The riff that lifted rap

Durham native's bass was the bottom line when 'Rapper's Delight' took off in 1979

Staff writerMarch 14, 2010 

  • "The Last Poets" (1970) - Spoken-word album of poetry and jazz that, along with the similarly styled Gil Scott-Heron, laid the groundwork for hip-hop.

    DJ Kool Herc (1973) - Legend has it that he caused a sensation at his sister's birthday party in the Bronx by using two turntables to mix records together.

    DJ Grand Wizard Theodore (1975) - Widely acknowledged as the inventor of turntable-scratching, which he discovered by accident while trying to hold a spinning record in place.

    The Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight" (1979) - The first rap song to hit the pop charts ...

    Blondie, "Rapture" (1980) - ... Followed by the first rap song to top the pop charts.

    Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message" (1982) - An early glimmer of rap's potential for socio-political commentary.

    Run-DMC, "It's Like That"/"Sucker MC's" (1983) - Their first single, with hard-hitting beats. Soon the group would add hard-rock guitar, opening up new sonic possibilities.

Unless you pay close attention to the fine-print credits on album covers, you probably don't know Chip Shearin's name. But if you've been at a wedding reception, ballgame or hip-hop dance club over the past 30 years you've probably heard him playing an iconic bass line underneath a spiel that's just as iconic (if nonsensical):

I said a hip hop

The hippie the hippie

To the hip hip hop

You don't stop ...

That's the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," a rap landmark. Durham native Shearin played the song's bass line on the recording. Originally composed by Chic bassist Bernard Edwards, it's one of the most recognizable bottom ends in all of popular music - a groove that launched a new kind of music in 1979, and a million parties since.

Shearin was all of 17 and on his way to music school when "Rapper's Delight" came into being. He was in New Jersey visiting a friend who knew a studio owner named Sylvia Robinson, a singer who had some hits of her own (most notably 1973's "Pillow Talk"). Robinson did a lot of R&B recording sessions at her studio and needed players. Was Shearin interested in a little extra cash? Sure, he said, why not.

But the job that day puzzled Shearin: laying down the groove from the Chic song "Good Times" for an unheard-of 15 minutes.

Shearin's role was to thump away on that bass line for a quarter-hour straight, with no mistakes.

"The drummer and I were sweating bullets because that's a long time," Shearin says with a laugh, sitting in his home studio in Raleigh. "And this was in the days before samplers and drum machines, when real humans had to play things."

When they finished, Shearin asked Robinson what she was going to do with the recording.

"Sylvia said, 'I've got these kids who are going to talk real fast over it; that's the best way I can describe it,'" Shearin says.

"Nobody singing, just talking? Um, OK."

Shearin may have thought the recording was strange, but he was thrilled with the $70 he made for it.

"I thought I was rich," he says. "For a 17-year-old in 1979, that was a lot of money. I might've gotten a peanut butter sandwich out of it, too."

By the time Shearin got back to the Triangle he was already hearing "Rapper's Delight" on the radio. It was a surreal experience, and not just because he was hearing himself playing. He was also hearing a brand-new style of music.

"Rapper's Delight" caused a sensation when it hit the airwaves in 1979, because it sounded so different. The song had no verses or choruses, just 15 minutes of spiel over that relentless groove.

Captured the moment

Although rap remains a style that prizes authenticity, "Rapper's Delight" was hardly an authentic expression of the culture. Rap was born in nightclubs with deejays playing records and spinning verbal rhymes over them. The Chic "Good Times" riff was one of the most popular backing tracks.

But according to Oliver Wang, editor and co-author of 2003's "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide," Robinson had a hard time finding anyone who would go along with the idea of putting it on wax.

"Sylvia Robinson could not convince any of the real hip-hop stars of New York to record with her," says Wang. "Rap existed in clubs, and trying to encode it on records made no sense to them. So she decided to find someone to cut it.

"The story goes that her son heard a guy rapping to tape in a pizza parlor. So they brought him and his friends into the studio and put together this mesh of rhymes they'd basically stolen from elsewhere over a loop of Chic's 'Good Times.'"

Despite its origins, "Rapper's Delight" perfectly captured a moment.

"There's this idea that hip-hop has to have street credibility, yet the first big hip-hop song was an inauthentic fabrication," says Wang. "It's not like the guys involved were the 'real' hip-hop icons of the era, like Grandmaster Flash or Lovebug Starski. So it's a pretty impressive fabrication, lightning in a bottle."

The song was an international hit. So, while history is unclear on what the first rap song was, "Rapper's Delight" was the first to make hip-hop mainstream, Wang said. It was the first rap song to make the Billboard pop singles chart, although it didn't go that high. It peaked at No. 36 (and No. 4 on the R&B chart). But it has never gone away, either, appearing in scores of movies, TV shows and commercials over the years. It figured prominently in 1998's "The Wedding Singer" and turned up in a spot for Evian Water just last year.

It's also been widely covered in some unusual ways, including a live 2004 version by improvisational folkie Keller Williams. By now, so many rappers have name-checked "Rapper's Delight" as a formative influence that its place in history is assured. Pretty much every compilation chronicling the origins of hip-hop opens with it.

A solid career

As for Shearin, he played a few live dates backing up Sugarhill Gang after "Rapper's Delight" came out. It was a colorful experience, a hip-hop convention on a Greyhound bus.

"All these guys like Grandmaster Flash and Spoonie Gee would be cutting up, practicing verses, writing ideas on napkins," he says. "Those probably ended up being hits. But I saw myself playing higher-brow music."

Shearin went on to a solid career as a journeyman bassist, playing and recording with everybody from pop star Janet Jackson to jazz saxophonist Stanley Baird. He also taught in the music department at N.C. Central University. Nowadays Shearin splits his time between the Triangle and Los Angeles, doing mostly soundtrack and commercial-jingle work.

The song's influence

While Shearin never made anything more than that original $70 off of "Rapper's Delight," it's been a nice calling card. Yet it was nothing he took too seriously, either.

"I never thought that record would have any real momentum," he says. "Being on the radio was cute for what girls and friends thought. But for the sake of musical value to me, that was absolutely zero. I wanted to be Jaco [Pastorius] and Stanley Clarke, so the last thing I wanted to be known for was playing that song."

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has acknowledged "Rapper's Delight" a number of times, including it in an exhibit called "Roots, Rhymes + Rage: The Hip-Hop Story" and hosting a 30th-anniversary concert this year. But what finally brought Shearin around was Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," published in 2004.

On a list topped by Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," "Rapper's Delight" came in at No. 248 - between Sly & the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." Shearin was amazed.

"I was, 'You're kidding me - it's what?" Shearin says. "At that point, I had to pay attention. So I see it more clearly now for what it is. Younger rappers have told me how important it was to them, which shows me its value. Not knowing that rap would last as long as it has, it didn't mean much to me. Ten years ago, it was just something you still heard at weddings or parties."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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