For myself, for many, and perhaps for most (old enough to have memories form), in terms of exposure to Rap music and its parent, Hip-Hop culture, all interaction with the music form starts with this one 12 inch single- "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. This single is groundbreaking for several reasons. Of course, if you're reading/viewing this blog right now you know that it's one of the first two Rap records released in the year 1979. But you know all of this already, don't you? "Rapper's Delight" is important becuase it was the very first "hit" Rap single released that sold millions of records around the world. It was the first Rap record that mattered to anyone outside of New York city. It's the record that took the sound of Rap around the world. There was nothing before it that did so.
But the single is very important for another reason- the cover graphic design of the single. For all of the praise steeped upon Sugar Hill records' release of "Delight", I can't recall anyone ever really taking some time to point out that in addition to the music, the emergence of this single represented the first time anyone outside of NYC saw a piece of visual communications, artwork or graphic design associated with Rap music or Hip-Hop. The candy cane like syrupy illustrated logo for sugar Hill records is the first Rap related graphic that most people at the time ever saw. I can remember staring at the 12 inch single as a child trying to comprehend and reconcile the name of the company and its meaning with the the colors of the logo and its light blue background and the music which to my very young ears sounded just like a song I heard on the radio earlier in the year. The only difference in the two songs was that the new one had people talking over the music, the former (Chic's hit "Good Times") had people singing.
For someone like myself who is artistically inclined, the artwork of the single made an unforgettable impression forever linking the design work to the music. The design work for "Rapper's Delight" served as ground zero- the starting point for the research of the graphic design history (and the people who created the work) of the commercial Rap record industry throughout the 1980's that has inspired the creation of StereoTyped: Hip-Hop’s Unsung Graphic Design Heroes, Heroines and the Oral & Visual Histories of the Rap Record (1979-1989). Being that we'll attempt to upload bits and pieces of the book project about once a month, we thought it appropriate to kick off by offering the current introduction for the project.
Starting in September of 1979 with the release of the first commercially successful Rap record release, Sugar Hill records’ "Rapper’s Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang - graphic design, as utilized on the giant 12 inch vinyl single sleeves popular at the time, design had become an accomplice in helping sell Rap, the musical component within Hip-Hop culture, to the world outside New York’s ghetto parks, project recreation centers and night clubs. "Rapper’s Delight", for many, if not most people, was the very first Rap record they heard. Equally important, it was “THE” first Rap record everyone “SAW”! It was the first ever Rap record cocooned in a distinctive piece of graphic design representing both the new sound of Rap and Hip-Hop and also the corporate identity of one of the very first small, Black owned and independent labels promoting itself and the newest sound since Rock ‘N’ Roll. And this fact is no small detail.
The 1980s, then just four months away, did arrive, and with it arrived many more rap
records released into the new post-disco era. The blank cardboard covers of the Giant 12 inch singles and vinyl albums released through the decade by the many dance and rap indie labels then popping up all over NYC, served as canvases to be painted upon by the graphic designers who were designing for them. They were charged with the responsible of creating Rap’s visual language and crafting the unique identities for the small labels (Sugar Hill, Sutra, Tommy Boy, Profile, Celluloid, Sleeping Bag, Def Jam) releasing the music in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the increasing competition - allowing the records to better stand out among the ranks of the growing record releases beginning to crowd the racks of record stores.
Design was crucial to the marketing plans of the record labels being that their budgets were so small and they could not compete with the majors because they had few other mainstream options for marketing the records to fans. Throughout the ‘80s, there was a near complete mass media ban on all things Rap and Hip-Hop related. If a song had as much as a beat that came too close to being abrasive and aggressive in that “Hip-Hop kind of way”, it got no play on mainstream airwaves.
You would not have found rap on MTV if you were searching for it because they rarely played Rap videos. BET? The rapping banished-- their Rap videos found no shelter from the cold there either. Perhaps it was too Black - “too ghetto” to be deemed entertainment for television according to the channel’s decision makers. And this logic or lack of it, could be found at Black radio as well. It chose to ban(ish) the music outright. Some Black radio stations went several steps further, going out of their way to make it known that they wanted nothing to do with Rap music. They promoted their anti-Rap stance by creating station I.D.’s announcing to their listeners that it was there that they could find “the best in R&B and no Rap”. In fact, Black radio recoiled from Rap so absolutely, that Public Enemy’s Chuck D felt offended to the point of immortalizing Black radio’s seeming self hatred and fear in a song meant to be a direct response and challenge to the music’s many critics who, from the start, indicted the art form, finding it guilty of being only noise. In a lyrical dare, P.E.’s leader, Chuck D, took Black radio to task in the group’s now classic rallying cry and call to rap audio arms, "Bring The Noise" in 1987.
Chuck taunted: “Radio stations, I question their Blackness/they call themselves Black but we’ll see if they play this”/Turn it up! Bring the noise!” It should go without saying that if Rap could not be found on the so-called black side of the radio dial, you could have expected white (AKA Rock) radio to not touch it with a twenty foot poll. They went nowhere near it. This, of course, would change. But in the meantime, to combat the TV and radio silence, the nascent Rap record industry had to rely on other forms of communication to get the message out to audiences and to promote its roster of Rap artists. And they relied heavily on print visual communications turning to design to get the job done. Enter the unsung graphic design heroes and heroines of Hip-Hop’s Rap record industry.