Early rap star took hip-hop to pop charts

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Big Bank Hank, one-third of the Sugarhill Gang, the unlikely ambassadors who took hip-hop out of Bronx parks and onto the pop charts, died on Tuesday in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 58.

The cause was complications of cancer, said a business manager for the two other members of the Sugarhill Gang, Wonder Mike and Master Gee.

The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight was not the first commercially released hip-hop single, but it was the one that effectively birthed the genre as a commercial force. The song, which used the break from Chic's disco smash Good Times as a foundation, became a radio staple soon after its release in 1979, reaching No.36 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sugar Hill Records, the group's label, said it sold two million copies.

Big Bank Hank was born Henry Lee Jackson in the Bronx on Jan 11, 1956, and grew up close to DJ Kool Herc, Coke La Rock and other hip-hop pioneers.

He was not originally a rapper by trade. In the late 1970s, he was working the door at a Bronx club called the Sparkle, where he met a rapper named Grandmaster Caz. He offered to manage Caz's group, the Mighty Force MCs, borrowing money from his father to get it a worthy sound system for its live appearances. To pay back the loan, he took a job at Crispy Crust Pizza in Englewood.

At the pizza shop he met Joey Robinson Jr, a son of Sylvia Robinson, soul singer-turned-record executive. After seeing a rapper perform at a club, Sylvia Robinson had become determined to release a rap record and she built the Sugarhill Gang from scratch. Joey Robinson heard Jackson rapping in the pizza shop and invited him to audition for his mother.

The Sugarhill Gang was convened on a Friday, and by Monday it was in the studio to record its first song, Rapper's Delight. Until that time, hip-hop was mostly the purview of parties in nightclubs, parks and even apartment-complex rec rooms. Reportedly recorded in a single take, Rapper's Delight - the full version ran more than 14 minutes - immediately shifted the centre of gravity from hip-hop as a live form in which DJs and rappers shared billing to one that gave primacy to rappers and their recordings.

Despite releasing a handful of records after Rapper's Delight, the Sugarhill Gang never matched their early success and disbanded in the mid-1980s, although they occasionally reunited for performances and released a children's hip-hop album in 1999.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

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