Sunday, July 7, 2013

'I Want My Name Back': The Sugarhill Gang

Back in 1979, Wonder Mike (Michael Wright) and Master Gee (Guy O’Brien), the original members of The Sugarhill Gang, came up with a little musical  diddy called, ‘Rappers Delight.’

The song was so innovative, creative, infectious and fresh, that it became an instant hit and sent the group into the music industry stratosphere literally overnight.
From a pizza shop in Harlem to performing on the biggest stage in the world, Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee were literally taking the world by storm.

The Sugarhill Gang recorded the first ever platinum rap album and rap song and are credited with introducing Hip Hop to the world more than 30 years ago.

No one had ever heard what came to be known as the sound of Hip Hop. A new musical genre was born and The Sugarhill Gang quickly took on iconic status. They were riding high.

I Want My Name Back makes the case that the founding members of the Sugarhill Gang were exploited and defrauded by the owners (Joe Robinson, Sylvia Robinson and Joey Robinson) of the now-defunct Sugar Hill Records label.

But, as fast as the group’s success gained momentum, it was equaled by its musical tsunami.

Without any warning the group lost its name, status and identity.  Members were evicted from homes, became homeless, took minimum wage jobs and even turned to drugs after their careers were literally snatched out from under them, allegedly, by the Robinson family (Joe, Joey and Sylvia), who owned Sugar Hill Records. 

Over a 30 year period its been reported that Wonder Mike and Master Gee earned a total of $250,000.  That averages out to $8,334 per year.

The group’s story is told in the dramatic documentary, I Want My Name Back, currently available on DVD.

The documentary, narrated by Tony Matthews, boasts telling the real story about what happened to the Sugarhill Gang. It’s a revealing, introspective, personal, dramatic and sometimes intense piece of drama.

I caught up with Wonder Mike (WM/MW) and Master Gee (GO/MG) to talk about their ordeal and the documentary.

DD:  Why did you want to do the documentary I WANT MY NAME BACK?

GO/MG: It was time for us to tell how it really started. Some people have attempted to say how and when. No one has gotten the story completely right. And the second thing is for young aspiring artist not the make the same mistakes we made.

DD: If the people who watch this doc understand  nothing else, you’d like them to understand what?

GO/MG: Make sure you have good counsel and good people around you who can navigate you around this thing called ‘show’ There is nothing about ‘you’re the greatest and I love you and you’ll be alright.’ We were lured into a sense of confidence. We were young and naïve. It was the worst train robbery. 
DD: This is one of the worst stories I’ve ever heard about artists being ripped off.  How did this happen?

GO/MG: We had a royalty contract. We were OK about the use of our name and the name of the group. This is all about our breaking away from the record company in 1984 and 85. We put together our music history and doing shows and concerts. It infuriated the Robinson situation. Then it came out they trademarked everything. It was like, How did we have the audacity?
Most of the time this was going on – I had left and went to another portion of life. They had free reign on the situation. We had plotted and planned that once we were free we’d converge on them.  Wonder Mike was still involved with them that long.   I had become successful – doing marketing.

DD: Master Gee, what are you doing now?

GO/MG: Now – working full time working on my music. I’m semi-retired.

DD: Do you feel you now have your rightful place in music history? If not, do you think you ever will?

A: There are a lot of people in this world who know who we are and what we’ve done, but now with social media, it’s the right time for us to finish what we started. 

DD: How did you mentally deal with the devastation?

GO/MG: It’s very difficult. It was a dark time in my life. I was married to a beautiful person. I divorced cause I couldn’t get close. I was distant to my friend. It caused me to be closed off to the world in general. I was so torn up. I couldn’t convert that into a conversation. I couldn’t explain it. 

DD: In the documentary you talk about turning to drugs at one point. You got clean. How?

GO/MG: I decided I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t part of who I was. I wasn’t raised to do that thing. It was starting to control me and I didn’t want it to be part of my life.   

DD: What drugs were you taking?

GO/MG:  I don’t want to talk about it.

DD: Fair enough. What was the lowest and highest point of this whole thing?

GO/MG: The low point was when I realized there was nothing. There was no way to get back what was taken. The highest point was surrounding ourselves with legal people, combined with creating new music and pushing forward to complete my legacy.

DD: What lesson did Master Gee learn from all of this?

A: The lesson was to be patient and to respond rather than to react.

DD: What do you think about the progression of Hip Hop?

WM/MW: It goes around in circles. Hip Hop started and then with the message coming out with Furious 5 it depicted what was going on in the hood. Human nature pushed the envelope and it became something else. Later it became party music again. It’s always going to go in that cycle - party, introspective and back again.

DD: Based on what happened to you, what are your feelings about the music industry?

WM/MW: We have no problems with the music industry. It’s just that certain situation we were in. We’re still fighting to this day. We are not street corner performers. We write, record and perform. Being in the music business, when we perform, we would like to be compensated. Everyone else is being compensated. It started with us as the writers.

DD: Through it all you two remained friends. Did that make it bearable?

GO/MG: Yeah, no one is an island. Even The Word says to surround yourself with good counsel. We’ve always had our friendship. You have to document your life. Who lives like that? It’s necessary these days. Some people have taken advantage of the system.

DD:  I Want My Name Back soundtrack in spring 2013, your first in 25 years. What can fans expect?

GO/MG: We have a few things going on. On the soundtrack there are some of the songs in the documentary, but in more polished song format. We have Melle Mel and some other artists.

DD: There was a kind of mix up with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They were allegedly going to induct the wrong Sugarhill Gang. Are you finally, officially in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

GO/MG: No, not yet. It’s voted on. Every year is a ballot. All of this has to be cleared up first.

DD: Which rappers, Hip Hop artists are you impressed with today?

GO/MG: I do listen to Flo Rida, Pitbull and my man Lupe [Fiasco] was making some noise. Gotta talk about  Snoop Dogg [Snoop Lion], Dre, Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

MW/WM: I gotta say Kanye, Jay Z, Busta Rhymes. There music is going to live forever, they have all raised the bar.

DD: Can you forgive and forget?

GO/MG: We are repairing some severed relationships.

DD: What about Joey Robinson?  He at one time toured as Master Gee. After his parents passed (Joe Robinson and Sylvia Robinson), he owned Sugarhill Records.

MW/WM: Guy and myself are always in a defensive posture. We are going out and promoting our music. We have no time for this beef. We’ll make time if we are called into court. I don’t look forward to that. I don’t see a reconciliation. But, we’re all men. There is enough out here for everybody.  We won’t call ourselves Sugarhill Gang and you don’t call yourself Wonder Mike and Master Gee. We’re gracious men. If it happens, Ok!  But, I’m not holding my breath.

I Want My Name Back, A Go! Prods. Production, directed by Roger Paradiso, produced by Roger Paradiso, Josh Green, Edward J. Albowicz; executive producers, Milton Maldonado, Robin Strickland, Henry Williams.

With Guy O'Brien, Michael Wright, Henry Williams and Tracy Temple. Narrator: Tony Matthews.

I Want My Name Back, $14.98 on DVD; 94 minutes.

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