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Big Bank Hank of pioneering rap group Sugarhill Gang has died

Henry Jackson, aka Big Bank Hank of the pioneering rap group Sugarhill Gang, has died of cancer, according to TMZ and some of Jackson’s friends on Twitter. David Mallie, who manages the group’s two remaining living members, confirmed Jackson’s death to Fox News. Jackson, 57, was best known for his verses in the iconic song, “Rapper’s Delight.” Released in 1979, the track became hip-hop’s first commercial hit (it was the first rap recording to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100) and paved the way for rap to enter the mainstream.

Here’s the group performing the song during Soul Train:

But the song — which was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame last year — was born out of some controversy, with allegations that Jackson’s verse wasn’t even his, as chronicled by Dan Charnas in “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.”

Studio owner and producer Sylvia Robinson, struggling with financial problems, went to Harlem World one night in 1979; there, she saw a DJ controlling the crowd with call-and-response talking over a track.

“This was the first time that she ever saw this before,” Robinson’s son Joey told NPR. “And she said, ‘Joey, wouldn’t this be a great idea to make a rap record?’ ”

But Robinson had trouble finding a rapper from the club circuit to record a record with her. So Joey and his friend, Warren Moore, took her to a New Jersey pizza shop where Jackson was working. Moore brought Jackson to an idling car, where Robinson turned on a cassette. Jackson hopped in and began rapping. Two others showed up — Mike Wright (Wonder Mike) and Guy O’Brien (Master Gee) — and all three vied for the slot.

Eventually, Robinson hired them all, and the Sugarhill Gang was born.

Later, Jackson asked Caz (or DJ Casanova Fly) of Cold Crush Brothers for help. As Charnas writes, Jackson told Caz that someone in New Jersey wanted to record him rapping. Caz responded; “You ain’t no MC!” Jackson asked Caz for any rhymes he could use. Charnas writes:

“Thinking that the whole fantasy of making a record would amount to nothing, Caz threw one of his rhyme books at Hank. ‘Use whichever one you want.’ Apparently, Hank did. And didn’t even bother to change the part where Caz spelled out his name. Caz hadn’t even thought to ask Hank for money. The idea of rapping on a record was just that ridiculous.”

A few days after the three rappers met Robinson, they went into the studio and recorded the 15-minute “Rapper’s Delight,” set to the tune of Chic’s “Good Times,” in one take.

The track topped charts worldwide and has since taken on historical significance, having brought rap to the mainstream and showing it was possible for this musical form that had mostly existed underground in New York to be commercially viable. “Rapper’s Delight” has since inspired countless wannabe rappers to spit those rhymes — even Brian Williams. Sort of.

Here is Jackson’s most famous verse:

Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-an, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y
You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you why
You see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a tee
You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously
I got bodyguards, I got two big cars, that definitely ain’t the whack
I got a Lincoln continental and a sunroof Cadillac
So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which really is on the wall
I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball
Hear me talking ’bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money than a sucker could ever spend
But I wouldn’t give a sucker or a bum from the Rucker, not a dime ’til I made it again
Everybody go: Hotel, motel, whatcha gonna do today (say what?)
Cause I’ma get a fly girl, gonna get some spank and drive off in a def OJ
Everybody go: Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn
You see, if your girl starts acting up, then you take her friend
Uh Master Gee, am I mellow?
It’s on you so what you gonna do?

(Via the Washington Post)