The Sugarhill Gang

Michael Wright and Guy O’Brien, better known as Wonder Mike and Master Gee, recount their cautionary tale of youth, success and the small print on contracts.

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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, “Rappers Delight,” was hip-hop’s breakthrough single and opened the door for the main stream success of rap that we know today.

Just how this trio, which also included, 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.

[Clip]

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 like, for so many of these people, the lesson is never learned.

Master Gee: Because it’s so engaging. You know, all this glamour is thrown at you and you’re gonna be a star and, you know, all 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.

You know, 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, how’s one supposed to get all that? How do you learn that when you’re a high school student?

Gee: You don’t, you don’t. You don’t, man. Again, I was 17, so I was excited about the opportunity to, you know, get involved in a project. And I thought I was gonna be a regional situation. You know, from Boston to Florida, I’d probably be kind of popular and get a date or two maybe out of it [laugh].

Yeah, you know, I’m a kid. So I wasn’t really looking into the business side of it and they took advantage of that fact.

Tavis: 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.

Wonder Mike: 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 them because we’re artists and we liked the applause and we liked to 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 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. The question is whether or not at that time you even knew better to have made different decisions.

Gee: You think of that time, you know. I go back in my mind. You know, 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. I was just so anxious.

You know, we had already recorded. You know, they were talking about, oh, the track is done, let’s go, let’s get it out. We gotta sign the contracts.

And I was so anxious. I should have been more patient. I should have been more patient and allowed, you know, things to happen from the back end of it, from the behind the scenes side of it.

Mike: When “Rappers 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 gotta do that for a living.

And when it hit, I was good. But that’s not enough. My brother always said success doesn’t really mean you made it.

And I always say shine is not the end of the road. You can shine and be, you know, taken advantage of. You gotta take care of your business.

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

Gee: Merchandising. They were using our likeness at the concerts and we weren’t being compensated for it. We were never explained the depth of publishing until much later on in our careers.

You know, it’s gone on to even get to the point now where, you know, we were watching – and I watch from afar because I stepped away from the group in ’85.

But they performed all over the world actually saying that, you know, they were me, trying to erase my legacy from the world. You know, me, Guy O’Brien, the person that created the Master Gee situation.

The individual that went out later on is now telling the world that, you know, Guy O’Brien is not Master Gee, I’m Master Gee. You know, there’d be interviews talking this way.

Mike: And that’s the most insidious part of it all. You can take royalties, put out plush toys and greeting cards and balloons such as our case and not being compensated.

You know, you hear your music in movies, but to go out and commit identity fraud saying that someone else is Master Gee, someone else is me, Wonder Mike, who in the world does that? That’s beyond, you know, ridiculous.

Tavis: What do you guys make of the impact that you had on the genre?

Gee: Mind-blowing.

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

Gee: Mind-blowing.

Mike: 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, you know, 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.

And I never get tired of the shine. I never get tired of the genuine love of our fan base. And that’s why we would never disrespect our fans like, you know, somebody else saying they’re us. But it’s all good.

Gee: It’s overwhelming for me, man. I’m really 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, 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?

Gee: It would be tough because, you understand, when we started, man, it was nothing. We were the first rap stars, the first. And now there’s a lot of competition, man.

It’s a lot of stuff that you have to navigate through now, so it would be tough. We could still do it, though, ’cause I got faith in Mike and I got faith in myself.

Tavis: But could you do it in this environment from a lyrical standpoint?

Gee: Yes, if it was the same setup. Age-wise, demographics for, you know, the fan base. Yes, we could do it because…

Mike: I agree with what you’re coming from…

Gee: I don’t wanna interrupt. The reason why is because together as a writing team, we’re phenomenal. All of those songs, 95% of those sings, we wrote most of those songs together. And those songs are a reflection of who we were and what we felt 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.

Mike: In today’s lyrical climate…

Gee: I think we’d do the same.

Mike: I think we could still survive because we would never come from a misogynistic point of view. We would never advocate violence.

Tavis: There go your sales [laugh]. So I’m asking, how you gonna sell a record [laugh]?

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

Gee: If it sounds good and it feels good, they’re gonna do it, man.

Mike: 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.

Gee: 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.

Mike: He’s very shy [laugh].

Tavis: He’s a business man [laugh].

Gee: I’m doing my thing.

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

Gee: Yes, I did.

Tavis: You stepped away from the music and…

Gee: 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.

And that’s actually the foundation of what I got to be able to do what we’re doing now as far as dealing – you know, I learned about business, I learned about, you know, management. I learned these things. And, fortunately, I was able to go through my life. Yeah, we did really well.

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

Mike: Yes, exactly.

Tavis: So you guys are formerly, you know, the Sugarhill Gang.

Gee: Yes.

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

Gee: Do we perform?

Tavis: Yeah.

Gee: Absolutely.

Tavis: You’re still doing the…

Gee: Are you kidding, yeah, yeah.

Mike: Still, still. People say, “Do you get tired of performing?” No, because when we, you know, hip-hop or whatever, throw your hands in the air. We hear that love come back.

Gee: Jump on it, you know, any one of the songs.

Mike: You know, that’s what we groove on.

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

Mike: And you see it in the dock. It’s little clubs, it’s in the basement playing and it’s in front of 30,000 people in Barcelona outside at a concert. He’s on the drums, I’m on bass, our band is on keyboards. Man, please.

Tavis: I gotta get outta here. I could do this for hours. How does it feel, though, all these years later, all these years later, when you’re on stage and you hit “Rappers Delight” and everybody in the audience knows every word?

Gee: It’s phenomenal, it’s phenomenal.

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

Mike: We could turn the mics down and just watch.

Gee: Yeah, really, we could just, you know.

Mike: And they will sing the song.

Tavis: I know they will, yeah.

Gee: And they’ll correct you [laugh]!

Mike: Yeah.

Gee: You messed up on that track [laugh]! You know how it goes.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you guys on.

Gee: Thank you, brother.

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

Mike: Tavis, thank you, man.

Tavis: I can say this. They can’t. They’re always Sugarhill Gang to me. Sue me! Sue me for saying it. No, I don’t wanna taunt nobody [laugh]. Anyway, the documentary’s called “I Want My Name Back.”

Mike: You can get it everywhere.

Gee: Amazon, yeah.

Tavis: It’s everywhere. Get it everywhere. Glad to have you on.

Gee: Thanks, man.

Tavis: I wanna see you on the stage. I’m gonna make that happen this summer.

Mike: We’re gonna make sure you come.

Gee: You gotta come out. You’ll have a great time.

Tavis: Love to see you.

Mike: We’ll make sure.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

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

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

Last modified: December 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm