The Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” was the first commercially released hip hop song when it dropped on March 25, 1979 via Spring Records, but the reality was, hip hop had already been around for years, living in block parties and park jams.
It wasn’t until “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (which dropped a few months later), that hip hop finally had a presence on wax. Although it wasn’t the first officially released rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” peaked at number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving hip hop its first top 40 hit in history. The single also charted across the world, in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, gaining international exposure for hip hop culture.
“Rapper’s Delight” was the brainchild of Sylvia Robinson, the founder of Sugar Hill Records along with her husband Joe and Milton Malden. Sylvia had been a singer – she had two R&B hits, as Mickey & Sylvia with “Love Is Strange” in 1957 and her solo record “Pillow Talk” in 1973 – but it was her role as CEO of Sugar Hill Records, the first hip hop record label ever, that would go down in music history.
“I guess it was just a couple of nights earlier, at my 43rd birthday party in Manhattan, that I had the vision,” Sylvia recounted in an interview with Dazed. “Joey had hired some local DJs to provide the music okay, and they had this MC with them. Well I had never even heard anyone rap before, I just thought it was fabulous and I knew that minute that I had to put this new music onto a record. It was God that was showing me, you see.”
After seeing the rising popularity of hip hop music that started out in the South Bronx and was permeating throughout the surrounding areas, Sylvia decided to get in on the action. Recruiting three New Jersey rappers, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, the record executive formed The Sugarhill Gang and produced “Rapper’s Delight.”
“She put these three guys together who had never met each other before, had the backing track all ready and created a record in a matter of minutes,” says hip hop author Dan Charnas, “Basically, it’s a record that created an industry. Nobody thought the stuff that was in the streets was even music. It was stuff that people did at parties. But Sylvia Robinson had the notion that she could turn it into a record. And she did, and it was extremely successful, due in no small part to her own production genius.”
Following the phenomenal success of “Rapper’s Delight,” Sylvia would go on to sign legendary rap acts like The Sequence, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One, Crash Crew, Treacherous Three, and the West Street Mob to Sugar Hill Records. Aside from the Sugarhill Gang’s debut single, Sylvia would also be known for producing the now-classic Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song “The Message.”
Sylvia Robinson: After we had recorded Flash’s album I said to Flash, ‘I have a tune here that would make you bigger than anything.’ I played it to him and we recited the raps to him. Thing is, after that he kept calling me aside and he would say, ‘Mrs Rob’, what would our fans think if we did a song like that? We do party songs.’ He didn’t even want to put it on the album. So I said to Melle Mel, I says, ‘Well Mel, what do you think about it?’ and he said, ‘Well Mrs Rob’, if you believe in it, I believe in you.’Sylvia Robinson: rapper’s delight | Dazed