In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
These days, few songs get to #1 unless they’re at least rap-adjacent. But for nearly its first decade of existence, rap music came nowhere near the pop charts. For a long time, it never even came close to a recording studio. Through most of the ’70s, hip-hop was a strictly local underground phenomenon. It started out in South Bronx block parties and community centers before gradually spreading out to other boroughs in New York City, and it was based entirely around the live experience. For the longest time, nobody even considered the idea that rap music had any commercial potential at all. A whole lot of music that’s vitally important to the development of global pop exists only in the form of live tapes that were passed hand-to-hand, stage routines that have never been given a proper commercial release years later.
The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in September of 1979, wasn’t the first rap song ever put to record, but it was the first rap hit. “Rapper’s Delight” did business around the world — #1 in Canada and Spain, top-10 single around Europe. In the US, “Rapper’s Delight” only got to #36 — still pretty good for something that must’ve been considered a novelty at the time. In the year and a half after “Rapper’s Delight,” nothing else really crossed over. (Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” peaked at #87 in 1980, and I think that’s the only other early hip-hop single that even charted on the Hot 100.) But then “Rapture” happened.
The rap on Blondie’s “Rapture” is that it’s the first rap song that ever went to #1 in the US. That’s a significant milestone, but it’s a misleading one, too. “Rapture” isn’t really a rap song. It’s a stretch to refer to what Debbie Harry does on “Rapture” as rapping. Instead, she does a sleepy and absurdist deadpan spoken-word thing, icily muttered half on the beat. That routine would’ve gotten her weird stares at any block party in 1981. And yet it works. It’s an ace piece of culture-vulture silliness that nobody else thought to try first. Simply by being rap-adjacent, “Rapture” is important.
On their 1980 album Autoamerican, Blondie were playing with house money. They’d already become far and away the most successful new wave band in America, scoring massive hits when everyone else was making do with critical hype. On Autoamerican, they went wild, playing around with any genre that interested them — reggae, torch songs, neoclassical. Rap music was just one more toy for them to play with.
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, the two writers of “Rapture,” had gotten to know Fab 5 Freddy, the future Yo! MTV Raps host. Freddy was a hugely important advocate for early hip-hop culture, a sort of unofficial diplomat from the South Bronx to the rest of the world. Harry and Stein went with Freddy to one rap show in the Bronx, and they were fascinated. Freddy was the inspiration for “Rapture,” though he and Debbie Harry have told different stories on whose idea it was for Blondie to record a rap. (Both of them say they were joking around about the idea beforehand, and both of them say that it was the other’s idea.)
“Rapture” doesn’t really work as rap music, but it does work as love letter to what Harry and Stein were hearing out there. Harry shouts out Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. She makes reference to graffiti — “paint a train, you’ll be singing in the rain” — and to TV Party, the New York public-access show that Stein co-hosted for a few years. (It’s so weird to think that a guy from a chart-topping band was on cable access every week.) Harry also tells a long and absurd story about a man from Mars who eats cars and bars. She takes no credit for this: “Chris wrote the part about eating the cars.” But even that has roots within rap music; it reminds me a bit of the endless tall tales that Jimmy Spicer wove on the 1980 single “Adventures Of Super Rhyme (Rap).”
According to Harry, the other members of Blondie were skeptical about “Rapture,” since they weren’t really on board with rap music. But they still worked up the sort of funky disco groove that early rappers loved to sample. The beat has an insistent syncopated pulse to it, and it’s full of squelchy guitars and handclaps and church-bell effects. Tom Scott, the extremely busy session-musician saxophonist, comes in to add off-kilter tootle-blats. There’s a great distorto-vroom guitar solo that only comes in at the end, when Harry says the bit about the man from Mars eating guitars. It all sounds amazing.
In some ways, “Rapture” is the most punk of Blondie’s #1 singles, or at least the one that’s the most in touch with what was happening on the downtown New York art-kid scene at the time. That itchy skitter-thump shares a lot of DNA with underground mutant-disco types like Arthur Russell and James Chance. Rap isn’t the only thing that Blondie were drawing on. You can hear a bit more of that in the extended Special Disco Version remix that appeared on some of the single releases.
But Blondie were also stars, and they made something bigger and slicker and cleaner than any of their source material. On “The Tide Is High,” Blondie’s previous #1, they’d done reggae with the sort of studio sheen that no actual reggae musicians had the means to achieve at the time. With “Rapture,” Blondie messed around with hip-hop and mutant disco, but rappers and mutant disco artists didn’t have access to the kind of studio tricks that Blondie got to use. Rappers and disco mutants couldn’t just call up Tom Scott to play on their records. Blondie had all that at their disposal.
