interested at the time, fresh off the success of “High Powered Rap.” She’s having trouble following up “Rapper’s Delight,” and the only successful song the Sugarhill Gang has had since is “8th Wonder,” which only charts at #82 on the Billboard charts, compared to “Rapper’s Delight” which went to #36. Sylvia never registered “Rapper’s Delight” with the R.I.A.A. (the Recording Industry Association of America), so it was never eligible to go gold like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” Had she registered, “Rapper’s Delight” would have probably been the first gold record instead.
Another fun fact: the hollers in “8th Wonder” would go on to be the inspiration behind “Woo Hah!! (Got You All in Check),” the single that launches the career of Busta Rhymes in 1996.
Lucky for Sylvia however, one of the greatest acquisition deals of all time is about to fall right into her lap. Bobby Robinson, the Enjoy Records owner with artists Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee, the Treacherous Three, and the Funky Four Plus One, isn’t really selling well. Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three record “Feel the Heartbeat” and “The New Rap Language” (below), the latter of which possibly one of their biggest hits. Bobby Robinson mainly runs his Happy House Records store, and while he gives his nephew Spoonie Gee a record, he still doesn’t see the full potential of the hip-hop industry.
When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five demand that they see some profits from their Enjoy Records single “Super Rappin’,” Bobby starts to feel the pressure. Sylvia Robinson approaches Bobby and offers to pay him $10,000 to let Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, as well as the Funky Four Plus One, out of their contracts with Enjoy Records.
Spoonie Gee, despite being Bobby’s nephew, and even The Crash Crew later follow suit, especially since Sylvia has the Furious Five record a track over the same “Freedom” breakbeat which renders the Crash Crew’s old news. The Treacherous Three are the only group to remain with Bobby and Enjoy Records, but not for long.
This year the rise of Sugarhill Records goes from signing the Sugarhill Gang to owning roughly two-thirds of the entire hip-hop industry:
1980- Label Breakdown:
- Sugarhill Records: Sugarhill Gang
- Enjoy Records: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One, Spoonie Gee, and the Treacherous Three
- Mike and Dave: The Crash Crew
- Mercury: Kurtis Blow
- unsigned: Afrika Bambaataa
1981 – Label Breakdown:
- Sugarhill Records: Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One, Spoonie Gee, and the Crash Crew
- Enjoy Records: The Treacherous Three
- Mercury: Kurtis Blow
- Tommy Boy: Afrika Bambaataa (who’s Tommy Boy? don’t worry we’ll get to that right away!).
Meeting publisher Tommy Silverman after one of his shows, Afrika Bambaataa decides to cut a record with him and his producer Arthur Baker. While everyone was out recording bootleg tapes and worrying about finances with Sugarhill and Enjoy, Afrika Bambaataa was busy building his roster of impressive Zulu Nation MC’s. They record “Jazzy Sensation,” a track that was the first to promote the electronic element that would perpetuate Bambaataa’s future hit “Planet Rock,” one of the most famous rap records of all time.
Part II: 1981 Rapper of the Year – Kool Moe Dee
Strangely enough, none of these new records or label acquisitions had anything to do with who was undeniably the greatest rapper alive in 1981. Sure, “The New Rap Language” showcased some pretty fast rhymes from Kool Moe Dee and the gang, but the group was still labeled as “Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three.” Up until one rising moment in Kool Moe Dee’s life, he was just one of the Three, but that December night at Harlem’s World would change everything.
At the time, a rapper by the name of Busy Bee Starski had been dominating all of the rap contests. Him and his DJ, Kool DJ AJ, had been touring the New Jersey and Staten Island circuits, taking home easy money from the less saturated areas of hip-hop. The catch when he came to New York City however, was that Kool DJ AJ rigged the setup for all the shows so that Busy Bee would always go on last.
Most nights at Harlem’s World, the battle was between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantics (the group run by Grandmaster Flash’s protege, Grandwizard Theodore). This night in particular is your standard rap open mic contest, and as always, Busy Bee Starski walks up to the mic as the last competitor. Unbeknownst to Busy Bee however, the Treacherous Three are in attendance that night.
Replacing what is usually the time when Busy Bee collects his winnings, Kool Moe Dee and DJ Easy Lee take the stage and completely secure all of the attention from the crowd. Over the course of the next few minutes, Kool Moe Dee delivers a verbal onslaught directed at Busy Bee Starski that critiques his rhymes, name, and catchphrase before crowning himself the new champion.
