Hip-hop pioneers, The Sugarhill Gang

Former Sugarhill Gang members Wonder Mike and Master Gee discuss their decades-long battle to reclaim their legacy.

When three young men from New Jersey—Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien—went into a studio in 1979 and cut the 14-minute single "Rapper's Delight" under the moniker of the Sugarhill Gang, little did they know the song would change the face of the music business. Selling over eight million records, they were the first rap group to reach international fame and brought hip-hop and the rap culture into mainstream consciousness. The trio disbanded in 1985 and is the subject of the documentary, I Want My Name Back, chronicling a 30-year battle to reclaim their rights and recognition as hip-hop pioneers.


Tavis: It’s a lesson that too many musicians have learned the hard way down through the years – one-sided contracts can render accomplishments completely moot. The group formerly known as Sugarhill Gang found that out.

They no longer have the legal right to call themselves by the name they made famous. Wonder Mike and Master Gee started Sugarhill Gang while they were still babies. One, in fact, was still in high school.

Their first hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” was hip-hop’s breakthrough single and opened the door for the mainstream success of rap that we know today. Just how this trio, which also includes, of course, Big Bank Hank, lost the right to their name and to their music is the subject of a powerful new documentary titled appropriately “I Want My Name Back.”

Let’s take a look at a clip from this film, where they’re talking about how their managers spent their money.


Tavis: Master Gee, why is this a story that is told over and over and over again? It’s like there’s so many groups that this has happened to and yet it seems that for so many of these people, the lesson is never learned.

Guy O’Brien: Because it’s so engaging. All this glamour’s thrown at you and you’re going to be a star, and all of the – let’s take you out to dinner. All this stuff is happening at one time, and it’s smoke and mirrors, and it’s all designed to keep you from thinking about the business aspect of it.

Mike says it all the time – it’s called the music business, and a lot of times you don’t get the business aspect first. It’s all about the show.

Tavis: But when you were in high school, as you were at the time –

O’Brien: Yes, yes.

Tavis: – how’s one supposed to get all that? How do you learn that when you’re –

O’Brien: You don’t.

Tavis: – you’re a high school student.

O’Brien: You don’t. You don’t, man. Again, I was 17, so I was excited about the opportunity to get involved in a project. I thought it was going to be a regional situation. I thought it was going to be from Boston to Florida, I’d probably be kind of popular and get a date or two, maybe, out of it. (Laughter) Yeah, you know, I’m a kid.

Tavis: Yeah.

O’Brien: So I wasn’t really looking into the business side of it, and they took advantage of that fact.

Tavis: Yeah.

Same question for you, Wonder Mike. I’m curious as to what your sense is as to why, given all the folk this had happened to prior to Sugarhill Gang, why it in fact happened to the Sugarhill Gang.

Michael Wright: Well, each artist has a disposition, a certain character, and you’re looking for a little love. That’s why comedians do what they do, actors do what they do. We were kind of glory hounds, just like because we’re artists.

O’Brien: Yeah.

Wright: We liked the applause and we liked the shine and all this, but it’s not enough. People who are artists, they want their music, their art, their acting craft to get out, and once it’s appreciated, that seems to be unfortunately enough. But you’ve got to take care of your business, surround yourself with good counsel, and that didn’t happen.

Tavis: I wonder as you look back on it, Master Gee, whether or not there was something you – not just something you could have done different. That’s pretty obvious, that things could have been done different. No doubt about that.

O’Brien: Right, right.

Tavis: The question is whether or not at that time you even knew better to have made different decisions.

O’Brien: You’d think at that time. I go back in my mind – I’ve been going back in my mind for a long time about that situation, and I think the one thing that I could have done was been a little bit more patient.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: I was so anxious. We had already recorded, it was time to – they were talking about oh, the track’s done, let’s go, let’s get it out, we got to sign the contracts. I was so anxious, I really – I should have been more patient. I really (unintelligible). I should have been more patient and allowed things to happen from the back end of it, from the behind-the-scenes side of it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Wright: When “Rapper’s Delight” hit and we got all this love from all over the world, I was kind of expecting it, because I always wanted to do this, ever since I saw “Hard Day’s Night” when I was a little kid as a movie. I said, “Oh, man, I got to do that for a living.”

