Feature Interview: Sugarhill Gang
Hip-hop legends discuss ups and downs of “Rapper’s Delight”
When it comes to the greatest songs of all time, only one group holds the title of having hip-hop’s first hit record – the legendary Sugarhill Gang. In 1979, the group’s single “Rapper’s Delight” set off a pop explosion that thrust the group into hip-hop superstardom and onto radio stations worldwide. Like The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night”, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the multi-platinum track became a landmark in music history. It helped popularize hip-hop as a new genre, opened doors for generations of young rappers and inspired over three decades of culture.
Unfortunately, the feel good story for the hip-hop hit makers took a turn for the worst after creative differences broke up The Sugarhill Gang in the mid-’80s and led to a nightmare of heated legal battles that have lasted ever since. Their label, Sugarhill Records and band mate Big Bank Hank left members, Wonder Mike and Master Gee in the dust over publishing, royalties and even their trademarked names. As if that was not enough, they also started touring the group with the stolen identities of Mike and Gee.
After 20 years of silence and struggling to make ends meet working nine-to-fives, Wonder Mike and Master Gee began speaking out. In 2013 they created a documentary called, I Want My Name Back, a tell-all and come back story to reclaim their identities and rightful place in hip-hop history. They also began touring again under a new name, The Rapper’s Delight Experience. With their mysterious fall from the spotlight revealed and fans’ support, two of hip-hop’s pioneers are starting to finally get the respect they worked so hard for.
At a special stop in Toronto, Wonder Mike and Master Gee joined Canadian hip-hop pioneer Maestro Fresh Wes, former MuchMusic host Michael Williams and Sugarhill Records’ bassist Doug Wimbish for a film screening and panel to share their story of struggle and celebrate the 35th anniversary of the song “Rapper’s Delight”. Showing credit where it’s due, the Harbourfront Centre, which hosted the night, honored the real Mike and Gee with the Harbourfront Centre Legacy Award for their contribution to music history.
After their screening, panel and special performance, the hip-hop icons shared a candid and brutally honest interview to discuss their legacy, future direction and advice to young artists.
WHAT DOES CELEBRATING A LEGACY OF 35 YEARS IN HIP-HOP MEAN TO YOU?
Master Gee: That I’ve known Wonder Mike too damn long (laughs). When I first started, I didn’t think I would do anything for 35 years. Then to have the kind of impact that we’ve had musically is pretty cool. If anyone can do anything this long, it’s a pretty cool thing. Then to have this effect worldwide is even cooler. That’s why it’s a celebration.
Wonder Mike: We’re always learning how far our music has reached. We love the fans’ stories of when they first heard the song or hearing how it was the first album they bought. We were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Rapper’s Delight” is in the Library of Congress archives. We always learn something about how far the music has reached. We’re glad to be a part of the artists that are always current and playing somewhere like Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Bon Jovi. We’re humble guys, we don’t go around tooting our own horn. We’re always getting a new glimpse of the impact our music has around the world. When we’re at home I’m daddy, Mike, a son and brother, but when we step on stage to rock the house, we learn something new every day.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT YOUR MUSIC WILL MEAN IN ANOTHER 35 YEARS?
Master Gee: I’ve thought about it because my children are musically involved. I feel they are going to have the legacy to represent. It’s like the Royal Family, you grow into it and you have to take on your duties. Our children and their children are going to be the curators of our legacy.
Wonder Mike: I don’t think our music will ever die out. The impact and influence is there. When people hear our music, it’s an instant party. Whether it’s at birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, corporate parties, nightclubs, people recognize the songs and they will always have the power to get people dancing. You automatically identify with them just like Nat King Cole, or “Stella by Starlight” by Frank Sinatra, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett, “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, “Hard Day’s Night” by The Beatles – it’s impact stuff. The music we’re doing now is going to be released this year and that is another set of reasons that I think we’ll live on. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing in the subways of New York or at the Grammys; an artist always wants his art to be appreciated.
“I don’t think our music will ever die out. The impact and influence is there. When people hear our music, it’s an instant party. Whether it’s at birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, corporate parties, nightclubs, people recognize the songs and they will always have the power to get people dancing.” – Wonder Mike
HOW DID THE DOCUMENTARY I WANT MY NAME BACK COME INTO FRUITION?
Master Gee: Our manager introduced us to the director Roger Paradiso, we told him the story and then he got turned on to the opportunity. He liked the idea that despite everything that happened with Sugarhill Records, that Mike and I still maintained our friendship. That’s why the theme is about two guys who maintained their friendship for 35 years, meanwhile being positive, fighting the good fight and winning. Initially, I was apprehensive about getting that deep into my business, but I live to say that it was a shot in the arm for us. The movie has done a lot for our careers.
Wonder Mike: It’s not a 90 minute music video. It’s a David and Goliath story, a buddy movie and a story about not being pushed around. It starts out with the drama and then the ultimate outcome of Sugarhill Records and the group. We weren’t the ones left by the wayside. Sugarhill was a meat grinder and we’re not going that way. We’re not going to be used and tossed aside – screw that. That’s why we’re here in Toronto and why the Grammy Hall of Fame Award happened. We’re not giving up and we’re not going away, we’re here. We’re the originals and no one is going to take that legacy. We don’t look back.
