This Is Real-Time Rap History: Grandmaster Caz Makes Peace With Big Bank Hank
Earlier this month, The Sugarhill Gang’s Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson died after a bout with cancer. At 57 years old, Hank carried the honor of rapping on one of the genre’s breakthrough records, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” However, Heads know that Hank was never a writer, and even down to his most famous rhyme, the lyrics clearly pointed (from the opening ‘letterman’ line) to an oft-overlooked point of history: Grandmaster Caz (then known as “Casanova Fly”) penned the indelible couplets that are etched into the monuments of Hip-Hop history.
In the 35 years that followed “Rapper’s Delight,” Hank and Caz went different directions. Signed to Sugar Hill Records, Hank, who began as Caz’s manager (after being recruited as a Bronx bouncer) maintained a string of hits with Wonder Mike and Master G. Caz would co-found the Cold Crush Brothers/Cold Cold IV, and become one of Rap’s most influential MCs, a credit that has never equated to significant record sales.
In a powerful reflection on the late Big Bank Hank published at Medium’s Cuepoint, Caz pulls no punches on his former friend and manager’s misgivings surrounding the lyrics, royalties, or fame. There are cinematic accounts described of Hank abandoning Caz just weeks after “Rapper’s Delight” took form, perhaps stemming from Caz’s disinterest regarding Sugarhill Gang’s skills, the “borrowed rhyme,” or Heads in the Bronx mistaking the New Jersey-based Rap star for the Bronx street artist. Caz recalls running into Hank in the early 1980s, after one artist had become a semi-Pop star, and the other, still cutting 12″ singles on small labels, rocking raw Hip-Hop parties. The interaction is that of Brian De Palma films.
Caz would release “MC’s Delight,” and dedicate a large part of his career to correcting the short-sighted history books regarding his accomplishments, and as Sugarhill Gang’s studio assembly.
However, in the years that followed, after Sugarhill Gang disbanded (Hank remained in the group, with two unpublicized replacements for Mike and G, including Joey Robinson of the Sugar Hill Records family), history may have been more kind to Caz, given his longstanding artistic merits. Caz has been a living artifact of Hip-Hop’s 1970s beginnings, giving tours, speaking at universities, appearing in documentaries like Vh1’s “NYC: 1977” and writing, including a column at Mugshot magazine.
In a 2004 meeting at a Bronx retrospective park-jam (thanks to the incredible Tools Of War crew), iconic photographer Joe Conzo snapped the only photograph believed to be in existence of Hank and Caz together, which is included in the article. In the photo, both men are smiling, with tremendous accomplishments behind them, still tied to Hip-Hop, to each other. It ain’t all good, but it’s better than it could (or should) be.
In the last couple years, Hip-Hop has made a huge to do (and perhaps rightfully so) surrounding Jay Z slapping hands with Dame Dash at a party. Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight catch an Instagram selfie together, with some strange White dudes crowding in at a posh L.A. nightclub. Jeezy and Ross are cool again, and Consequence and Q-Tip live another day as cousins.
Given the historical context of Rap, the checks that have been cut, the lives that have been touched, and two middle-aged men, one of whom is no longer with us, there are few things more moving than Grandmaster Caz making peace with Big Bank Hank 35 years after “Rapper’s Delight.”