Sugar Hill Gang: And You Don’t Stop

I n the annals of Hip-Hop history, the reputation of The Sugar Hill Gang has been tarnished by the controversy surrounding band member Big Bank Hank’s unauthorized use of Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book. The pioneering rap crew has been called “inauthentic” and labeled as “Jersey rap puppets” in the mainstream media. In an exclusive, […]

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n the annals of Hip-Hop history, the reputation of The Sugar Hill Gang has been tarnished by the controversy surrounding band member Big Bank Hank’s unauthorized use of Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book. The pioneering rap crew has been called “inauthentic” and labeled as “Jersey rap puppets” in the mainstream media.

In an exclusive, two of the group’s original members, Master Gee and Wonder Mike, address the criticism they’ve received over the years and air out some long-held beefs, not surprisingly, with former bandmates like Big Bank Hank and the alleged shady practices of Sugar Hill Records. Currently juggling between music and traditional nine-to-fives, the duo is working on an independent album, and plan on releasing it by the end of the year. Fan or not, these MC’s guided Hip-Hop through it’s infancy in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight” and sent the genre into the mainstream. Read on for a candid, brutally honest interview with Hip-Hop icons. The Smithsonian recently premiered a Hip-Hop exhibition, and it’s now in full swing. Although you weren’t at the inauguration, were you guys approached at all for the project?

Master Gee: Through our management, we’ve been getting in touch with the people running the exhibit, and they are actually looking for things to be donated for it. From what I heard, it’s going to be a huge exhibit commemorating the whole beginings of rap music. I’m getting ready to donate a custom-made tour jacket that has “Master Gee” on the front and “Sugar Hill” in the back. It’s a frozen-in-time kind of piece. I heard [Grandmaster] Flash donated a hat and a mixer, so I’m trying to keep it in the same form as that.

Wonder Mike: I might contribute a newer jacket so I can get that s**t out of my life. I’m looking to entirely move on. That’s a part of my life that is over. After 26 years, f**k that, it’s finished. I love all the fans and the recognition and the place I have in history. The rest of it, they can keep. Since 1982’s 8th Wonder, the music stopped. What gave you been doing since?

Master Gee: When I left in ’85, I got involved in the magazine industry, doing sales as a cold caller, going door-to-door. I was mentored very well and then I started my own company selling magazine subscriptions for the last ten years. I stopped recording and touring with them since ’85. With me stepping away from the group, [The 2nd Master Gee] felt that it was his opportunity to go on the road and take my place. He was involved in all the sessions, but he never performed on any of the hits, “Rapper’s Delight,” “Apache,” “8th Wonder.” That’s all me.

Wonder Mike: I had a ten-year break from music from ’84 to ’94. When we disbanded, I went and started a painting company doing interiors and exteriors and all that. A lot of people, including myself, weren’t even alive when you made history with “Rapper’s Delight.” I know you were very young when you made that record. What were you doing at the time it was recorded?

Master Gee: I was 17 when I made that record, and I was just getting ready to go into 12th grade in high school. I was DJing at the time, and that brings me to a misconception that a lot of people have about us. A lot of people think that we were put together to record the record and we didn’t have any history. I was doing parties and rapping several years before getting discovered and doing “Rapper’s Delight.” I met the guy that turned me on to [Sugar Hill Records founder/producer] Sylvia Robinson, and them while doing a party for his girlfriend. When Sylvia approached us with the idea of doing the record, I thought it was pretty clever.

Wonder Mike: “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in August and May [of that year] was the first time I ever heard of Hip-Hop. My cousin brought over a boom box and there were these guys from New York rapping on the tape and I was like, “What is that?” This is rap, baby. So, I listened to it and I started making rhymes at my job in my head. That’s how I came up with the “Chicken tastes like wood,” s**t. I asked my cousin to join his group and the rest is history. What was the initial reaction you had to the track when you first heard it?

