R.I.P. Big Bank Hank

TMZ reports that Big Bank Hank, one third of pioneering rap group the Sugarhill Gang, died early this morning after a battle with cancer. Hank, born Henry Jackson, was 57.

The Sugarhill Gang, and Hank in particular, have a long and strange story. Hip-hop had been thriving as live party music in the Bronx for years before the group recorded 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first-ever hit hip-hop record, in 1979. The Sugarhill Gang weren’t really a part of that scene. Instead, Sugarhill Records founder Sylvia Robinson put the group together. Legend has it that she had the idea after hearing Hank rap while he was serving her pizza in a New Jersey restaurant.

Hank had been managing the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the original legendary Bronx hip-hop crews. Hank didn’t write his own records, so he asked to use the lyrics of Cold Crush member Grandmaster Caz, who was famously never compensated for his work and who was still furious at Hank decades later.

Whatever the group’s origins, though, they still deserve credit for their lively and terrain-reshaping performance on “Rapper’s Delight,” which remains a deliriously fun single — even in its 15-minute extended version — all these years later. They also made a few classic singles afterward: “Apache,” “8th Wonder,” the Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five collab “Showdown.” Even though their star had dimmed by the time rap became a commercial force, they continued to record and perform, often on the nostalgia circuit, in the years that followed. Below, watch the group’s video for “Rapper’s Delight” and their Soul Train performance of “8th Wonder.”