Sugar Hill Records was the first rap and hip-hop label, giving many listeners their first exposure to the urban rhyming and scratching that transformed pop music during the ’80s. Like most indie labels, they had troubles with finances and distribution; eventually, that situation resulted in their records remaining out of print during the rise of the hip-hop during the late ’80s and ’90s. The five-disc Sugar Hill Records Story remedies this situation by collecting all of the label’s classic A-sides, many in their full-length mixes, on one set. Tracks by the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and the Treacherous Three are commonplace and remain excellent, but the true revelation of the box set is how strong largely forgotten cuts by Spoonie Gee, the Funky 4 + 1, Trouble Funk, the Sequence, Super Wolf, and West Street Mob are — these are supremely funky, infectious and inventive cuts, which have been made familiar through samples and quotations on modern rap records. Another surprise is how integrated this music is — male and female rappers trade lines without hesitation, and there is none of the misogyny or violence that characterized gangsta rap. But that doesn’t mean the old-school rap on The Sugar Hill Records Story sounds dated — much of this bright, elastic electro-funk has provided the foundation for ’90s hits by the likes of the Beastie Boys and Dr. Dre.
But the most surprising thing of all is how The Sugar Hill Records Story barely loses momentum over the course of five discs. There is the occasional dull spot or oddity (check out the bizarre B-52’s rip-off “At the Ice Arcade” by the Chilly Kids) that interrupts the flow, but the music is consistently strong, even on the fifth disc. It was inevitable that The Sugar Hill Records Story would be an important historical document, but what makes it truly essential is how rich, diverse, and timeless the music actually is.
Various Artists-THE SUGAR HILL RECORDS STORY (1997 compilation)