Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 28, 1981: Blondie's 'Rapture' Becomes the First Rap Song to Top the U.S. Charts

Sure, the lyrics were dodgy at best, but the significance of the track was immense.

blondie rapture fab  freddy
Source: mega / Chrysalis

'Rapture' was inspired by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy.

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

Trying to pin peak-era Blondie into one genre is not only a reductive exercise, it’s also a fairly pointless one. There’s the punk of “Rip Her to Shreds”, the disco of “Heart of Glass”, the power-pop of “Union City Blues”, the New Wave of “Call Me”, the Caribbean-funk of “The Tide is High”… and, in “Rapture”, the first song featuring rap to ever make No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1981 rap was not exactly a new phenomenon – not if you knew where to look, at least. As far back as 1970, Gil Scott-Heron had recorded arguably the first rap song, with his poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, and in 1979, the Sugarhill Gang had broken into the Top 40 with “Rappers Delight”. By the turn of the decade artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc were creating a musical revolution in the Bronx… but outside the right New York neighborhoods, hip-hop remained a firmly underground movement.

Article continues below advertisement
blondie debbie harry
Source: mega

Blondie's genre-mashing blend of punk, disco, pop and funk broke new barriers for music.

At least, it did until March 28, 1981, when Blondie – already a huge band thanks to the chart-topping singles “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me” and “The Tide is High” – topped the charts with the second single from their fifth album Autoamerican.

“Rapture” (and you really do have to get past the terrible pun) began conventionally enough, a dreamy, drifty, disco-tinged track with Debbie Harry’s vocals soaring over a funk groove… but two minutes in, something extraordinary happens. The music stays the same, but Harry swaps singing for an extended three-minute rap.

If the lyrics themselves seem a touch simplistic now (they were supposedly penned by Chris Stein after a stoned B-Movie marathon) it wasn’t so much what Harry was saying that mattered, as the way she was saying it. If most people had never heard rap before then, nobody had heard it top the charts – and sell a million records along the way.

Today, “Rapture” might unkindly be labeled as a form of cultural appropriation. But the intentions behind it were anything but: it was a sincere and enthusiastic expression by Harry and Stein to bring some of the excitement of the emerging hip-hop scene to the masses, and it was born of a genuine love of the genre.

Article continues below advertisement

Never miss a story — sign up for the Q newsletter for the latest music news on all your favorite artists, all in one place.

blondie debbie harry chris stein
Source: mega

Chris Stein and Debbie Harry were entranced by New York's underground hip-hop scene.

Article continues below advertisement

The story behind the song begins with a party in the Bronx in 1978. Stein and Harry were invited along by their friend, the hip-hop pioneer and graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy, to experience for themselves the energy and excitement of the underground movement that was running in parallel to the punk scene, but a world away in terms of style and personnel.

The party was a musical free-for-all, and as well as featuring key figures like Grandmaster Flash and the Cold Crush Brothers, also included street kids who would jump on stage to freestyle over the DJs. Harry and Stein were entranced.

“I don’t remember there being any formality to it,” Harry said during a 2022 podcast interview. “It also seemed that there were some no-name kids that just jumped up there because they really had something to say, which was also very exciting.”

“It was nothing like what we were used to with bands on and off stage, and one band replacing another. It was this continuous madness of DJs and MCs coming up and performing in this sort of loop,” added Stein.

“It was just super exciting and eye-opening to see all this going on at the same time as the downtown music scene. We had heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the radio, so I had a basic conception of it, but seeing it in person was really eye-opening. I was very excited because, on a socio-political level, it was literally all these marginalized kids finding a voice.”

fab  freddy kool herc
Source: Tina Paul / WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Fab 5 Freddy and Kool Herc introduced Debbie Harry and Chris Stein to the Bronx hip-hop movement of the late 1970s.

Article continues below advertisement

Inspired, Harry and Stein decided to have a go themselves, and in late 1979 worked on the track for Autoamerican, their most musically diverse album to date, with orchestral, jazz, rocksteady and funk influences alongside their rock roots.

“The people we admired the most like Bowie and Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, were always redesigning themselves as they went along and changing, changing their genres,” said Stein.

Harry added, “It was just our nature as an artist. We both came from not a strictly musical ideology in art or music, and so our interests and our observations went further afield than somebody strictly interested in rock bands or pop bands.”

Released in November 1980, Automerican’s wilful eclecticism did not score well with the critics. Rolling Stone described it as “a terrible album, but it's bad in such an arcane, high-toned way that listening to it is perversely fascinating,” adding, “it's such an anthology of intellectual onanism that it's almost the rock equivalent of a godawful Ken Russell movie.”

It did, however, chime with record-buyers, making No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 7 in the Billboard 200. Lead single “The Tide Is High” hit No. 1 in January 1981, and two months later, so did “Rapture”.

Article continues below advertisement

Although the rap itself hasn’t aged particularly well, the fact it existed at all – and also that amongst the “man from Mars eating cars” nonsense there were overt name checks for Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash (“Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly, DJ spinnin’ I said, ‘My My’, Flash is fast, Flash is cool…”) – remains an important part of hip-hop’s evolution from the underground to the mainstream.

“A lot of rappers have told me over the years that that was the first rap song that they ever heard because rap really wasn’t on the radio in the beginning,” Harry told Entertainment Weekly in 2014, with Stein adding: “The most impressive was the Wu-Tang guys and the guys from Mobb Deep. They told us it was the first rap song they heard when they were kids.”


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More