(October 4, 2019). “You just clap your hands then you stomp your feet,
‘Cause you’re listenin’ to the sound of the sure shot beat.
“I’m the K-I-N-G, the T-I-M…
King Tim III, and I am him.”
Now what you’re about to read is not just a “claim,” although most articles and websites qualify it as such.
The first “rap” record to appear on wax – and on the charts – was by a group out of New York City, not one from Englewood, New Jersey.
And by rap, I mean the kind that led to hip-hop, not “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels or C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” or even “The Rapper” by Jaggerz.
No, this rap was by a true funk and disco hybrid that sang and played instruments; one who had been recording together professionally for nearly a decade before they briefly dabbled in the growing local New York City (and surrounding areas) phenomenon known as rapping.
Indeed, the first rap recording to chart was NOT by a trio of unknown New Jersey MCs cobbled together by the world’s first hip-hop mogul, Sylvia Robinson.
And no, it was NOT “Rapper’s Delight.”
It was called “King Tim III,” subtitled “Personality Jock,” a song by the veteran 1970s NYC-based group Fatback featuring a local radio DJ on guest vocals – the loquacious and boastful Tim Washington (hence the song’s title).
Yes, the Sugar Hill Gang out of Englewood is widely regarded as the group who had the first commercially successful rap record with “Rapper’s Delight,” and if historians limit that definition of success to the pop chart, then they‘d be correct…Sugar Hill Gang was the first.
But on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart (the 1970s’ predecessor to today’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list), Fatback’s “King Tim III” beat Sugar Hill Gang’s single by one week – debuting on the soul chart on October 6, 1979 (“Rapper’s Delight” first appeared on the chart dated Oct. 13). This also preceded the Sugar Hill Gang’s debut on the pop chart – the Hot 100 – by a whole month (11/3/79).
And just to avoid being viewed as one who quibbles over a week’s (or month’s) difference in chart debuts, the Fatback tune actually existed as the B-side of another song called “You’re My Candy Sweet,” an A-side single that had charted during the month of September that year, before anyone had even heard of “Rapper’s Delight.”
As further proof of its earlier existence, “King Tim III” and “Candy Sweet” both were on Fatback’s album called XII, which was released in March 1979 – a full six months before “Rapper’s Delight” and even three months ahead of Chic’s “Good Times,” the song on which the Sugar Hill Gang’s hit was based.
So with all that chronology backing it up, why don’t folks remember “King Tim III” or give the song its props as the first known recording of a rap song to make the charts? Even articles that mention the fact use caveats like “claims to be” or “largely regarded as” to qualify it.
Well, for starters, as far as hit records went, the song was pretty unremarkable. It featured our bygone hero King Tim rapping over a funky, yet not memorable soul beat with Fatback’s backup singers ultimately and frequently devolving into the basic refrain chant of “Do it to me, and I’ll do it to you.”
That chant was pretty easy to commit to memory – a sure fire formula for any hit record – but it and the rest of the song’s sung lyrics certainly didn’t knock anyone’s socks off (the rap part might have been a different story, however, as described later in this article).
Then there’s the fact that the record itself wasn’t even intended to be a hit as it was initially the B-side of another song, the aforementioned “You’re My Candy Sweet.” Only when “Sweet” fizzled out before it even got started did radio programmers flip it over to the more interesting “King Tim III,” which ultimately peaked at a mediocre No. 26 on the soul chart (versus No. 67 for “Sweet”).
Which brings up the next point: “King Tim” was a pure funk jam, not a crossover pop or disco tune, making it the antithesis to “Rapper’s Delight.” In that regard it was no different than any of Fatback’s other music as far as the group’s target audience went. Their songs usually performed moderately well on the soul chart, but none of them ever reached the Hot 100.
In fact, one could argue that Fatback (or under its earlier name the Fatback Band) might still be the most successful soul group that never made the Hot 100. In all, they had 31 hits on Billboard’s Soul Singles chart, verses the big goose egg they laid on the pop chart.
