Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ode to Big Bank Hank

The Times ran the obit of Big Bank Hank (“Big Bank Hank, 58, an Early Star of Rap,” NYT, 11/11/14). Big Bank Hank was part of the Sugar Hill Gang. He’s the guy in the “Rapper’s Delight” video with the paunch, the rolled up sleeves and the blue sunhat, who carries a lot of weight, literally and figuratively. “Rapper’s Delight” was the song for which Sugar Hill Gang became famous and it featured one of the first examples of sampling (Chic’s “Good Times” threaded though the track) that was also a harbinger of the appropriation frenzy that would infect the art world at the same time. But the video is really crazy. It’s a world. The only thing close to it is Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,” with its famous line “I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.” “Rapper’s Delight” isn’t even mildly dated. It’s may be the first rap song, but it’s the Grecian Urn of rap and it exudes the air of something very hopeful, a feeling of ecstasy, of knowing that you’re really cool and dancing to the beat, and of feeling that you’re so in the groove that you’re almost omnipotent and can have anything you want—the feeling that comes before the high wears off. “Rapper’s Delight” didn’t have any of the darkness or the violence of a lot later rap and hip hop and it gave no hint that of the upcoming wars which would result in shootings like the Lil’ Kim episode outside of Hot 97 and actual casualties of war like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (at one point the East and West Coast rappers exhibited a deadly level of animosity). “Rapper’s Delight” looked back towards Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes the Judge” (the producer of “Rapper’s Delight” was Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia, the duo who came to fame with “Love is Strange,” during the 50’s) and forward to Snoop’s “Doggystyle." But Big Bank Hank was a unifying presence, at least according to the persona he portrayed in the song. The Democrats and Republicans and their feuding constituencies could use a Big Bang Hank to get an immigration bill through congress.

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