1970s and 1980s kids, finish the lyric:
Well so far you've heard my voice
But I brought two friends along
And next on the mike...
Anyone who grew up in the early days of hip hop will have no trouble recalling the next lines: "And next on the mike is my man Hank / C'mon, Hank, sing that song." These lyrics represent just a portion of the landmark single "Rapper's Delight," largely credited with being the first mainstream rap hit. The song propelled the Sugarhill Gang to instant fame, and its trio subsequently became hip hop pioneers. Sadly, a beloved member of the group recently passed away: Big Bank Hank, aka Henry Lee Jackson, who succumbed to cancer at age 58.
Born in 1956, Big Bank Hank grew up in the Bronx and became friends with many players in the burgeoning 1970s rap scene. While working as a bouncer at a local club he met rapper Grandmaster Caz, who had formed a group entitled the Mighty Force MCs. Hank offered to manage the group, although he lacked one important ingredient: finances. He borrowed money from his father to pay for the band's sound system; in order to pay back the loan, he worked at an Englewood pizza place. Strangely, it wasn't his management of the Mighty Force MCs that changed his life; it was a chance encounter while working at the pizza joint.
While making pizzas Hank met Joey Robinson, Jr., son of Sylvia Robinson, a former singer best known for the 1957 single "Love Is Strange" (under the name Mickey & Sylvia) and the risqué 1972 smash "Pillow Talk." Having just founded her label, Sugar Hill Records, she wanted to take advantage of rap's growing popularity and form her own group. Her son heard Hank rapping in the store and encouraged him to audition for his mother. Just a couple of days later, Sylvia Robinson had her trio: Hank, Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brie. Dubbed the Sugarhill Gang (named after the label), the group assembled in the studio to record "Rapper's Delight."
Released in fall 1979, the track featured the three rapping over an instrumental version of Chic's "Good Times." Each took their turn at the mike, showcasing their distinctive styles. The lyrics followed early hip hop tropes, namely bragging about one's rapping ability and sexual prowess. Hank's contributions added humor, as he boasts that he's "got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously." In the 14-minute version of the track, Hank delivers memorable lines about meeting Lois Lane. When she tells him she'll dump her current boyfriend Superman, Hank professes his masculinity, denouncing the superhero for "flyin' through the air in pantyhose" and admits that "he may be able to fly all through the night, but can he rock a party till the early light?" Hank then spits out some of "Rapper's Delight's" funniest lyrics: "He can't satisfy you with his little worm, but I can bust you out with my super sperm." While these words may sound offensive out of context, Big Bank Hank's comical delivery emphasizes ridiculous exaggeration and playful language.
Big Bank Bank also delivers some of the song's most memorable lines: "Everybody go hotel, motel, Holiday Inn / Say if your girl starts actin' up, then you take her friend." His perfectly syncopated style, accenting the bass and drums with phrases like "I go do it, do it, do it" illustrates why he was consider one of rap's earliest stars. The performance enabled "Rapper's Delight" to crack the top five on the R&B singles chart, number 14 on the Dance Music and Club Play charts, and most significantly number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100. For the first time, rap had left the New York streets and infiltrated radio.
While the Sugarhill Gang did not last long--they released only three albums before breaking up in the mid-80s--their place in hip hop history is assured. The trio would occasionally reunite for concerts and they recorded the 1999 children's album Jump on It! Even though they never released another album, they are still fondly remembered for their vital contribution to hip hop. Big Bank Hank's death means another lost connection to old school rap, but his voice will still be heard on their iconic single for future generations to discover.