Hip hop was born in the streets of the Bronx, introduced in the mid-1970s at block parties by seminal DJs including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, and it was just a few years later that the new genre would crack the Billboard Top 50 with an unforgettable track.
It’s a song you know well—one that you’ve likely danced to, sing-screamed along to at karaoke, and still gets a party moving every time the DJ drops it. The band is the Sugarhill Gang and the song is 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” This year marks the track’s 40th anniversary, providing us an excellent excuse to catch up with Sugarhill’s MC, Master Gee.
On his young start…
Only 17 when he was thrust into the band by producer and Sugarhill CEO Sylvia Robinson, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien was the youngest rapper in the band, a fact he references in his early bars on the historic track: “I guess by now you can take a hunch / And find that I’m the baby of the bunch.” O’Brien tells me that music was in his blood. “I was around R&B and jazz for most of my childhood. I started playing drums when I was 7. My dad had a studio in the basement of our house in New Jersey; he was recording jazz musicians, and it really turned me on to that music from an early age. Vocally, I liked the intensity of early Chaka Khan. Sugarfoot, of the Ohio Players, had such a distinct sound; you could close your eyes and know who you were listening to. That was something I aspired to,” he says. O’Brien’s nifty syncopated rapping on “Delight” (“on-and-ah-on-ah-on-and-on” and “hot-to-pop-the-pop-the-pop-dibbie-dibbie”) prove that he was capable, even at that young age, of showcasing his unique style.
“Rap music is the voice of the people, young people especially. You don’t need to know how to play an instrument or carry a tune; you just have to have something to say. Rap’s intention was always about self-expression and about what’s happening in the world in the moment, and that never changed.”
One way to consider the significance of “Rapper’s Delight” is to imagine what the radio landscape looked like 40 years before that song was released. In 1939, the biggest songs of that time were from Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland; artists who had already been enshrined in the Great American Songbook by the late ’70s and bore little or no resemblance to contemporary pop. It is a testament to the staying power of the music that, even clocking in at more than 14 minutes, “Rapper’s Delight” remains fresh and familiar four decades after its release. To O’Brien, that’s the magic of the genre. “Rap music is the voice of the people, young people especially. You don’t need to know how to play an instrument or carry a tune; you just have to have something to say. Rap’s intention was always about self-expression and about what’s happening in the world in the moment, and that never changed.”
On contemporary rap…
Perhaps more than in any other modern musical genre, the majority of contemporary rappers have lately taken to viewing their field ahistorically and, often, more brutally. O’Brien doesn’t see that as disrespect or barbarism, but as the very nature of the art. “When I first started out as a kid in New Jersey, we rapped about what we knew. Younger rappers of today are just doing the same thing, but it’s a different world now. It would’ve been shocking to me to see somebody in a knife fight, but a teenager today has grown up with Parkland, with Virginia Tech and the Orlando shootings. This stuff is matter-of-fact to a younger generation; they’re just talking about their lives. Besides, complaining about this music is nothing new; anything anybody says about the lyrical content of modern rappers, they said it about us first.”
“My daughter wants to be a singer, and I’ve done my best to tell her she’s better off doing almost anything else. I’m not saying it can’t be done…look at Cardi B! But when we started, we weren’t competing with 10,000 other rappers; we were competing with Kurtis Blow!”
Given the tectonic shifts in the music industry, I ask O’Brien if he believes it would be easier or harder for a rapper to have the sort of life-changing hit that “Rapper’s Delight” became. He laughs: “Harder! Ten times harder! I don’t envy any young artist trying to make their mark today. My daughter wants to be a singer, and I’ve done my best to tell her she’s better off doing almost anything else. I’m not saying it can’t be done…look at Cardi B! But the ratio of people who make it is just so low, especially in rap. When we started, we weren’t competing with 10,000 other rappers; we were competing with Kurtis Blow! It’s a different playing field now.”
On the song’s birthday…
“‘Rapper’s Delight’ was a magical record,” O’Brien continues. “Even if it weren’t me on there, I’d say the same thing. You can’t deny that song: the samples, the pacing, the raps, the stories, the voices, the historical moment in which it was released—it was clear from the start that this was something special and rare. I’m convinced that song will still be loved 40 years from now and 40 years after that. We’re headed out to San Diego, to London, all over the world to celebrate this anniversary. Everywhere we go, the minute the audience hears that song start, they go crazy. We play ‘Rapper’s Delight’ for people whose parents weren’t alive when the song came out and they love it, too! It’s going to live forever.”
O’Brien and the surviving members of the Sugarhill Gang are currently touring the U.S. and the UK, alongside Bronx legend Grandmaster Melle Mel and his bandmate Scorpio of the Furious Five, with summer plans for a New York anniversary party still to be finalized. “We’re absolutely going to commemorate this moment in the city that made us,” says O’Brien. “We were before Def Jam, before Death Row, before everyone. We were there first and we’re still here.”