First Family of Hip Hop offers a glimpse into the past, present, and future of Sugarhill Records, the label that brought hip hop to the world, as label founder Sylvia Robinson's son Leland Robinson, Sr. and his relatives debate the future of the company. Sugarhill started in Englewood, New Jersey in 1979 with the release of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, still the label's signature song and hip hop's first big record. Sylvia and her husband, Joe Robinson, built a rich catalog from now legendary acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Trouble Funk, Treacherous Three, and Funky Four Plus One More and established the label as ground zero for recorded hip hop, which at the time was considered a fleeting phase. Before you see where the family behind the label is headed now, it's time to crank up their favorite songs from the past:
1. The Sugarhill Gang, Rapper's Delight
"I was young when it came out, but I remember it changed my life," says Leland of Sugarhill's first release, a 1979 single featuring MCs Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Big Bank Hank rhyming over samples from Chic's disco hit, "Good Times." Though history remembers it as the first big rap record, the song hasn't been without controversy; the true origins of some of the lines in "Rapper's Delight" as well as a fight for the Sugarhill Gang name are detailed in the 2011 documentary, I Want My Name Back.
2. The Sugarhill Gang, Apache (Jump On It)
One of the real cult classics of the Sugarhill catalog is this 1981 party cut, which became a mainstream pop culture sensation more than a decade later when Will (Will Smith) and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) paired it with a memorable synchronized cowboy dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
"That’s what kept us hip to what our parents were doing because we would see things like The Fresh Prince, which was a recent of my generation type show. So I would watch that growing up and to see that my family’s work was in that big caliber of a show, it was nice," says Darnell Robinson, Sugarhill founder Sylvia Robinson's grandson, who counts this song as well as "The Message" as two of his all-time favorites.
3. The Sequence, Funk You Up
"The Sequence was the first female rap group, and I think that's amazing," says Lady Luck, who built her own career as a rap MC without most people knowing she was Sylvia Robinson's grandniece. The trio was led by Angie Stone, who went on to have a successful, Grammy-nominated R&B solo career in the early 2000s — and became Lady Luck's godmother when she was born.
4. Melle Mel, White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)
A potent cautionary tale against the excesses of cocaine abuse, 1983's "White Lines" transcended regional boundaries. "I’m Latina so I heard of all Sugarhill music in my hood in South Central Los Angeles," says Somaya Reece, Lady Luck's partner. "Songs like 'White Lines' were a major staple in our Latin hoods." It also made waves internationally, with UK hitmakers Duran Duran famously covering the song in 1995.
5. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, The MessageLeland says that his mother fought to make this now-legendary song, one of his personal favorites, a reality. "She did 'The Message' and gave it to The Sugarhill Gang and they was like, 'Nah we don’t wanna do it.' And then I think she gave it to the old Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and they took the tape, threw it out in the bushes, and said, 'We’re not doing that s**t.' And then Melle Mel turned around and said, 'You believe in it, Ms. Rob? Then I believe in it too, let’s go for it.' And that’s how 'The Message' was created."
Her instincts were sharp. "The Message" was a top 10 hit in four countries and later became the basis for the hook of Ice Cube's platinum hit "Check Yo Self" in 1993.
First Family of Hip Hop premieres Sunday, January 15 at 9/8c.