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‘He’s got rhythm’: The Sugarhill Gang loves when Michael Nutter does ‘Rapper’s Delight’

Master Gee and fellow Sugarhill Gang member Wonder Mike know all about Mayor Michael Nutter’s penchant for performing “Rapper’s Delight.” They’ve heard about how the political leader of the nation’s fifth-largest city stays on beat and gets every word right. They even welcomed him on stage a few years ago for a surprise performance.

Gee and Mike are two of rap’s biggest stars, pioneers in fact. Their song has sold more records than any in rap history, and it has been covered far and wide, sometimes good and sometimes bad (remember the Granny from “The Wedding Singer?”). But to have someone as prominent as Nutter perform it as often as he does puts him near the top of the list of most famous people the Sugarhill Gang have heard rap their song.   

Sandra Bullock, George Clooney — we’ve had a lot of people do the lyrics,” Gee says. “But Nutter is top five.”

During his time in office, Nutter has rapped lyrics to the song numerous times — at his inauguration, at the Welcome America festival on the Parkway, at a comedic fundraising event in Pittsburgh, pretty much all over. The first time he did it was a few hours after he got elected in November 2007, at a private party in the Walnut Room. It’s become his trademark. We also hear Nutter may have one last performance of “Rapper’s Delight” up his sleeve before his tenure as mayor ends Monday.

“It’s easy to listen to and easy to dance to and at least for parts,” the mayor-turned-rapper tells Billy Penn, “easy for me to remember.”

Nutter has come a long way since the first time he heard “Rapper’s Delight.” Back then, in 1979, he was a 22-year-old working at Club Impulse, a popular bar owned by Benjamin and Ruth Bynum. Most media accounts have described Nutter as Mixmaster Mike, a club DJ, the type who spun records deep into the night. That’s not quite true.

“I wasn’t the house DJ,” Nutter says.

He had a variety of jobs at the bar. Nutter did everything from janitorial work to stocking the bar. But he did get to pick music. Before the house DJ came on at night, Nutter and his good friend Robert Bynum would sometimes get to play music for the early crowd. They played “Rapper’s Delight” over and over and over.

“We’d never heard anything like that before,” Nutter explains.

Almost nobody had, certainly not here in Philadelphia. Rap music was cultivated at Bronx and Queens house parties in the late 70s, and record label owner Sylvia Robinson thought recording and releasing a rap song would be a good idea. She found Big Bank Hank, the late third member of Sugarhill Gang, at a pizza parlor. Gee knew Hank from a mutual DJ friend, and he and Mike auditioned for the other spots in the group. They recorded the 15-minute song in one take.

The boastful lyrics set atop the beat from “Good Times” were an immediate success. As many as 50,000 copies of the record were sold per day during its peak. Nutter had been listening to artists like Gil Scott Heron, who rhymed spoken words over music, but Sugarhill Gang brought more energy, perfect for the clubgoers at Impulse.    

“I love Gil Scott Heron, but no one is trying to dance to his music,” Nutter says. “This was very, very new.”

Since being mayor Nutter has met multiple celebrities, including rappers like Jay-Z. But “Rapper’s Delight” has remained one of his favorite songs and Sugarhill Gang one of his favorite groups. In September 2008, about eight months into Nutter’s tenure, Sugarhill Gang came to Philadelphia to perform as part of a summer concert series at Strawberry Mansion’s Mander Recreation Center.

“I knew I had to be there,” Nutter says. “I just wanted to meet them.”

Gee, Hank and Mike offered far more than a handshake. They had heard that Philly’s mayor had rapped their song months earlier. They invited him to come on stage and rap. Nutter was up there, arm-in-arm, with his rap idols for a “Rapper’s Delight” performance so under the radar no media outlet was there to cover it.

“It was totally cool and incredible,” he says, “and something I never thought would happen.”  

He did pretty good, too. He always does pretty good when he performs “Rapper’s Delight,” according to Gee.

As it stands he’s got rhythm,” Gee says. “That’s a major foundation.”  

Gee says he and Mike would love to perform again with Nutter. And he has something of a tip for the outgoing mayor.

When Sugarhill Gang was in its heyday in the 80s, they performed multiple times at the Spectrum and the Philadelphia Civic Center. The concertgoers liked “Rapper’s Delight,” but “Apache” always proved to be more popular in Philly.

So perhaps for his next act Nutter should learn Sugarhill Gang’s other famous song.

“We closed the shows with Apache,” Gee says. “They wanted to hear Apache.”

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