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Friday, August 21, 2009

Saturday! Sugarhill Gang at the Missouri Black Expo

Posted By on Fri, Aug 21, 2009 at 12:59 PM

This Saturday, the Sugarhill Gang will be performing at the Missouri Black Expo at 5:15 p.m. (MC Lyte is on at 6:15 p.m.; the concert takes place at America's Center.) Kevin Johnson has a nice interview in today's Post-Dispatch with the group's Big Bank Hank Jackson. What isn't mentioned in the piece is this nugget that Keegan Hamilton discovered in the course of reporting a story about '80s hip-hop in St. Louis: that "Rapper's Delight" likely "broke" first right here in St. Louis. Read the excerpt below.

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."

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.

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