“Hold on, Busy Bee, I don’t mean to be bold
But put that “baw-ditty-baw” bullshit on hold
We gonna get right down to the nitty-grit
Gonna tell you a little somethin’ why you ain’t shit…”
Spyder D, a student from Queens studying in Detroit, releases “Big Apple Rappin’ (National Rappin’ Anthem),” a kind of historical, story-rap song that describes not only famous landmarks and areas of New York City but also mentions some of hip-hop’s pioneers. It’s Detroit’s first taste of hip-hop and is released on Newtroit Records, Spyder D’s own label, making him the first hip-hop artist to independently release his own music (the Crash Crew released their own music, but it was through Mike and Dave Records, who are credited as the first independent record label).
In a hip-hop-related medium, graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy have their first art show in an abandoned massage parlor on the corner of 7th Ave and 41st Street. Other artists such as Keith Haring are in attendance, as well as filmmaker Charlie Ahearn who has his Bruce-Lee inspired film The Deadly Art of Survival on display. Ahearn and Fab Five Freddy are introduced to each other and come up with the idea to shoot a film about graffiti and hip-hop culture.
One of Fab Five Freddy’s biggest patrons is Deborah Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie. She plays him their new song “Rapture,” which includes a rap section. It’s, to say the least, pretty damn corny, and Freddy even thought it was hilarious. Nonetheless “Rapture” reaches #1 on Billboard and stays atop the “Hot 100” chart for two-weeks, becoming the first #1 song in the U.S. to feature rap.
A video for “Rapture” is filmed featuring Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat playing the role of Grandmaster Flash. On August 1st, 1981, MTV has its first broadcast of music videos and “Raptute,” MTV’s first rap video, is the 48th video to play that day.
With Fab Five Freddy and Charlie Ahearn set to meet with Sylvia Robinson about getting their favorite rap group, the Funky Four Plus One, in their film, Deborah Harry of Blondie asks Freddy to mention that she’ll be hosting Saturday Night Live and would love to showcase the Funky Four since they’re the most popular group to include a female MC. Freddy uses the potential gig as leverage to get Sylvia to let them in his movie, and on February 4th, 1981, the Funky Four Plus One became the first rap group to perform on SNL with their song “That’s the Joint.”
Watch below at the 11-minute mark:
Sadly, this is the Funky Four’s last shining moment, as the business side of things confuse and frustrate them when Sylvia forbids them from touring with Blondie. KK Rockwell and Rodney C leave the group, forcing the Funky Four to disband.
Since the Funky Four broke-up, Freddy and Charlie Ahearn continue their search for a musical act to feature in their film. One night out at a Cold Crush Brothers show, they run into Busy Bee Starksi, who kind of inserts himself into the project by convincing Charlie that he’s a huge battle rapper (despite having his career destroyed by Kool Moe Dee, though Charlie is still unfamiliar with the rap world at the time).
With the success of “Rapper’s Delight,” “Rapture,” Kurtis Blow, and the Funky Four Plus One’s SNL appearance, the mainstream media decides to do a special report for their audience about the growing “fad.” The prime-time investigative journalism program 20/20 runs a ten-minute segment on hip-hop that surprisingly represents the rising culture fairly well. From mentioning Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train, to Blondie, Kurtis Blow, Philadelphia radio-host Jocko Henderson, the South Bronx, James Brown, and the call-and-response rhythm that the Blues emerged out of, 20/20 details “the new sound of the 80’s” in a pretty positive and well-researched light. Watch part 1 and 2 of the special below:
1981 – Hip-Hop Family Tree
Records Released in 1981:
- Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five – “Jazzy Sensation” (Apple | Spotify)
- Blondie – “Rapture” (Apple | Spotify)
- The Crash Crew – “High Powered Rap“
- Funky Four Plus One – “That’s the Joint“
- Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “Freedom” (Apple | Spotify)
- Kurtis Blow – Deuce
- Spoonie Gee & The Treacherous Three – “The New Rap Language” and “Feel the Heartbeat“
- Spyder D – “Big Apple Rappin’ (National Rappin’ Anthem)“
- Sugarhill Gang – “8th Wonder” (Apple | Spotify)
Next -> 1982 – The Message (Coming Soon)