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When Sugar Hill aided rap's climb

September 19, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" was the first hip-hop single to break into the national Top 40 pop charts, although anyone listening to it now for the first time probably would have a hard time picking up on what made the 1979 recording such a rap milestone.

"Rapper's Delight" offers little of the adventure, aggression or spectacular beats of the most compelling rap. It seems little more than a novelty with its goofy party-time talk, such as "bang bang the boogie to the boogie." Yet the record, filled with more words than a pocket dictionary, is looked back upon with reverence by such tastemakers as Ice Cube, one of the architects of gangsta rap.

The other landmark recording in those early days of hip-hop's entry into the mainstream also came from Sugar Hill Records, but it was far closer to the social urgency and bite associated with the best rap over the years.

"The Message," by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, was a gripping account of inner-city life and tensions that went further than delighting Cube with its wordplay. It made the L.A. teen want to be a rapper.

Two retrospectives from Sugar Hill/Rhino Records focus on the Sugar Hill label's brief but immensely influential moment in the rap spotlight and Grandmaster Flash's early work.

A third collection also comes from Sugar Hill Records, but this Sugar Hill has nothing to do with hip-hop.

Various Artists

"Sugar Hill Records/The Definitive Groove Collection" (Sugar Hill/Rhino)

The back story: Sugar Hill was founded by Sylvia Robinson, a singer who teamed with Mickey Baker on the 1956 hit "Love Is Strange" and then had a solo hit in 1973 with "Pillow Talk." Looking for new artists or sounds to record, she, working with her husband and son, became intrigued by the energy of New York's underground hip-hop scene. The Robinsons put together the Sugarhill Gang group and released "Rapper's Delight."

As Oliver Wang points out in the liner notes, the song wasn't original in most fundamental ways. The verses drew heavily from other rappers in the area, and the song echoed the bass riff in Chic's "Good Times." Still, the single hit the mainstream audience with such force that the Robinsons tried to cash in with several other recordings, including those by Grandmaster Flash.

The new package lets us listen to the Robinsons and Sugar Hill artists experiment with this new sound, and it's both a fascinating and educational experience. The set also includes a bonus DVD, which features artist interviews, videos and photos.

Various Artists

"Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five / The Definitive Groove Collection" (Sugar Hill/Rhino)

The back story: Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler) was by far Sugar Hill's most important artist, whose turntable innovations served as the sonic foundation of hip-hop. Although some of these tracks are also in the "Sugar Hill Records" retrospective, it's valuable to hear them in the context of the records by Grandmaster Flash and/or collaborators the Furious Five and Melle Mel.

It's interesting to note that Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five started off in the same party-minded spirit of the Sugarhill Gang with singles titled "Freedom" and "The Birthday Party." After "The Message," however, they leaned toward more socially conscious work, including "Message II (Survival)" and, most notably, "White Lines (Don't Do It)."

Various Artists

"Sugar Hill: A Retrospective" (Sugar Hill)

When a record company retrospective comes with testimonials from artists with as much independence and taste as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill and John Prine, you know you are on solid ground.

Indeed, the other Sugar Hill label, which Barry Poss started in 1978 as a showcase for American roots music, has been a standard of excellence. But even Sugar Hill admirers are likely to be surprised at the depth and range of the label's folk, country and bluegrass-minded artists.

Among those featured in this four-disc package: Ricky Skaggs, Chris Hillman, Doc Watson, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt, Del McCoury, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Jesse Winchester and Dolly Parton. A marvelous testimony to the artists and to the label's integrity and taste.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving of greater attention than they received originally.

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