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"As a kid I was so entranced by the drum-and-bass break on James Brown's 'Cold Sweat' that I would get down on my knees in front of my parents' stereo with my head by the speaker," Ray says. "I'd reach into the cabinet, and I knew where to exactly move the needle back to the beginning of the break. And I'd do it again and again. So hip-hop always made sense to me. It was a logical summation of all the rhythm that American pop music had come up with at the time."
By the end of the decade, Ray and Lew Prince, a friend from college who was using his bachelor's degree in philosophy to manage a chain of record stores in Colorado, hatched a plan to open a record store together in St. Louis. They set up the first Vintage Vinyl location in a stall in Soulard Market in the fall of 1979.
"To put it bluntly, we wanted to open up a store for the intelligent black listener," Ray says today. "Music certainly has no color, but culture does. And what made St. Louis one of the foundation cities of American music is the heritage of its black musical tradition."
By the summer of 1979, hip-hop had moved out of Manhattan and into the adjacent suburbs. Sylvia Robinson, a pop star turned music mogul living in New Jersey, became convinced she could make a hit record using the new sound. Along with her husband Joe, she founded Sugar Hill Records, rounded up a trio of aspiring MCs and produced the song "Rapper's Delight." (Sylvia Robinson had been a successful recording artist for years, dating back to her 1957 hit "Love Is Strange," performed as a duet with Mickey Baker.)
With one of the first rap songs ever recorded in her hands, all Robinson had to do was find a radio DJ willing to give it a spin. The task proved tougher than anticipated. The biggest obstacle was that, at nearly fifteen minutes, the track was five times as long as anything else being played on the radio. Many disc jockeys were opposed on principle — they hated the new style and the fact that the backing music was lifted from a popular disco song at the time ("Good Times," by Chic).
Robinson's salvation took the form of Jim Gates, a 32-year-old disc jockey and manager at WESL, an AM radio station in East St. Louis that boasted a minuscule 800 watts of signal power.
"Sylvia called and told me they had this new thing where they didn't sing, they 'rapped,'" recalls Gates, now 61 and still living in East St. Louis. "I didn't know what that was about."
Gates had a long-standing relationship with Joe Robinson, dating back to his days as a radio DJ in Detroit during Motown's heyday. Trouble was, he hated the song when the Robinsons played it for him over the phone. "To me it was blasphemy to take somebody else's hit record and make it your own tune," Gates says now.
But when the Robinsons mailed him a copy of the Sugarhill Gang's tune, he gave it another listen and reconsidered.
"I called back and said, 'This is going to be the biggest thing ever or the biggest flop,'" Gates recounts.
It was no flop.
When Gates put needle to wax on "Rapper's Delight" and the legendary opening verse — "Hip-hop, a hibbit to the hibbit to the hip hip-hop" — blared across the St. Louis airwaves for the first time, it had a profound impact. Not only did the album eventually sell 14 million copies worldwide, it spawned an entire generation of young St. Louis musicians.
A large man with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper Afro and a pencil-thin gray mustache, Gates remembers being stunned by the immediate and frenzied listener response the song inspired.
"The phone lines were jammed for hours," he says. "People were calling and saying, 'Where can I get it? Play it over again so I can tape it!' I made one DJ play it twice an hour for three hours — the whole fifteen minutes."
Riverfront Times was unable to locate Sylvia Robinson to comment for this story, and her husband, Joe, died in 2000. But Gates is acknowledged in The Sugar Hill Records Story, a 66-page booklet published in 1999 along with a CD box set to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of "Rapper's Delight," and the Robinsons have credited him in several published accounts as the man who "broke" the song.
"After I convinced him to play the record just once, [listeners] ended up jamming the phone lines," Joe Robinson told Billboard in 1996. "That night, a local distributor phoned in with an order for 30,000 records. It was so bizarre that the next day I called retailers in the market who confirmed that the record was that much in demand."
Vintage Vinyl co-owner Lew Prince experienced the cultural fallout in a different form. In 1979 Prince was teaching part-time at an elementary school in north St. Louis. One of his classes included students who were having trouble learning to read.
"They were all reciting this thing: 'Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.' It was 'Rapper's Delight,' they could do it front to back," Prince recalls. "I went and got the lyrics mimeographed, and once the kids recognized what it was, they could recite it from memory. It gave them confidence. I taught more kids to read with that song than with anything else I ever did as a teacher."