Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventures In Rap #1: "Rapper's Delight"

Rarely is the first song in a genre so easily labeled as such, and rarely is said first song so great, as it is in the case of rap and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Well, OK, if you're a stickler for such technical distinctions, apparently the absolute first rap record was "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" by the funk band Fatback, recorded a few months prior. But come on. The reason why "Rapper's Delight" is so obviously the first rap song, even if it isn't, is because it defines the pleasures of the style so well and suggests within its fifteen minutes so many of the possible directions rap both has and hasn't taken.

As with many watershed artistic moments, the charm of "Rapper's Delight" is in our awareness, while listening to the song from a vantage point of almost thirty years, that the Sugarhill Gang, while recording it, did not know they were inventing rap. Imagine: you and a couple of colorful characters from your neighborhood are farting around in a studio one night, making up a slew of ridiculous rhymes over a disco hit (and even stealing some from local MCs), and then someone comes up to you and tells you you've just created the first record in a genre that will one day produce a million records. Get your ass back in that phone booth, Rufus, and stay the hell out of San Dimas, right?

Well, what's spooky about "Rapper's Delight" is that it almost plays like "The First Rap Record." As if they really did know. Listen to these introductory rhymes:

Now what you hear is not a test--I'm rappin' to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
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

These first few rhymes almost function as a clarion call, whether intentional or not, as if to say, "No, this is not a joke; this is the new sound." At the time, "Rapper's Delight" was considered a terrific novelty record, a catchy fluke, a one-off. To those who don't like rap at all, perhaps it still is. I won't be cocky and say that if I had been a rock critic at that time, I would have known that "Rapper's Delight" represented the first salvo in an exciting new genre and not, as many were claiming, an artistic dead-end. Because I would have said the exact same thing. "Who would want to hear more of that?," I imagine my burnt-out, late '70s alter-ego muttering.

But in retrospect the power of the style is obvious. It also helped that the Sugarhill Gang's rhymes sounded as though they were just about being made up on the spot, particularly Master Gee's:

Well it's on and on and on on and on
The beat dont stop until the break of dawn
I said M-A-S, T-E-R, a G with a double E
I said I go by the unforgettable name
Of the man they call the master gee
Well, my name is known all over the world
By all the foxy ladies and the pretty girls
I'm goin' down in history
As the baddest rapper there could ever be
Now I'm feelin the highs and ya feelin' the lows
The beat starts gettin' into your toes
Ya start poppin' ya fingers and stompin' your feet
And movin' your body while youre sittin' in your seat
And then damn ya start doin' the freak
I said damn, right outta your seat
Then ya throw your hands high in the air
Ya rockin' to the rhythm, shake your derriere
Ya rockin' to the beat without a care
With the sureshot M.C.s for the affair
Now, I'm not as tall as the rest of the gang
But I rap to the beat just the same
I got a little face and a pair of brown eyes
All I'm here to do ladies is hypnotize
Singin' on and on on on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singin' on and on on and on on and on
Like a hot buttered a pop da pop da pop dibbie dibbie
Pop da pop pop ya don't dare stop
Come alive y'all gimme what ya got
I guess by now you can take a hunch
And find that I am the baby of the bunch
But that's okay I still keep in stride
Cause all I'm here to do is just wiggle your behind
Singin on and and on and on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singin' on and and on and on on and on
Rock rock y'all throw it on the floor
I'm gonna freak ya here I'm gonna freak ya there
I'm gonna move you outta this atmosphere
Cause I'm one of a kind and I'll shock your mind
I'll put t-t-tickets in your behind
I said 1-2-3-4
Come on girls get on the floor
A-come alive, y'all a-gimme what ya got
Cause I'm guaranteed to make you rock
I said 1-2-3-4
Tell me Wonder Mike what are you waitin' for?

