As Van Zandt was writing it, Schechter suggested that he include the names of the artists who had played Sun City in defiance of a United Nations-sanctioned cultural boycott. "I was probably still thinking of 20/20's exposé of conservative Africanists fifteen years earlier," says Schechter. Van Zandt wasn't sure that was wise, but did it anyway, asking in one of the original lyrics, "Linda Ronstadt, how could you do that?" and singling out Julio Iglesias, Queen, the O'Jays, Ray Charles and Rod Stewart. Van Zandt wasn't enthusiastic about writing those lyrics and soon dropped them to avoid offending those artists. Musically speaking, the song was a cutting edge fusion of hip-hop (which was still in its early development), R&B, and hard rock.
When Van Zandt was finished writing "Sun City", he and Schechter spent the next several months searching for artists to participate in recording it. Van Zandt initially declined to invite Bruce Springsteen, not wanting to take advantage of their friendship, but Schechter had no problem asking himself; Springsteen accepted the invitation. Van Zandt was also shy about calling legendary jazz artist Miles Davis, whom Schechter also contacted; with minimal persuasion, Davis also accepted. Eventually, Van Zandt and Schechter would gather a wide array of artists, including Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne and then-girlfriend Darryl Hannah, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, Pat Benatar, and Joey Ramone.
"Sun City" only reached #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1985, the reason for that low chart rank was because only about half of American radio stations played "Sun City", with some objecting to the lyrics' explicit criticism of President Ronald Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement." R&B stations felt it was too rock-oriented, while rock stations considered it too steeped in hip-hop and R&B. The song was banned in South Africa itself.
"Sun City" was picked as record of the year by many of the most influential music critics, topping the prestigious international Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for best single of the year.
On "Late Night with David Letterman," Letterman's Top 10 resolutions for 1986 was topped by, "I ain't gonna play Sun City."