But they were an established soul group nonetheless, and you’d think a band with that credential going for it would have been better reflected in the annals of hip-hop history than a trio of newcomers with no previous track record whose entry into the rap universe was made possible by interpolating someone else’s record, i.e., “Good Times” by Chic.
Yet it’s that interpolation that provides perhaps the biggest key to why “King Tim III” has taken a backseat to “Rapper’s Delight” for exactly 40 years, since their back-to-back debuts in October 1979.
Chic’s “Good Times,” the foundation for “Rapper’s Delight,” had been inescapable during the summer of ‘79. It was the hugely successful jam that wound up being the biggest soul hit of the year. Surely anything remotely related to Chic’s big smash was going to have some of that success rub off on it.
“Rapper’s Delight” was the first such song to capitalize off Chic’s historic record and, in turn, the Sugar Hill Gang’s record became iconic in its own right.
But there was even more to it than that. A song-by-song comparison of “King Tim III” with “Rapper’s Delight” would put the Sugar Hill tune at least slightly ahead of Fatback’s in terms of rap quality, at least IMHO.
From start to finish – and for fifteen fun-filled minutes on the long version – the Sugar Hill Gang’s Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee spit verses that grabbed your attention and never relinquished it. Not only did they brag about themselves and their prowess on the mic (and elsewhere) – beginning a rap tradition that has become perhaps the genre’s most enduring trademark – but they also told stories that were entertaining and relatable…or, at least that was the case for one long story about the nasty meal that rapper Wonder Mike had to endure at a friend’s house.
The fact that SHG’s rhymes were set to a familiar pop/soul hit was merely icing on the cake – with “Good Times” serving as the convenient musical vehicle through which the three rappers (or, more accurately, their bosses) chose to deliver their catchy messages.
“King Tim III,” on the other hand, had its share of boastful verses by Fatback’s namesake guest, and those rhymes were commendable for the most part with early hip-hop catch phrases like “to the beat, everybody!,” but they didn’t set the world on fire.
Consider the following lines (and remember – this was 1979 – when you do):
“We’re strong as an ox and tall as a tree; We can rock you so viciously. We throw the highs in your eyes, the bass in your face…we’re the funk machines that rock the human race.”
Or how about this gem of a King Tim lyric that would likely be doubly shunned by today’s #MeToo sensors and the hardcore rap generation that gave up on words like “butt” eons ago:
“Just grab your partner around and ’round; and grab her by the butt and boogie down.
Just open up her jacket and open her bra; and dance just like at the Mardi Gras”
And so it was “Rapper’s Delight” that became the first rap song to crossover and reach the Hot 100 and the first to crack the top 40 of that chart – at No. 36 in January 1980. It also peaked at No. 4 on the Soul Chart, after “King Tim III” had already been forgotten by radio.
And it is “Rapper’s Delight” that has gone on to be recognized in history for its cultural significance – with a 2011 preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
“Rapper’s Delight” is also listed among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of all Time – at No. 251. That list recognizes songs of all genres for their importance to music history, as determined by the song’s cultural, commercial or critical success.
But Fatback’s and King Tim’s loyal minions shouldn’t completely lament. If nothing else, “King Tim III” did have one thing going for it that “Rapper’s Delight” did not.
The Fatback Band’s song relied on no sampling or interpolation of someone else’s hit as KTIII was an original musical composition. Who knows, perhaps if Fatback’s tune had been the bigger hit, maybe it would have altered the course of hip-hop history altogether.
Instead, the absence of sampling turned out to be nothing more than a noteworthy virtue that may have also been the song’s undoing as far as reaching its full chart potential and, ultimately, its rightful place in history is concerned.
Regardless, let the record show that it was Fatback’s “King Tim III,” featuring DJ Tim Washington, that was the first rap, as in hip-hip, record to ever chart – 40 years ago this week – on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart.
So remember that the next time you hear the lines “Stomp your feet then you clap your hands; Cause you’re listenin’ to the sound of the Fatback Band.”
When you hear it, you’ll know who did it first.
Happy 40th anniversary to Bill Curtis and his longstanding band Fatback on what was truly an unsung hit and the first rap record to ever chart – “King Tim III (Personality Jock).”
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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