When it hit, I was good. But that’s not enough. Success, my brother always said, “Success doesn’t really mean you made it,” and I always say shine is not the end of the road.

O’Brien: That’s right, that’s right.

Wright: You can shine and be taken advantage of. You’ve got to take care of your business.

Tavis: So in what ways you guys taken advantage of? The documentary explores this in detail, but give me some sense of what the worst part of this nightmare is.

O’Brien: Merchandising. They were using our likeness at the concerns, and we weren’t being compensated for it.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: Publishing – we weren’t explained the depth of publishing until much later on in our careers. It’s gone on to you even get to the point now where we were watching, and I watched from afar because I stepped away from the group in ’85, but they performed all over the world, actually saying that they were me, trying to erase my legacy from the world.

Me, Guy O’Brien, the person that created the Master Gee situation, individual that went out later on, is now telling the world that Guy O’Brien is not Master Gee; I’m Master Gee, with the media, interviews, talking this way, and it’s (unintelligible).

Wright: That’s the most insidious part of it all.

Tavis: Yeah, right.

Wright: You can take royalties, put out plush toys and greeting cards and balloons, such as our case, and not being compensated, and you hear your music in movies. But to go out and commit identity fraud –

O’Brien: Really.

Wright: – saying that someone else is Master Gee, someone else is me, Wonder Mike, who in the world does that? That’s beyond ridiculous.

Tavis: What do you guys make of the impact that you’ve had on the genre, because –

O’Brien: We call it mind-blowing.

Tavis: – if ever there were a song that had been sampled and sampled and sampled and sampled, it would be –

O’Brien: Mind-blowing, mind-blowing.

Wright: I still never get used to it, because we both have our heroes, music-wise. We all have our heroes, and to be put in that position to where people always come up after the show or even in the street, “Yo, I first bought that record so-and-so,” and it means so much to me and all this, it’s all good, because at home, away from the scene, I’m Dad, I’m the brother, I’m the son, the boyfriend, and when I step outside that door in this realm, in this arena, it’s Wonder Mike.

O’Brien: Yeah, it’s great.

Wright: I never get tired of the shine; I never get tired of the genuine love of our fan base.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: Totally.

Wright: That’s why we would never disrespect our fans like somebody else saying they’re us, but it’s all good.

O’Brien: It’s overwhelming for me, man.

Tavis: Yeah.

O’Brien: Oh, it’s just – I’m really a, really, I’m a private person, so it’s kind of crazy that as private as I am, I’m so exposed as an individual. So to have people treat us like that, it just kind of – sometimes it’s really like unnatural for a minute.

Tavis: What do you make of the rap game today, and put another way, could Sugarhill Gang get off the ground today in this hip-hop environment?

O’Brien: It would be tough. It would be tough, because you got to understand when we started, man, there was nothing. We were the first rap stars, the first. Now there’s a lot of competition, man. There’s a lot of stuff that you have to navigate through now, so it would be tough.

We could still do it, though, yeah. Because I got faith in Mike and I got faith in myself.

Tavis: But could you do it in this environment –

O’Brien: Absolutely.

Tavis: – from a lyrical standpoint?

O’Brien: Yes. If we were in the same –

Wright: Yeah, yeah.

O’Brien: – if it was the same setup. Age-wise, demographics for the fan base, yes, we could do it, because –

Wright: I agree with you (unintelligible).

O’Brien: I don’t want to interrupt – the reason why is because together as a writing team, we’re phenomenal.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: All of those songs, 95 percent of those songs, we wrote most of those songs together, and those songs are a reflection of who we were and what we felt and what was going on at the time. So to bring it into the now and us living in these times, I believe we would still do the same thing.

Wright: In today’s lyrical climate –

O’Brien: Yeah, yeah, I still, I think we would do the same.

Wright: – I think we could still survive, because we would never come from a misogynistic point of view.

O’Brien: Right.

Wright: We would never advocate violence.

Tavis: There go your sales. (Laughter) That’s why I’m asking – how you going to sell the record?

O’Brien: No, no – no, no – because you have – yeah.

Wright: Because people will always want to have a good time.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: If it sounds good and it feels good, they’re going to do it, man.

