Big Bank Hank, the pioneering rapper who was once part of hip-hop trio the Sugarhill Gang, died yesterday from cancer at the age of 58. Born Henry Lee Jackson in the Bronx on January 11, 1956, Hank was discovered rapping while making pizzas at the Crispy Crust in Englewood, New Jersey and would go on to change the world. Recruited by the newly formed Sugar Hill Records to be part of the debut act on the label, Hank made hip-hop history alongside his friends Master Gee (Guy O’Brien) and Wonder Mike (Michael Wright) when they recorded the landmark single “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.
While it wasn’t the first song to incorporate rap—with the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Rap)” coming out a few months before—it was “Rappers Delight” that got the rap revolution started. Using a tight studio band to replay Chic’s new disco anthem “Good Times” (with Bernard Edwards’s bassline supplying the yellow brick road that the group followed), the Sugarhill trio supposedly cut the track in one take. “Hear me talkin’ ’bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money than a sucker could ever spend,” Hank rapped as he laid down the foundation. “Ya go hotel, motel, whatcha gonna do today?”
This was the era when there were no hip-hop records and the only way to be close to the scene was to travel to the Bronx or Harlem, where I heard the music via DJ Hollywood. The Bronx, known as “the Boogie Down” to the folks who called it home, was where the then-new music was conceived using two turntables and a microphone. However, while local legends Kool Herc, Coke la Rock, Grandmaster Flash and others were pioneering the style, stance and cadence of this new soundtrack of the streets, none of them thought about putting their art on record until “Rapper’s Delight” showed them the way.
Though I hailed from Harlem, where hip-hop culture was already a part of the ’hood beginning in the mid-’70s, by the time “Rapper’s Delight” was released, I’d relocated to Baltimore, where folks weren’t yet down with the Bronx boom-bap. As the record began getting regular airplay on B-more radio, folks started losing their collective mind. “What is this?,” they wondered, as the edited version (the original 12-inch was 15-minutes long) blared over the airwaves. “Who are these guys talking over another group’s song?”
More than a few of my friends knew every single word, rapping each verse perfectly whenever V-103 played it. In the lunchroom at Northwestern High School, I overheard a wanna be Romeo lie to a girl that Big Bank Hank was his cousin. One of my friends wrote out all of the lyrics on the back of his notebook. After buying my own copy at Mondawmin Mall, my brother played the joint so much that our friend Walter Blackwell shattered it against the wall.
Of course, one broken record don’t stop no show, and “Rapper’s Delight” would go on to sell millions for Sugar Hill Records (the newly formed label owned by music industry vets Joe and Sylvia Robinson). As writer Harry Allen observed in 2000, “When it came out, nothing was the same afterwards. It made everything else possible.”
Even though the world would later learn that Hank’s verses were penned by Cold Crush Brothers member Grandmaster Caz—who never received a dime in royalties—none of that mattered to the world at large, who were enthralled with “Rapper’s Delight.” The successful single would provide the capital needed for Sugar Hill Records to sign emerging artists including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funk Four Plus One, Treacherous Three and Sequence, the female rap trio where Angie Stone got her start.
While Hank and his crew released four albums on the Sugar Hill label, as well as a few more hit singles (“8th Wonder,” “Apache”), in the ever-changing world of rap music the Gang soon faded into the background as the music began to flourish into a worldwide phenomenon. Still, for decades afterwards, the Sugarhill Gang continued to tour.
Although at the time of his death Hank was representing the group without Master Gee and Wonder Mike, in a joint statement released to Rolling Stone, the two said, “So sad to hear about our brother’s passing. The three of us created musical history together with the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ We will always remember traveling the world together and rocking the house.”
Coming from the original old school, with “Rapper’s Delight” Big Bank Hank helped conjure the musical mojo that is rap music today, and the world of pop culture should be forever grateful. Somewhere Uptown, I’m hoping a graf head is spray-painting a memorial mural of the brother Hank while the dudes standing behind him pour out a little liquor.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.