Rapper Henry Jackson, best known as Big Bank Hank from early hip-hop group the Sugarhill Gang, died on Nov. 11 in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 57.
Jackson’s death was first reported by TMZ, who attributed his passing to cancer. Bandmates Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien issued a statement, reading: “So sad to hear about our brother’s passing. The 3 of us created musical history together with the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ We will always remember traveling the world together and rocking the house. Rest in peace Big Bank.”
Formed by entrepreneurial label exec Sylvia Robinson, the Sugarhill Gang notched the first successful hip-hop single with 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” jumpstarting the evolution of rap from a predominantly live performance style into a commercially viable recorded genre.
Born in the Bronx, Jackson had worked as a club bouncer and a manager for local act the Cold Crush Brothers, though he was working as a cook in Englewood restaurant Crispy Crust Pizza when Robinson approached him to become the first member of her nascent act. According to Dan Charnas’ “The Big Payback,” Jackson’s “audition” for Robinson took place in her car outside the pizzeria, while he was still wearing his apron and covered in flour.
With Wright and O’Brien joining in short order, Robinson hurriedly assembled the group to cut a single. “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in a single take, built upon a live interpolation of Chic’s “Good Times,” with the three MCs reciting a mixture of original lyrics and rhymes lifted from other popular rappers’ routines. The 15-minute single was released late in 1979 on Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s newly minted Sugar Hill Records, with the group’s self-titled LP following in early 1980.
To call the crossover success of “Rapper’s Delight” unexpected would be an understatement. Though rapping was a popular style in New York City discos and block parties, the notion of releasing a hip-hop record was still seen as radical, if not ridiculous, among both radio programmers and most rappers themselves. (When Jackson asked the Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz to borrow some of his routines for the song, Caz handed him a book of rhymes and told him to use whatever he wanted.) Yet the record was a runaway hit, and by 1980 it had cracked the top 40 of the Billboard singles chart, topping out at No. 36, as well as reaching No. 1 in Canada and the Netherlands, and No. 3 in the U.K. Though it sold in the millions, “Rapper’s Delight” was never certified platinum, due to Joe Robinson’s unwillingness to allow the RIAA to look at the label’s books.
“Rapper’s Delight” helped loose a number of rap singles from Sugar Hill Records, including hits from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Sequence. The Sugarhill Gang never equaled their debut single’s success, though 1981 LP “8th Wonder” produced a pair of minor hits, including the title track and “Apache,” which peaked at No. 53 on the singles chart.
Quickly eclipsed in the hip-hop world, the trio nonetheless frequently reunited for tours, and recorded a children’s album in 1999 titled “Jump On It!”