If you are under the age of 35, you may be asking yourself, “who is Big Bank Hank”?
For those who don’t know, Big Bank Hank (nee Henry Jackson), was one of the members of the Sugarhill Gang, the first rap group to make a commercially successful rap single. That song, “Rapper’s Delight” was fifteen minutes of non-stop rap from Jackson, Mike “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. “Rapper’s Delight” was the first rap single to hit the top ten of Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues charts, and also the first to make the top forty of the Billboard Pop chart.
Jackson passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. He was 57 years old. He happened to become a part of music history with that one song. And while the Sugarhill Gang had more hits (notably “8th Wonder” and “Apache”), it was their first hit that spawned a phenomenon that is still going strong today (though some will tell you it isn’t as good as it used to be, while others will tell you it was never as good as some make it out to be). That debate can be had at another time.
What I would say is that, as a young eighth-grader hearing that record in the fall of 1979, it was different than anything else heard on the airwaves. And once it became popular, it was all anybody wanted to hear. I can remember people requesting it on the radio and it getting major airplay. And of course, in those days, if you wanted your own copy, you had to go to the record store and get yourself a copy. I only remember seeing the 12-inch version-never saw a 45, though I’m sure they probably existed. Besides, why get the edited version when you could get a full fifteen minutes of glory? And of course, you had to get those lyrics. At one time, I could recite the whole song from start to finish (no easy feat then, or now).
The song wasn’t without a bit of controversy. The basic groove was based on the breakdown from “Good Times” by Chic, which launched a lawsuit from the writers of the song. And there was also the bit that Hank stole lyrics from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers (the part of being the C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y…), which caused beef between the two for years.
Though the Sugarhill Gang did not start rap, and were not necessarily the first to put rap on a record (Fatback’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” may have preceded it), they were the first rap superstars. And they were, rightly or wrongly, credited with being “pioneers” of the style of music.
Nevertheless, may Big Bank Hank rest in peace. And as a reminder of his big moment in the sun, here’s Rapper’s Delight.