Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday Night in Long Island City: Old School Hip-Hop with the Sugarhill Gang in Queensbridge Park

Queensbridge Park is always gloriously romantic on a beautiful summer evening, but tonight it was also sublimely, exuberantly nostalgic and buoyant when the avatars of old school hip-hop, the Sugarhill Gang, came to perform for an appreciative crowd.

If you've never been to Queensbridge Park, it's really a hidden gem, tucked away between Vernon Avenue and the river just north of the Queensboro Bridge, celebrating its centennial this year.

On a beautiful evening like tonight, you can see why the cantilever bridge is a cultural icon out of Gatsby, Simon & Garfunkel, and Spider-Man.

The F train is nearest, by the big Queensbridge housing projects, but we took the G from Williamsburg to its Court Square terminus, then walked up to the el for the 7 train one stop to Queensboro Plaza. It's a nice walk across Queens Plaza North, up 21st Street and across 41st Avenue. Lots of people were there early, putting down chairs and standing in front of the stage, with the bridge and East River as a gorgeous backdrop.

Remember Cuzins Duzin mini-donuts from the old Albee Square Mall? (Back in the day, we remember it when it was the old, old Albee Theatre.) They were in the park tonight with their tasty treats.

The smell of fresh popcorn permeated the air; for us, it only added to the nostalgia.

The Sugarhill Gang are much loved, and fondly remembered by many of us. No wonder they drew a big crowd and a tremendous response to their show from the moment they were introduced.

"Rapper's Delight," of course, was the first hip-hop single to make the Top 40. We listened to AM radio back in our '73 Mercury Comet and can remember hearing the Sugarhill Gang as we'd drive over the Marine Parkway Bridge to our first apartment in Rockaway in the fall of 1979.

Within the year, even the New York Times would take notice, as in this article, "The New 'Rapping' Style in Pop" by John Rockwell:
Everywhere one goes in urban communities these days, one hears the sound of "rapping." It comes from street-corner practitioners in black neighborhoods, from transitor radios (or "boxes") carried throughout the city. . . 'Rapping' is a style in which a lone performer translates street slang into chanted doggerel, articulated with a speedy intensity over some sort of rudimentary musical backdrop.

The 1980 New York Times seemed totally mystified:
Just who buys these rapping records awaits a marketing study. . . But the success of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" last year and this year's "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow attest to a more widespread interest. . .the Sugarhill Gang is from New Jersey, making the New York metropolitan area the true home of the modern-day rapping style.

Today we call it "old school." "Are you ready for some old school hip-hop?" Master Gee, or maybe it was another of the Sugar Hill Gang, asked us. "Yeah-eah!"

The Times finally reviewed the Sugar Hill Gang (we've seen their name as both two and three words) when they appeared at the Ritz in March 1981 with Grandmaster Flash, The Fabulous Five and the Funky 4 Plus 1 (the Gang did shout-outs to that some of that group's members, who were in the crowd). Robert Palmer's review concluded:

Rapping is probably familiar to most New Yorkers as an intrusive noise on the subway or in the park - the noise that comes out of blaring cassette players and portable radios. But as the Ritz show demonstrated, rapping has a much broader appeal than one might have anticipated. It's an intriguing test of the performer's verbal ingenuity and rhythmic exactitude, and it's fine.

Um, right. Tonight was fine.

The Sugarhill Gang asked the crowd what we were doing in 1979. Clearly, half the audience wasn't alive then. We had our first hardcover book of stories come out from a New York publisher; moving to our first solo apartment, a studio on the boardwalk in Rockaway; and teaching at the School of Visual Arts (where we still teach) and at Kingsborough Community College in the fall of "Rapper's Delight."

They've been touring since September 1979 and they still sound as good as they did coming over our transistor radio thirty years ago. Even better, if you count the added value of sweet nostalgia.

Yeah! They did the signature tune relatively early, with the usual countdown: 10...9...8....

i said a hip hop the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you dont stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat

now what you hear is not a test--i'm rappin to the beat
and me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet. . .

see i am wonder mike and i like to say hello
to the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow
but first i gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie
say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie
let's rock, you dont stop
rock the riddle that will make your body rock

In addition to Master Gee, Wonder Mike, and Big Bank Hank - that's Guy O'Brien, Mike Wright, Henry Jackson - there was Kory O, who's been with them, um, only like fifteen years.

The guys are getting older, like all of us, and we noticed that every once in a while, someone would take a break, towel off, drink some water and rest on the side for a few moments.

They also did "Apache" and one we like, "Eighth Wonder." They also did a tribute to their roots in P-funk.

We were sort of disappointed when their concert ended with their encore, an a capella version of the harshest criticism someone's mother's homemade chicken dinner ever got.

The macaroni's soggy, the peas are mushed,
And the chicken tastes like wood
So you try to play it off like you think you can
By saying that you're full
And then your friend says, "Mama, he's just being polite
He ain't finished, uh-uh, that's bull!"
So your heart starts pumpin' and you think of a lie
And you say that you already ate
And your friend says "Man, there's plenty of food"

So you pile some more on your plate
While the stinky food's steamin', your mind starts to dreamin'
Of the moment that it's time to leave
And then you look at your plate and your chicken's slowly rottin'
Into something that looks like cheese
Oh so you say "That's it, I gotta leave this place
I don't care what these people think,
I'm just sittin' here makin' myself nauseous
With this ugly food that stinks"

We left that place, the beautiful Queensbridge Park, not made nauseous at all. Good thing, too, for our fellow passengers on the Q101 and B61 buses back to Williamsburg.

It was a great evening of old school hip-hop in a pastoral setting. As Method Mike said, it was peaceful - no fights, no arguments - and joyful too. Thirty years from now, we hope to be in a place like that.

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