Blondie also had a masterful chorus. They barely even use that chorus on “Rapture”; it’s just there at the beginning and the end of the song. But when Debbie Harry sings in that swooning upper-register tenor keen, she kills. That chorus is the part of the song that Destiny’s Child interpolated on a song that’ll eventually appear in this column. Harry sings about losing yourself in the club, a time-honored dance-music lyrical concern. The dancers in her chorus are drugged out of their minds, “almost comatose,” finding “face-to-face sightless solitude.” That could be dystopian, but the way Harry delivers the word “rapture” tells us that she thinks it’s magical. Later on, she raps about a man from Mars eating up everyone dancing in those clubs.
The whole man-from-Mars narrative is utterly ridiculous, and I love it. It comes out of nowhere, like a story that a little kid tells that has no beginning and no end. Harry addresses some vague “you,” telling you that you will go out driving in your car, meet an alien, and get shot to death and have your head eaten. Then the alien will ate you will eat cars and bars. Eventually, though, he’ll get tired of humanity, and he’ll return to space, where he’ll stop eating cars and eating bars. In space, he will only eat guitars. (Guitars are apparently readily available on Mars.) All of this is a reason to celebrate. The man from Mars has eaten you, but he won’t eat you again.
It’s all so utterly silly and playful, and yet Harry delivers it with a straight face. She sounds blasé, like she really couldn’t give half a fuck whether the man from Mars has eaten your head or not. This, of course, makes it funnier. The early rappers who Harry so admire were totally baffled by “Rapture,” though they also thought it was cool. It was a left-field piece of deadpan absurdity that went way further than any rap-adjacent song had ever gone, and further than any would go for a long time.
Blondie didn’t exactly present “Rapture” to the world as a rap song, but they did nod toward that world. The video for “Rapture” is a weird one, involving the white-suited and top-hatted dancer and choreographer William Barnes, who also directed the clip. (He’s the man from Mars, I guess, if anyone is.) The members of Blondie also attempt to dance, mostly unsuccessfully. They get to have glowing red eyes at the end, which is cool. But the video is mostly notable for its cameos.
Fab 5 Freddy and the graffiti writer Lee Quinones are in there. Grandmaster Flash was supposed to be in the video, too, but he didn’t show up for the shoot. So Jean-Michel Basquiat, another downtown art-world type with vague rap connections, played the DJ. Soon after, Flash scratched the “Flash is fast, flash is cool” bit into his pioneering DJ track “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel.” Two years later, “Rapture” appeared in Wild Style, the first-ever rapsploitation movie. Quinones and Freddy starred in Wild Style, and Chris Stein helped do some of the score.
So Blondie capitalized on rap music, but they were involved in it in one way or another, too. Soon after, other punk and new wave groups started playing around with the genre. Later in 1981, the Tom Tom Club made “Wordy Rappinghood,” and the Clash made “The Magnificent Seven.” This begat a whole new-wave half-rap vocal style — one that will reappear in this column long before we get any more actual rap songs.
Blondie didn’t last much longer after “Rapture.” They followed Autoamerican with one more album, the 1982 flop The Hunter. None of its singles came anywhere near the top 10. After that, Blondie broke up, partly because Chris Stein was suffering from the auto-immune disorder pemphigus. Harry and Stein kept working together, but their romantic relationship eventually ended. Harry had a halfway-successful solo career. (Her highest-charting single 1981’s “Backfired,” peaked at #43.) She also had a really cool run as an actor in movies like Videodrome and the OG John Waters Hairspray.
In 1997, Blondie got back together, with four of the six classic-era members reuniting. I actually saw their first show back together, at a DC alt-rock radio-station festival. I don’t remember anyone making a big deal about that being the first Blondie set in 15 years. I remember thinking they were great, but I don’t remember it feeling like a momentous occasion. They played in the middle of the afternoon, right in between Kula Shaker and the Verve Pipe — not exactly a prime slot. But the reunited Blondie have done very well for themselves. The 1999 comeback single “Maria” only got to #82 in the US, but it was a UK #1. Since then, Blondie have toured hard and put out five albums. We’re lucky to still have them. Once this whole shit is over, we should all try to go see them.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head commenting on the “Rapture” video on a 1993 episode of their show:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The singer Keva interpolated “Rapture” on KRS-One’s great 1997 single “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight),” which peaked at #70. Here’s its video:
(KRS-One has never had a top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, 1995’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” peaked at #57.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Oscar-winning actor Joe Pesci rapped over the “Rapture” beat on “Wise Guy,” a track from his 1997 album Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. I am delighted to report that “Wise Guy” has a music video. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Justin Timberlake and a galactically hot Kylie Minogue covering “Rapture” together at the 2003 Brit Awards:
(In the US, Minogue’s highest-charting single is her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion” peaked at #3; it’s a 6. Justin Timberlake will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s James Badge Dale claiming that he wrote “Rapture” and then dancing frenetically to it in a scene from the 2011 movie Shame: