As bold statements riven with ill-concealed ideological fault lines go, Rapper’s Delight – the multimillion selling (numbers were inexact due to bootlegging) 15-minute rhapsody that established rap as a commercial force – was, and indeed still is, right up there with the US constitution.
Named after an inner-city area (in Harlem) that they didn’t actually come from (they were from New Jersey), the Sugarhill Gang were assembled by hip-hop’s founding matriarch, Sylvia Robinson, as a reflection of her determination to ensure that her Sugar Hill label would be the first to put on record the sound that was rocking late-70s New York. Rebuffed by a series of the as-yet-unnamed musical movement’s most illustrious Bronx-based luminaries, Robinson put together three suburban unknowns with her band of in-house session musicians (whom she charged with the daunting task of replicating a turntable-based art form on real instruments), allocated herself a songwriting credit for the bassline from Chic’s Good Times – which the song was built around – and sat back to watch the magic happen.
Thirty-six years on, only two of the original trio – Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien – survive to light up the Jazz Cafe stage with their burly exuberance and “glitter-on-Pritt-Stick”-style matching Sugarhill T-shirts. The third member – former Crispy Crust pizza employee Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, who died last year – allegedly stole the bulk of his Rapper’s Delight rhymes from Grandmaster Caz, the respected Bronx rapper he was co-managing at the time. So the spectacle of a very able – albeit unnamed – replacement performing them verbatim is the epitome of what goes around coming around.
Before that can happen, there’s an improbable amount of mood-building fun to be had. The Sugarhill Gang’s formation choreography might make I Can’t Dance-era Genesis look like FKA Twigs, but there are no flies on their opening 20-minute set. With able assistance from imposingly corpulent DJ C-Stylez, it’s a gleeful Stars-on-45-type flick through hip-hop’s back pages (Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks, Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s It Takes Two – even Walk This Way gets a run out) that takes the music back to its roots: bits of everyone’s favourite records stitched together.
Next up, in an act of symbolic reconciliation with the realness, the baton is handed to two of the original Bronx-based MCs the Sugarhill Gang stole a march on back in 1979. Far from showing any inclination to pull rank in authenticity terms (which, as members of Grandmaster Flash’s original Furious Five, they’d be entitled to), Melle Mel and lower-profile helper Scorpio instead up the ante on the showbiz-cheese front. Between powerhouse romps through White Lines, The Message (which Mel – real name Melvin Glover – co-wrote with one of Sylvia Robinson’s session men before it was foisted on Flash against his will) and the theme from Beat Street, this dynastic duo strike mock-solemn 1980s poses to an only semi-ironic forest of outstretched camera-phones.
When Rapper’s Delight brings the Sugarhill Gang back out to join them on stage, rap’s first calling card – “See, I am Wonder Mike and I’d like to say ‘hello’/ to the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow” – proves as irresistible as ever. If the inclusiveness of that recipe was ever in doubt (which, frankly, it wasn’t), the spectacle of elderly b-boys – not so much hip-hop as hip replacement – scrambling on stage to show off their moves to an “old-school block-party” encore of Hall and Oates and Madonna would certainly seal the deal.
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