Henry Lee Jackson, one of the founders of the pioneering New Jersey rap trio Sugarhill Gang whose 1979 single "Rapper's Delight" proved that hip-hop could have mass-market appeal, has died. He was 57.
Jackson, who recorded as "Big Bank Hank," died Tuesday of complications from cancer at a hospital in Englewood, N.J., said David Mallie, business manager for the two remaining members of the original Sugarhill Gang.
In a statement released by Mallie, Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien and Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright mourned Jackson's death.
"So sad to hear about our brother's passing. The three of us created musical history together," the statement said. "We will always remember traveling the world together and rocking the house."
Jackson was born Jan. 11, 1957, in the Bronx. He first planned on a career in oceanography, earning a degree after being inspired by the films of Jacques Cousteau. Jackson was working as a bouncer and a waiter at an Englewood pizza joint and rapping at local parties when Sylvia Robinson, a singer and label owner interested in documenting the nascent hip-hop music and party subculture in New York, found him after her son Joey Jr. pitched him as a rapper.
With his large physique and vivacious charisma, Jackson was a natural performer. Jackson free-styled some lyrics for her over a cassette tape in a car outside the pizza shop while two other rappers — O'Brien and Wright — also vied for the job. Robinson decided to sign all of them and form a group. Though few rap performances had ever been professionally recorded at that point, she booked them a session where they riffed over a 15-minute instrumental track borrowed from Chic's dance single "Good Times."
The song was a lighthearted, boast-filled track inspired by the freewheeling tradition of trading lyrics over DJ sets at block parties and nightclubs. It was soon selling 75,000 copies a week and cracked the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 36 on the Hot 100. But its influence was even wider. "Rapper's Delight" proved that the hip-hop genre wasn't just a regional flash in the pan, but a larger musical and aesthetic sensibility that could have broad appeal.
"There's no way to overstate it. It was one of the first rap records ever made, and it was just gigantic," said Bill Adler, a hip-hop critic and the original publicist for the hip-hop label Def Jam Records. "It was just astonishing, it really was something 'new' formally. It created a dividing line between what came before it and what came after."
The song was the breakthrough release for the Robinsons' Sugar Hill Records. The new label would go on to release records by Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Melle Mel that would become genre classics.
The "Rapper's Delight" single did generate some controversy in hip-hop circles. Jackson's verse on the song was widely believed to have borrowed lyrics from another local MC, Grandmaster Caz, who had lent Jackson his book of rhymes as a favor to the novice musician. Jackson even left in the portion of the lyrics where Caz spelled out his hip-hop alias, Casanova Fly. But as a first record taken from hip-hop's communal party culture, it was an appropriate origin.
"I did not think it was conceivable that that there would be such a thing as a hip-hop record," said the rapper Chuck D in Jeff Chang's history of hip-hop, "Can't Stop Won't Stop." Then, "Bam! They made 'Rapper's Delight.' ... It was a miracle."
Sugarhill Gang's achievement was to capture hip-hop's live, spontaneous essence in the studio and introduce audiences outside New York to the culture of rapping. The trio never replicated the top-40 chart success of "Rapper's Delight" in America, though other singles including "Apache" and "8th Wonder" made the Hot 100 and became popular in Europe and in U.S. nightclubs.
The group's original lineup dissolved in the early 1980s, though Jackson continued to tour as Sugarhill Gang with Joey Robinson Jr. as "Master Gee." The Grammy Hall of Fame added "Rapper's Delight" to its catalog in 2013.
Jackson is survived by his wife, Valerie Jackson; his children Alea Ramsey, Thomas Washington and Keshah Washington, and a stepdaughter, Jacquelle Ramsey.
"He was such a humble person, he would call from the road and say he'd had a good show, but he never talked much about his music," his wife said. "He would have been amazed at how many people truly loved him."