DO YOU STILL KEEP IN CONTACT WITH THE OTHER ARTISTS SIGNED TO SUGARHILL RECORDS?
Wonder Mike: I don’t know where they all are. We ran into Lil Rodney C from Funky 4 + 1 and Spoonie Gee and we’ve performed with Angie Stone from The Sequence. But a lot of the Sugarhill roster we have no idea where they are. As far as West Street Mob, the main guy Joey Robinson Jr. (who is the son of Sugarhill Records’ founder Sylvia Robinson) is our adversary in the documentary, so we don’t communicate with him.
“We were the powerhouses, just like The Temptations and the Four Tops of Motown Records.” – Master Gee
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU STOOD THE TEST OF TIME WHILE OTHER ARTISTS SIGNED TO SUGARHILL RECORDS DID NOT?
Master Gee: The major bulk of the legacy of Sugarhill Records is The Sugarhill Gang, as well as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Everyone else had regional hits and pockets of the country they were popular in. But to be able to still perform at places like Harbourfront Centre and do TV shows you have to have a serious body of work. It was like their music was good for its time, but it didn’t have that legacy. We know the girls from The Sequence; their record has been sampled, but unfortunately they didn’t have that transcending ability. Our music, just like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”, “Freedom”, “The Birthday Party” stuck and that’s the reason why you see us, Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash still out. We were the powerhouses, just like The Temptations and the Four Tops of Motown Records.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT YOU WOULD ADD TO THE FILM’S STORYLINE AFTER WATCHING IT?
Master Gee: I’ve never watched it. I don’t watch myself on TV and movies. I know about it from the story and how it goes, but I’ve never watched it. I won’t watch it. As far as adding something to it, I would actually like to do the next version of what we have going on, from where the movie lets off to the next chapter. Everyone knows we went through a settlement situation and the “Lala Song”. What happens from 2012 until now? There might be another documentary in it – the new album and upswing.
WHAT DOES THE NEW ALBUM CLUB ON LOCK SOUND LIKE?
Master Gee: You’ve heard samples of it with “Lala Song” with Bob Sinclar. There’s some digital re-mastering of the classics. We’re working on some collaboration with other artists as well. It’s an expression of where we are and what we want to do. We want people to appreciate the classics, but at the same time introduce them to some of the stuff we’ve been exposed to and been experiencing over the years.
Wonder Mike: It is going to be an expression of hip-hop, rock and some slow jams. We’re in control of this and not limited by the label. The formula worked then and we always appreciated the reaction to those hits, but it’s time for new music.
“Don’t worry about the glamorous aspects of it. Stay true to the artistry of it. If you’re able to get an opportunity to express yourself on a grand scale, be 100 per cent appreciative. A lot of people don’t have the chance to live their life through their creations, so focus on the creations.” – Master Gee
WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE OF THE RAPPER’S DELIGHT EXPERIENCE?
Master Gee: The original goal is to create music and let people understand that we are bigger than the songs “Rappers Delight”, “Apache” and “8th Wonder”. We also play instruments, produce and write screenplays. We’ve been writing songs and doing things that Sugarhill Records never gave us the chance to do. We’re more into the artistry of the entertainment business than the glamour of it. That’s what it is really all about. At the end of the day, it’s about me working with my buddy, that’s what I came back for.
Wonder Mike: We want to get bigger and not in a hedonistic way. We want to enlarge the show and with background singers, a brass section, guitars and lighting to make it on a grander scale. We don’t want to have any problems like at Sugarhill Records. It’s not to stack up a bunch of stuff, but to take care of our own lives, take care of business and create the things we want to. Artists create no matter what.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUNG ARTISTS LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?
Wonder Mike: You have to have good legal counsel, period. It is not the exciting part. It is not a voluntary part. It is a necessary part. You have to have that and good people on your side. As far as the artistic side is concerned – be original! If you’re influenced by other artists – that’s cool. But don’t bite and copy trying to fit into a niche to make a few bucks. That is why the classic artists are still around. It’s why I saw Gladys Knight last year in New York City and she rocked the house. When people hear your records, make it distinct, because people know Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Bon Jovi, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra. If you got something to say, say it.
Master Gee: Don’t worry about the glamorous aspects of it. Stay true to the artistry of it. If you’re able to get an opportunity to express yourself on a grand scale, be 100 per cent appreciative. A lot of people don’t have the chance to live their life through their creations, so focus on the creations. Also having the right teams around you is important, because you have to have the business handled. Make sure it’s taken care of. Don’t be scared to negotiate when they throw something at you. Make people work for what they want. If individuals want to do business with you, they want to do it with you. You need to establish how they are going to be from the gate.
Wonder Mike: If you’re in it for the shine, you’re going to fall by the wayside even if you get in the door. It’s not about sitting in a leather chair, getting manicures while someone feeds you champagne and does your hair. If you’re in it for that then you’ve cut your own throat. Have good music, have good representation and have the right perspective. If you take care of those things, then the rest will come.
Interview by. Mark Blendheim
Photo 1 courtesy of. The Rapper’s Delight Experience + Photo 2 courtesy of. Riley Wallace