Tavis: Right.

O’Brien: Yeah.

Wright: Now this new music, we’re partying still, but there’s more to life than popping bottles and all this. The social relevance, we have to express what’s going on in the world today, because this is a crazy world.

O’Brien: I think we would segue. I think we would. Because we sound good and we know how to write songs and we know how to put it out there and give –

Wright: He’s very shy.

Tavis: Yeah, I see. (Laughter) He’s a businessman.

O’Brien: Yeah, you know, I’m doing my thing.

Tavis: But you have been successful, though, as a businessman.

O’Brien: Absolutely, yes, I did.

Tavis: You stepped away from the music and did –

O’Brien: I stepped away and I went into the direct marketing door-to-door sales industry, and I was extremely successful, and that actually was my saving grace. It helped me go through the process of whatever happened as a kid.

That’s actually the foundation of what I got to be able to do what we’re doing now, as far as dealing – I learned about business, I learned about management, I learned these things. Fortunately, I was able to go through my life and yeah, we did really well.

Tavis: Even though you are now – I think of Prince, the artist formerly known as, back in the day.

O’Brien: Yes, exactly.

Wright: Yeah.

Tavis: So you guys are formerly –

O’Brien: Yes.

Tavis: – the Sugarhill Gang.

O’Brien: Yes.

Tavis: But do you get a chance to still get on the mic?

O’Brien: Do we perform?

Tavis: Yeah.

O’Brien: Absolutely, are you kidding?

Tavis: You’re still doing the tours?

Wright: Still, yeah.

O’Brien: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: We never did – people say, “Do you get tired of performing?” No. Because when we hip-hop-the-hibbit or whatever, (laughter) throw your hands in the air, we hear that love come back.

O’Brien: Jump on it, any one of the songs.

Wright: That’s what we groove on.

O’Brien: It’s amazing to see people sing these songs, man.

Tavis: Right.

Wright: You see it in the (unintelligible). It’s little clubs, it’s in the basement, playing, and then it’s in front of 30,000 people in Barcelona outside of the concert, and he’s on the drums, I’m on bass, our band is on keyboards, and man, please.

Tavis: I got to get out of here. I could do this for hours, though. (Laughter) How does it feel, though, all these years later, all these years later, when you’re on stage and you hit “Rapper’s Delight” and everybody in the audience knows every word?

O’Brien: It’s phenomenal.

Wright: Love it.

O’Brien: It’s phenomenal.

Tavis: You got a whole crowd just going with you.

O’Brien: It’s phenomenal, because you know.

Wright: We could turn the mics down and just stand there.

O’Brien: Yeah, we could – yeah, really, we could just –

Wright: And watch. (Laughter) And they will sing the song.

Tavis: I know they will, yeah.

Wright: It’s great.

O’Brien: Yeah, they’ll correct you. (Laughter)

Wright: (Unintelligible) yeah.

O’Brien: Uh-huh, man.

Wright: You messed up on that (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Unintelligible) yeah. (Laughter)

O’Brien: That’s not how it goes.

Wright: Yeah, man. Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you guys on.

Wright: Thank you, brother.

Tavis: Master Gee, Wonder Mike, glad to have you here, man.

O’Brien: Thank you, Tavis, thank you.

Wright: Thank you, brother.

Tavis: I don’t care what the – I can say this; they can. They always Sugarhill Gang to me. (Laughter) Sue me. Sue me for (unintelligible) come on. No, I don’t want to taunt nobody.

Wright: See, see?

Tavis: Anyway, the documentary is called “I Want My Name Back,” and –

O’Brien: Yeah.

Wright: You can get it everywhere.

Tavis: It’s everywhere.

O’Brien: Yeah, Amazon, yeah.

Tavis: Go online, get it wherever.

Wright: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Glad to have you on.

O’Brien: Thank you, man.

Wright: Thank you.

Tavis: I want to see you on a stage. I’m going to make that happen this summer.

O’Brien: Oh, oh, you need to come out.

Wright: Oh, we going to make sure you come.

Tavis: I got to see y’all (unintelligible).

O’Brien: You got to come out, you’ll have a great time.

Tavis: Love to see you.

Wright: We’ll make sure.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm