It’s been 35 years since the the song “Rapper's Delight” made its debut on the radio, yet the track still holds a unique magic. It was one of the first commercial successes for rap music and it got its radio start in East St. Louis.
The mere mention of its title sends people stumbling through the opening lyric:
"I said a hip hop,
Hippie to the hippie,
The hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop, a rock it
To the bang bang boogie, say, up jump the boogie,
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”
“Rapper’s Delight” may now be considered a classic, but initially no one would play it on the radio. Sylvia Robinson, who co-founded Sugar Hill Records, produced Rapper’s Delight. According to hip-hop lore, Robinson tried to get stations in New York and across the country to play the song, but they refused, leaving a station in East St. Louis the opportunity to break the song.
A Series Of Random Occurrences
If you ask Ronald Butts, or DJ G. Wiz, the significance of "Rapper’s Delight," he laughs. G. Wiz says rap was central to some communities long before “Rapper’s Delight.”
“Even though ‘Rapper's Delight’ was the first song commercially successful, people all over, they were rapping," G. Wiz said. "They just happened to be the first ones to get on record and be successful.”
G. Wiz says a lot of principal MCs at the time didn’t think the track was even good.
“Some of the people that were doing it that were rapping they didn't like it," G. Wiz said. "They were like those are some wack rhymes, it was just a bunch of braggadocio, but the ones who had primed it, they were past that stage.”
So how did “Rapper’s Delight” become a breakout hit, the song many credit with bringing hip-hop to the masses? The answer, according to hip-hop mythology, is a series of random occurrences.
Hip-hop culture took shape in cities along the East Coast in the mid 1970s. In 1979, rappers were performing at live events, but not in the studio. Sugar Hill Records CEO Robinson, who died in 2011, was determined to record a rap record for her label, but she couldn’t find MCs interested in recording.
Eventually Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien agreed to put their rhymes on vinyl. They recorded “Rapper's Delight,” in a single take over a version of the popular song “Good Times,” by the group Chic.
On The Air
After struggling to even get the record made, Robinson couldn’t get the song on the radio. During the fall of 1979, she begged stations to play it, but many DJs didn’t like the length or the sampling.
One DJ, Gentleman Jim Gates in East St. Louis, heard something in the track.
Gates had an ear for music. The East St. Louis native said he fell in love with Hollywood and radio at a young age.
“I would be the only one up in our little one-room apartment, with three kids, my mom and dad, until the 'Star Spangled Banner'," Gates said. "I didn’t have to worry about everyone else because they went to sleep, but I listened to everything.”
His love for music led to a career as a DJ. He eventually became a programming director at WESL, a soul and R&B station in East St. Louis.
A “Rapper’s Delight” record made its way to the station in 1979. When he heard it, he said he thought it was either going to be a bust or a music breakthrough
“Wow, what is that ? They're rapping over ... this is Chic’s music," Gates said. "That made it passable, because Chic had sold about 10 million records already. I said, 'I like that. I’m going to play that now.'”
The DJ on air then was Edie Anderson. Her radio name was Edie Bee. Edie says she had no desire to play the 15-minute record during the last few hours of her shift.
“I was trying to be different from the guys and the last hour of my show was always the special hour,” she said. “... usually it was ladies back to back: Aretha and Gladys. So when he came to me and asked me to play this song, that’s what was going on. I was in my last hour.”
Gates knew Edie would resist.
“Edie liked Lady Day, the jazz singer Billie Holiday, that was her favorite," he said. "She was a jazz person. I would let her intermingle jazz with her radio show; and if she thought I wasn't listening that was all she would play.”
Reluctantly Edie played the track.
“When I put it on it was like 'ahippity hoppity hippity.' I was like 'What is this?'” she said.
Others had the same question.
“Lo and behold, when I put it on the turntable, people just started calling up, 'What is that ? What is that?'” Anderson said.
Edie Anderson may not have wanted to introduce St. Louis to "Rapper’s Delight," but she recognized when she played the track, that music would never be the same.
Ronald Hodges of St. Louis remembers hearing the song on the radio in St. Louis in 1979.
“It was just different, you know what I mean," said Hodges. "It was just something different coming out compared to what we were used to coming up. It was blues and Motown and this was just something else.”
St. Louis area resident Carrie Zukoski says one of the thing that caught her attention when she heard the song was all the lyrics.
“I have three older brothers and I remember one of my brothers writing down all the lyrics by hand. I think it must have been about 10 pages long, and that for some reason just really impressed me," Zukoski said. "And I think I stole those 10 pages and started hand copying all the lyrics down on my own pieces of paper.”
Soon "Rapper's Delight" was playing all over the country, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard R&B charts. The album sold millions of copies, and its success helped usher new hip-hop artists into the spotlight.