Now, raise your hands please, if you're reading those lyrics and you're not thinking to yourself, "Damn, I could do better than that." Because you know you could. "On/Dawn"? "World/Girls"? "History/Could ever be"? "Eyes/Hypnotize"? I mean you can actually hear Master Gee stretch his sentences out with filler words so that his raps still fit the beat. A million kids must have immediately realized, "Hey, that could be me." Those rhymes are no better than the rhymes you come up with in your living room late at night while goofing around with your friends. The song was like a challenge. "Rapper's Delight" was like the Ramones of Rap, except with a little something extra. As the Ramones did with punk, "Rapper's Delight" outlined the skeleton of a musical form that could be (and possibly should be) performed by anyone. Unlike the Ramones, who gleefully paraded their lack of obvious talent as though it were a virtue, however, "Rapper's Delight" most likely made people want to grab a mic and outdo these guys.

But just because the rhymes are shaky doesn't mean the song is bad. Quite the opposite, because the energy of the improvisation is infectious. It's like watching your parents try to make up a bedtime story as they go along. When are they going to screw up? Nothing beats this bizarre (and gleefully un-PC) verse from Big Bank Hank:

Well I was comin' home late one dark afternoon
A reporter stopped me for a interview
She said she's heard stories and she's heard fables
That I'm vicious on the mike and the turntables
This young reporter I did adore
So I rocked a vicious rhyme like I never did before
She said damn fly guy I'm in love with you
The casanova legend must have been true
I said by the way baby what's your name
Said I go by the name of Lois Lane
And you could be my boyfiend you surely can
Just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman
I said he's a fairy I do suppose
Flyin' through the air in pantyhose
He may be very sexy or even cute
But he looks like a sucker in a blue and red suit
I said you need a man who's got finesse
And his whole name across his chest
He may be able to fly all through the night
But can he rock a party 'til the early light
He can't satisfy you with his little worm
But I can bust you out with my super sperm

When was the last time you heard a rapper drop a verse like that?

Anyway, let's admit it, the rapping alone could not have carried the day here. At least half of the appeal of the song, as with so many more rap songs to come, simply lies in the smart choice of sample - in this case, the deathless groove of Chic's disco anthem "Good Times." Indeed, I don't think the Sugarhill Gang realized just how fitting a choice "Good Times" was, for while "Good Times" smacks of hazy coke-infused Studio 54 hangover and stands as a perfect coda for its era, "Rapper's Delight" conjures up images of a graffiti-laced street corner in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Sampling a weary disco smash as the basis of the first rap record was like the perfect passing of the torch.

In the end, perhaps the most curious aspect about "Rapper's Delight," at least from a historical perspective, is that even though it's a relic from the early days of a young genre, it doesn't sound too far removed from the sound of the genre as we know it today. Listen to Elvis' "That's All Right," for example. You couldn't call it straight country, and you couldn't call it straight blues, but after hearing even Elvis' recordings from just a few years on down the road, you have to admit that the song doesn't really sound like "rock and roll." But "Rapper's Delight" sounds like...rap. In fact, when I first heard the song a few years back, I thought I was listening to an updated remix, not the original recording. Shows what I knew. Well now I can go put that in my bang bang boogie say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogity beat.


Herr Zrbo said...

Just watched the old video on youtube. It's great how disco everything is. The dancers at the beginning are in these really flamboyant sparkly disco jumpsuits and they're doing synchronized dance. And then one of the rappers is wearing a cardigan, he's like a black Mr. Rogers.

I can definitely see how this would have been seen as a novelty back then. Like you said, the lyrics seem so simple that it makes you think 'hey, I could do this better.'

I mean, what's with the story about him eating the bad food at his friend's house? It seems so quaint and hilarious compared to anything that's done nowadays.

Little Earl said...

I like that verse! I mean sure it's pretty cheesy but at least it's more interesting than the usual "Rapper A has a bigger dick than Rapper B" and such.

I added a link to the video FYI.

Herr Zrbo said...

Yeah, I'm actually surprised at some of the lewdness in this song. I mean, he talks about his sperm! Even in modern stuff they aren't quite that gutsy.

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