Digging Up the Creative Roots of Rap : SUGARHILL GANG "Rappers Delight: The Best of Sugarhill Gang"; Rhino (**)

The Sugarhill Gang is the Bill Haley & the Comets of hip-hop music.

Like the rock pioneer, whose "Rock Around the Clock" was a pivotal step in renegade rock 'n' roll's transformation into lighter, sock-hop fare, the Gang is best known for a single record and has been accused of watering down a vital musical form.

Haley, the critics say, built his music around the creative ideas of a host of R&B; musicians and sold it to an audience that hadn't heard the real thing. Similarly, the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" opened the pop mainstream to a music that was once relegated to a cult, outlaw status. But old-school rap aficionados say that the Gang simply lifted the style and content of pioneering rappers such as Grandmaster Caz and DJ Hollywood, who were known only in the New York parks.

Rather than deliver those rhymes over a record that had the cutting-edge rock and funk break-beats associated with hard-core deejays such as Afrika Bambaataa, the Gang borrowed a smooth bass line from Chic's disco hit "Good Times."

Even if it was a novelty disco hit, "Rapper's Delight" had enough of the new, exciting rap style to make listeners want more of it. The song had--and retains--a spirit and a rhythm that could hypnotize the dance floor, and it made it possible for the burgeoning art form to leave the parks and travel around the world. This retrospective collects most of the Gang's recordings. With the exception of "8th Wonder" and maybe "Apache," the songs show why Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien and Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson still have problems shaking the novelty label.

But the album's old-school, get-down-and-party brio is refreshing. The trio proved that rockin' the mike doesn't have to be about the hardness of street life. Celebrating life despite the despair is just as necessary.


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