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Best Sugar Hill Records Songs: 10 Classics From The Label That Built Hip-Hop
List & Guides

Best Sugar Hill Records Songs: 10 Classics From The Label That Built Hip-Hop

Introducing hip-hop to the mainstream, the best Sugar Hill Records songs proved rap could sell, and they still get the party started today.

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Sugar Hill Records was the label which picked up on the New York City street music that became hip-hop, captured it on record, and sold it to the world. It was in the perfect position to do so: the Englewood, New Jersey, company (which, curiously, took its own name from a district of Harlem) was as down-to-earth as grass, but fully equipped for success. A spin-off from Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s All Platinum group of labels, Sugar Hill had its own studio and house band; Sylvia was a talented singer and producer with an ear for a hit; and her son, Joey, Jr, was adept on the mic. Sylvia heard rap on the streets and quickly grasped its commercial potential, assembling the group Sugarhill Gang in 1979. Their debut single, Rapper’s Delight, was a smash, and hip-hop suddenly had an audience. A crucial part of hip-hop’s history, the label went on to enjoy success through to 1986, with hits by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Sequence, Melle Mel and other artists. Sylvia Robinson, who passed away in 2011, is known as the “Mother Of Hip-Hop”, and though the music has since gone through many changes, the records her label released can still get the party started – as these best Sugar Hill Records songs demonstrate with ease.

Listen to the This Is Hip-Hop At Fifty playlist here, and check out the best Sugar Hill Records songs, below.

10: Sugarhill Gang: Rapper’s Delight (1979)

Opening this list of the best Sugar Hill Records songs is the tune that started it all. Rapper’s Delight was released on 16 September 1979 and regarded as a one-off novelty hit – hey, these guys ain’t even singin’! Who knew that the music that eventually became known as hip-hop would prove as adhesive as superglue? This song’s deceptive salsa-ish intro burst into an interpretation of Chic’s Good Times, with Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee spitting bars over the top, talking about the beat and swagging about their skills at stirring up a party feel – the latter being a critical, if now largely overlooked, job of the original MC. Lyrical quirks such as “bang bang boogie” and “Hotel, motel, whatcha gonna do today?” remain resonant. Some like to point out that Sugarhill Gang were not the originators of the style, but they hit the chart first and landed on vinyl… nearly first. And nobody could deny that Rapper’s Delight still has a joyous flava.

9: Busy Bee: Making Cash Money (1982)

Busy Bee doesn’t get enough credit as one of hip-hop’s pioneers. While other MCs were adopting a similar macho voice and rhyme style, Busy Bee used his highly funky natural tones to bless his records with a sound nobody else could replicate. Making Cash Money, released in 1982, was years ahead of its time. Its use of James Brown samples (Funky President), the quotation of ancient R&B lyrics, touches of voice-bag bass, and Busy Bee’s honours for the dollars were an influence on the likes of EPMD, Doug E Fresh and De La Soul. And it sure brought the par-tay! Busy Bee was still making records deep into the 2000s and also made an impact as an actor in the great – perhaps the greatest – hip-hop movie, Wild Style.

8: Funky 4 + 1: That’s The Joint (1980)

The perfect example of the sunny vibe the best Sugar Hill Records songs specialised in, That’s The Joint is warmly remembered by hip-hop devotees decades after its release. Its delicious groove was built on a snatch of A Taste Of Honey’s mellow disco hit Rescue Me, but Funky 4 + 1 brought it a joyous feel that the original hadn’t quite delivered. Prominent in the group was Zulu Nation member Sha-Rock, credited as the first woman in a major rap group and absolutely the equal of its other MCs. The original 12” racked up nine minutes of great vibes. And That’s The Joint.

7: The Sequence: Funky Sound (Tear The Roof Off) (1981)

The second release on Sugar Hill was the first record by an all-female rap group, The Sequence, which featured future R&B star Angie Stone. Like the label’s other acts, their mode of dress looks decidedly non-street (perhaps they could have been called The Sequins), but there’s no doubting this trio’s pioneering influence on the best female rappers of all time, as this glittering refashioning of a Parliament phonk classic makes clear.

6: Spoonie Gee Meets The Sequence: Monster Jam (1980)

And here is The Sequence in union with the great Spoonie Gee, one of the first rap artists to land a record deal, and one of a very few present at the birth of the music who was still releasing standout cuts during hip-hop’s so-called late-80s “Golden Age”. Spoonie, pioneer of gangsta lyrics and among the most distinctive voices at Sugar Hill, gels beautifully with The Sequence, and their highly funky Monster Jam has been sampled numerous times since its release.

5: Grandmaster Melle Mel: White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It) (1983)

Melle Mel had been the most prominent rapper in Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five, but a split within the group following the success of The Message saw the microphone star marketed as Grandmaster himself for the first time in 1983, scoring a reasonable hit in the US, and a massive one elsewhere in the world, with White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It). The song was a warning against a cocaine-driven lifestyle, though it did not fail to hint that there might be some pleasures along the path to destruction, as the dubious use of the double negative in the title suggests. The music was “borrowed” from a 1983 song by Liquid Liquid, Cavern, which resulted in a court judgement that threw Sugar Hill into financial trouble. A fascinatingly ambiguous smash hit among the best Sugar Hill Records songs.

4: Positive Force: We Got The Funk (1979)

Positive Force were around at hip-hop’s crossover moment when they provided some of the party vibe on Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. The group, which began as a full funk band and then apparently boiled down to two female singers and one guy, were at Sylvia Robinson’s company as it was evolving from All Platinum to Sugar Hill – early copies of the single carried a Turbo label, one of All Platinum’s imprints. Sounding like a party on wax, this cool and easy chunk of funk is guaranteed to raise a smile. It wasn’t a massive hit, though it did reasonably well in the UK and has remained in many DJs’ boxes ever since. Ah, what a vibe.

3: West Street Mob: Break Dance – Electric Boogie (1983)

West Street Mob were very much an in-house affair for Sugar Hill. They featured Joey Robinson, Jr, Sylvia’s son (who also joined Sugarhill Gang for a while), and were named after the Englewood, New Jersey, location of the label. Break Dance – Electric Boogie was West Street Mob’s biggest tune – a killer mix of electro beats, vocoder voices and samples from hip-hop originator Kool Herc’s eternal break, Apache. Outbreaks of breakdancing in parks and shopping malls were accompanied by this relentless monster, often mixed into Hashim’s Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit; the machines were taking over…

2: Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel (1981)

Turntablism was still an alien concept to most of the world when Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five dropped The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel on an unsuspecting public in 1981. Featuring Flash mixing numerous tracks on three turntables, it was recorded live in the studio, though it took numerous takes to pull it off in a seamless manner. The pioneering decks maestro refused to fix any errors on tape, simply starting over every time his impressive dexterity was not quite up to… scratch. The beats included snippets of pop hits in standard original block-party style, among them Blondie’s Rapture and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, plus The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache and several of Sugar Hill’s own hits. One minor point: the majority of DJ decks do not feature steel platters (“wheels”), but use a damped metal alloy or aluminium. Whuddever. Dr Dre has said this track made him want to be a DJ. He was not alone. From this point on, teenagers worldwide demanded a second record deck from hard-pressed parents; among the best Sugar Hill Records Songs, Wheels Of Steel’s influence was enormous.

1: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five: The Message (1982)

Often cited as the original conscious hip-hop tune and frequently quoted in the bars of other rappers, The Message was a sensation when released in July 1982. It was written two years earlier by the Furious Five’s Melle Mel with Duke Bootee, a rapper, musician and producer working for Sugar Hill thanks to Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, a producer and arranger for the label. Some of the lyrics had already been deployed on a 1979 Flash & The Furious Five record, Superrappin’. Melle Mel initially didn’t like the song, considering its slow groove dreary and uncommercial, and the group wanted to cut another party record. But The Message’s jam resembled that of Zapp’s funk smash More Bounce To The Ounce, and Sylvia Robinson, sensing its vast potential, persuaded Melle Mel to record it alongside Duke Bootee. The record was massive, genre-busting, and opened the door to conscious rap as a going concern, influencing numerous future stars, including KRS-One, Public Enemy, Nas and many more. Topping this list of the best Sugar Hill Records songs, The Message remains a wonder, because urban life is still like a jungle, sometimes.

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