Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures In Rap #2: The Sugar Hill Records Story

To truly gain a comprehensive picture of rap's early days, I decided to give the 5-disc Sugar Hill Records Story a listen. And oh, the oddities I found.

The Sugar Hill Records box set takes a scholarly approach towards music that was never in one hundred million years intended to be viewed in a scholarly light. Think of it as the first set of The Complete Motown Singles series...without the following nine. Here we find rap as some sort of mutant bastard child of disco. Indeed, it is not clear from the music gathered here that rap would have been headed toward any sort of meaningful artistic future.

With the surprise success of "Rapper's Delight," Sugar Hill Records, one can assume, decided to milk that fluke for all it was worth. And so we have the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Reprise (JAM-JAM)" (chorus: "Jam jam a jibbie a jam jibbie jibbie jam jam jam on"), Wayne & Charlie (The Rapping Dummy)'s "Check It Out," and The Moments' "Baby Let's Rap Now (Dance A Little Later)," which is actually a straight-up soul ballad containing nary a whiff of rapping. Sadly the world would never hear from Super-Wolf again, although his introductory anthem "Super-Wolf Can Do It" suggests otherwise:

I'm the people's choice in this Rolls Royce
The ladies freak when they hear my voice
Every rich girls' dream and every poor girl's supreme
Often known as a sex machine
I'm the ladies' pimp and the men's threat
If you're looking for better they ain't made it yet
I know I'm tough, I've got the soul
When they made the Wolf, they broke the mold
I'm the Super-Wolf from Cherry Hill
I never work and I never will
My daddy was a player, my grandpa too
I don't know nothing else to do
So when you hear this beat and you hear my howl
You know the Wolf is on the prowl

And let's not forget West Street Mob's "Ooh Baby," in which a sexy chorus of disembodied disco divas chant "We - want - have a funky par-tay/But - make - sure...that you don't hurt nobody," to which a male vocoder voice replies "Ooooooh baby, I want to see you dance/Ooooooh lady, I want to touch your pants." Or Kevie Kev (Waterbed Kev)'s "All Night Long (Waterbed), which begins with the exhortation "Kev touch himself to prove that he's a freak!" The track that takes the cake in the strangeness department, however, has to be Chilly Kids' "At The Ice Arcade," which I am convinced appeared on Sugar Hill due to a mix up at the plant involving a shipment of Disney records, because otherwise I have no reasonable explanation for how it ended up here:

My homework's gotta wait, you know I'll do it later
But we rocked the Ice Arcade playing - Space Invaders!
I flunked my test, the teacher's annoyed
But we rocked the Ice Arcade playing- Asteroids!

But mostly the tracks are just standard generic disco/funk with the occasional curveball thrown in. It's interesting to note that at this stage in the game, the backing still consisted of live performance from Sugar Hill's house band rather than from sampling or DJ production, which is a major reason why Sugar Hill rap does not sound particularly far removed from that polyester-bespangled genre. The lone exception is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," which cuts between samples of "Good Times," Blondie's "Rapture" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and which, so I'm told, can lay claim to featuring the first recorded appearance of scratching.

Another aspect of early rap that feels like spillover from the disco era is the rather extended song length. Very quickly, rap songs became a good deal shorter, eventually nearing an average of roughly four to five minutes per song. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because rappers began taking the emphasis off dancing in order to stress emotional urgency?

It couldn't have been a bad move, because at this embryonic stage, it seems as though rappers didn't really know what to rap about. Take "Freedom," the debut single from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, for example:

Melle Mel is right on time
And Taurus the bull is my zodiac sign
And I'm Mr. Ness and I'm ready to go
And I go by the sign of Scorpio
My name is Raheem, I don't like to fuss
My Zodiac sign is Aquarius
Kid Creole is the name of mine
And Pisces is my Zodiac sign
I'm Cowboy and I'm running this show
My zodiac sign is a-Virgo
And Grandmaster Flash cuts so odd
His zodiac sign is Capricorn

Apparently rap needed a little more time before it realized that suitable topics extended beyond a) sexual prowess, b) video games, and c) astrological signs.

What I want to know is: who was the target audience for this music? What did early rap offer that standard disco did not? Was it really worth one's hard-earned money to hear second-rate Barry White wannabes rhyme about waterbeds? Then again, only a select few of these tracks were genuine "hits," so perhaps we have our answer right there.

Fortunately, rap would quickly find its own voice with the 1982 release of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's "The Message."


Herr Zrbo said...

Maybe the target audience was other blacks? Sort of like a black version of disco to call their own? Just speculation.

I know we're not quite there yet, but wasn't The Message a bit of a fluke? GM Flash didn't even want to release it at first. Maybe I'm getting too far ahead.

Little Earl said...

Don't - push - me - cause - I'm - close - to - the - "Message" entry.

Yeah, it must have been urban blacks who maybe saw Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor as too "mainstream" or too "sellout" I guess. But from what I understand disco was definitely seen as black music. If anything, white people infiltrated a black genre. Maybe that was the problem.

yoggoth said...

I don't think most bands start out with marketing research and a "target audience." I think the later rise of rap brought a lot of attention to music that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. My understanding is that this was mostly music played at parties and clubs, and that sort of music is always a bit funny taken out of context. It would be like listening to a collection of obscure trance mixes. Who would want to do that?

Little Earl said...

I suppose you're probably right about that. So often I forget that not all music is meant to be listened to while sitting in one's room staring at one's computer. I guess if you look at this music as club music, then, you have to say that it's a lot more creative and fun than most club music tends to be.

yoggoth said...

Yeah, I was being a bit harsh comparing Sugar Hill to trance. But it got the point across.

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