"I said a hip hop, the hippy to the hippy to the hip hip hop and you don't stop, rock it to the bang bang boogie, say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat." So go the opening lines to the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," which, in 1979, became the first hip-hop single to find worldwide success, selling more than 8 million copies.
In the late '70s, hip-hop wasn't a sure bet for any record producer: The music, which had developed at block parties (called hip-hops) around New York City and into New England through the late '70s, hadn't yet found a more mainstream audience, perhaps because, in those early years, it had an improvisatory, discursive structure that didn't immediately lend itself to the single format, with emcees rapping for hours on end over a single record.
Nor would the Sugarhill Gang have been a likely pick to become the first stars of hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow and Afrika Bambaataa are just a few of the DJs and emcees who pre-dated the Sugarhill Gang and did more than them to define the genre of hip-hop, but who wouldn't claim mainstream success until "Rapper's Delight" forged the way.
The Sugarhill Gang was a happy but unlikely accident, a group created by record producer Sylvia Robinson, who wanted to capitalize on the music she'd heard around the neighborhood. The trio didn't follow up with anything quite as lucrative after their initial success, but in the wake of that first single, they were global ambassadors of hip-hop.
The original gang broke up in the early '80s, but a version of the group has toured until the present. Things have gotten a little murky in the last few years, though, with two incarnations of the Gang and an ongoing legal dispute between two original members of the Gang and the Robinson family, the original owners of Sugarhill Records and current copyright holders of all things associated with the Sugarhill Gang (including recordings, the band name and stage names).
The group that currently tours as the Sugarhill Gang features original Gang member Henry Jackson (Big Bank Hank), Joey Robinson Jr. (son of Sugarhill Music owner Sylvia Robinson, who joined the group in 1984) and Warren Moore, who joined the group in 2005.
The group that will play Indiana Black Expo's Summer Celebration Saturday night includes original Sugarhill Gang members Guy O'Brien (Master Gee) and Michael Wright (Wonder Mike), as well as more recent additions HenDogg and Rob "Da Noise" Temple. The four, who came together in 2005, perform as "Wonder Mike and Master Gee of the Original Sugarhill Gang with HenDogg."
Both groups claim to have a Master Gee: O'Brien, who performed as Master Gee with the Gang from the beginning until 1984, then returned to performing in 2005, and Robinson Jr., who took over the name in 1984 and whose family owns copyright to the name. O'Brien performs as Master Gee on all recordings made during the group's first incarnation, including "Rapper's Delight."
I spoke with O'Brien and Wright about the group's ethos, their musical background and life after a hit single.
NUVO: You're known for your party records, but what sort of politically and socially engaged work were you doing during those early years of the group?
O'Brien: Break dancing was a big thing, so we wrote and produced this song ["Troy"] about this gang member who, through break dancing, was working to get out of the ghetto ... It was early gangster rap, but we have always believed you can start out in a predominantly negative situation and create something positive if that's what you look for. The hook of the song is, "It's always darkest before the dawn / But it's gonna take guts to keep pushing on / It might break your back, it might make you cry / But nothing beats a failure except to try."
Wright: People say, "Well, I ain't no role model," and they think that those words protect them from being a role model. They don't. If you're in the spotlight, being a role model is not your choice. It's the choice of the people who look up to you ... We come out with a positive message, and that doesn't mean flower power; I'm talking about pertinent, contemporary, efficacious, meaningful positivity ... At the end of the show, we ask people if they had a good time, and they always holler and say yes. And we tell them that we did it without inciting violence, without disrespecting women, without advocating drug use. And the people, they're like, "Damn, that's right." Being peaceful men isn't square. Being men who take care of their priorities, because we do have families and a social conscience, isn't square.
NUVO: Was that mission statement, that sense of purpose, in place from the beginning?
Wright: 1979's world was different from 2009's world. Back then, we were trying to get paid and trying to meet girls, period.
O'Brien: And then, as it went on, we started finding out that we were much deeper than just party records ... He's an educated person, I'm an educated person, even though we came from meager beginnings. We were well versed as far as reading and life in general, and all of that started to reflect in our lyrics.
Wright: We're pretty diverse people. Back then, we were listening to Grover Washington Jr., Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Michael McDonald; everything from the '60s soul to the Stax soul to the Philly sound to rock and roll.
O'Brien: I come from a complete jazz background, listening to people like Reggie Workman and Don Cherry; these are the kinds of people embedded in my work.
Wright: When I was 7, I saw A Hard Day's Night and I said, "I've gotta do that for a living." But before that, when I was 5, I saw the impact of music when my stepfather was courting my mother. He was stationed in Newfoundland in the Air Force, and he sent a 10-record pack of classical music to her in a box set. The last disc was a Rachmaninoff piece, and she put it on and bust out crying. I said, "Damn, that's kind of slick." The music was gorgeous, and I saw her reaction and was taught some things: Music has power, music is beautiful and he kind of wooed her with that. (Laughs in mock-dramatic tone.) He got to my mother through the music!
NUVO: "Rapper's Delight" - a 15-minute rap single by an unknown group - became a completely unexpected hit, despite all those strikes against it. It must have been exciting to make music without any rules or standards.
Wright: The world had never heard of rap music. Connecticut, New Jersey and New York had, of course, but not the world. And when "Rapper's Delight" was released, it took off like a California brushfire. Two weeks after it was released, we were opening up for Parliament-Funkadelic, which at that time was the biggest funk group there was for the black community. Two months after that, we're in Germany doing TV shows.
O'Brien: It was very exciting. You never know when you're creating history in the midst of it, but you do understand the impact of what it is that's going on. We went to places that never had heard rap music live. They had heard the records - even when Kurtis [Blow] and others started coming out - but we were the first rappers that the world had ever seen. Then for us to be able to go to all of these different countries and mingle with all of these people made a major impact on our lives and who we are as people.
Wright: I paid some girls to scream for Guy because they were all screaming for me.