"The Sugar Hill Records story"

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

before "The Sugar Hill Records Story" lets you anywhere near its five shiny, polite CDs, the box set greets you with a more tactile reminder of the rap label's past: a 12-inch vinyl single of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." Beyond the obvious nostalgia that it's meant to evoke -- the trademark turquoise sleeves, the arrays of remixes and instrumentals -- it's also a potent reminder that the label made its mark on the turntable, be it in clubs or on street corners. Vinyl provided the raw materials of production, and the Bronx-based label was the laboratory that explored its possibilities, from the Sugarhill Gang's landmark, Chic-cribbing debut, "Rapper's Delight," to the dizzying cut-and-mix of Grandmaster Flash's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." Exploring the various envelopes the label pushed throughout the early '80s, Rhino's box is a vital document of a great label's ascendancy, as well as its inevitable fall from grace.

Released in 1979, "Rapper's Delight" might not have been rap's first single, but it certainly galvanized the genre, and the songs on the first two discs featuring Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky 4+1, Sequence and others showcase the fertile collection of bracing post-disco funk it inspired. That 1979-1982 era remains the textbook for Rap 101, a fact borne out by perpetual pillaging that continues to this day. The Furious Five's throbbing "Freedom" best asserted the "offer that you can't refuse," but it was "The Message" that would assure the label's legacy. A gripping, spare and lucid depiction of ghetto life, it was the song that would, ironically enough, broaden the label's appeal beyond inner-city blacks.

Even as cataclysmic as those early songs were, some of it hasn't aged well. What was innovative at the time (like the Furious Five's electro-funk "Scorpio") sounds innocent in comparison to today's multilayered hip-hop albums. Progressions beyond the Sugar Hill house style were starting even during the label's heyday, and its lack of interest in them would prove deadly in a few short years. Label founder Sylvia Robinson, as the box set's excellent liner notes point out, was loathe to expand beyond her local stable of talent (she rejected nine demo tapes from LL Cool J). While Sugar Hill did keep tabs on Washington, D.C.'s then-promising go-go scene (Trouble Funk's cowbell-laden "Hey Fellas" is represented), most of its stock was thrown into Grandmaster Flash's genius, and when he broke ties with the label in 1983, Sugar Hill found itself struggling to compete with young upstarts on labels like Tommy Boy, Def Jam and Profile.

That dim period, with Sugar Hill following instead of leading, makes up the bulk of the set's fourth and fifth discs. Sugar Hill went down fighting, though: Ex-Furious Five member Melle Mel's anti-cocaine groove, "White Lines (Don't Do It)" is one of the great singles of the '80s, a harrowing and relentless trip into drug-addled catastrophe. Hoisting the flickering torch of conscience rap, the label's late singles boldly pointed fingers and named names in an age of Reaganist economic oppression. But as the commentaries grew more specific, the beats and voices became less compelling. Struggling to recapture the pointed glory of "The Message," Sugar Hill merely recycled it. Sugar Hill, in the end, forgot its own lesson: It stopped giving us offers we couldn't refuse.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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