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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

Once Upon a Hip-Hop Time

**** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The Sugar Hill Records Story," Rhino

March 02, 1997|Cheo Hodari Coker

Marion "Suge" Knight, Sean "Puffy" Combs and all the other hip-hop moguls owe their careers to a former disco queen's taste for pizza. It was at a New Jersey pizzeria one afternoon in 1979 that Sylvia Robinson heard a club bouncer named Henry "Big Bank Hank" Robinson rapping some lyrics he had heard in a club. Dazzled by her first taste of rap, she arranged to record him and two friends. The result was the landmark "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. America's first hip-hop label was born.

This four-disc set focuses on the early '80s, when hip-hop was a singles-oriented genre. In the old-school days it was all about the party groove, and anything bearing that distinctive, multicolored Sugar Hill logo was sure to get bodies working.

Songs such as the Sugarhill Gang's "8th Wonder" and Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" have not only been sampled many times by rap producers, but they also still vibrate with an urgency that makes a listener want to move to a dance floor as quickly as possible. While not all of the boxed set's 56 songs have aged gracefully, it's a must-have because it collects so many of the most important old-school records in one place.

Of the records that have passed the test of time, Sequence's "Funk You Up" is particularly arresting. The three women do little more than repeat the song's mantra over and over, but coupled with a simple bass line and drum kick, it just moves, evoking memories of jump-rope and hopscotch in the playground and those first blacktop basketball games.

Contrast that song with "The Message," "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" and "Beat Street"--three masterpieces of lyrical fury (by Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five, Grand Master & Melle Mel and Grand Master Melle Mel & the Furious Five, respectively). The music, which serves as a framework to sustain a melody, is nowhere near as important as the lyrics. Melle Mel, in many ways a gruff-voiced precursor of the legendary Rakim, was one of the first recorded rappers to prove that hip-hop could comment on the conditions of African Americans and Latinos in a much more forthright and informative way than conventional news media. The entire gangster rap genre is only an extension of "The Message," much the same way every gangster movie made after 1972 owes something to "The Godfather."

In terms of the boxed set's overall song quality, a three-disc set might have sufficed. But with gems such as the Treacherous Three's uncensored "X-Mas Rap," and given the rarity of much of the material, "The Sugar Hill Records Story" is too much fun to pass up.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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