Master Gee: Because of the fact that I was DJing and rapping in peoples’ basements and dancehalls, we ended up rapping to [Chic’s] “Good Times” at almost every party. That was our anthem that we used to turn the party out. Not the guitar part [mimics riff] but the actual break. The first songs that we did [as the Sugarhill Gang] were all songs that we used at the party. “8th Wonder” was a break, “Apache” was a break, “Good Times” was a break. My favorite break of them all was “Catch A Groove.” If you buy the Sugarhill Gang album, it’s the beat to the song called “Sugarhill Groove.” What was the vibe like in the studio when you recorded the vocals to “Rapper’s Delight?”

Wonder Mike: It really was cool. I had a sense of history in the making as it was happening. In terms of global recognition, it happened a lot faster than I thought it was. The vibe in the studio was like, “Wow, I think we got something here.” Before the demise of Sugar Hill and all the bulls**t, it was a good feeling.

Master Gee: It was a great experience because it was so new. My father was a recording engineer, so I had been in studios before but recording rap music was new to me. It was a very exciting thing because nobody was doing it, aside from King Tim [III] who had the “Fatback” record. Do you ever feel like a pioneer?

Master Gee: To a certain degree, yes. We kinda created the rap star. Before us, there was no rap star. Young people didn’t aspire to be a rapper and we gave the people another choice in our environment to become successful. You either had to be an athlete, an entertainer of some sort or, if you were lucky enough, involved in business. Once we became successful recording artists that happened to rap, we opened up a whole new avenue for people to be successful in. I want to build on that and ask you who are some of your favorite rappers that are out now?

Wonder Mike: I listen to some, as long as they don’t glorify killing other brothers. I’m 48 years old. I grew up and they were shooting water cannons on our people and sicking dogs on them, beating women down and setting kids on fire. I can’t really listen to violence and black-on-black crime s**t.

Master Gee: I like Busta Rhymes because he’s so creative. I’m really feeling Common. He’s so unique. I know, technically, there had to be a start for these people to come out and, I just happened to be the person who got the opportunity to start it. I don’t look at it like, if it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be them. Somebody had to get it going, and I’m that person, Mike and I. And Hank. What’s up with Hank? Your myspace page promotes the two of you and Big Bank Hank is notably absent from it. People may not know that Hank used Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes for most, if not, all of his Sugar Hill raps. Do you think he’s been getting a rough deal as far as how he’s been portrayed, historically?

Master Gee: The truth is the truth, man. He didn’t write the lyrics. He’s a hell of a performer, totally awesome when it comes to performing lyrics, and his voice is so classy. As far as the lyrics go, he didn’t write them. You gotta give credit where credit is due.

Wonder Mike: I love Hank. He’s like a brother to me. But every man has to make his own decisions. I decided to leave the group when I did, and he decided to stay on. Speaking of that, you both performed “Rapper’s Delight” with Grandmaster Caz in place of Hank, and you have each said that it was one of the best performances you’ve ever done, maybe even, the best of all time?

Master Gee: Absolutely. You see, we got clumped together with [Hank’s failure to write his own lyrics]. At first, people were trying to say that none of us wrote our stuff; we were called inauthentic. We ran into Caz on a number of occasions and we had a lot of friction with him. Eventually, we had to come to terms and sit down with Caz and his people and let them know, when [“Rapper’s Delight”] came out, we didn’t know that stuff wasn’t his. Hank was coming from The Bronx, and Mike and I came from Jersey and we didn’t know what was going on in The Bronx at that time. To say that we were down with it, or privy to it, is a falsehood. So we wanted to legitimize the whole thing and give [Caz] the opportunity to do his s**t. That’s why it was such a great performance. I’ve performed “Rapper’s Delight” 10,000 times, but to hear this person perform his own lyrics is indescribable. No one knows your lyrics like you do.

Wonder Mike: We did that about five times at different venues. I think that it would be a big thing if he came on the road and did “Rapper’s Delight” with us. I still got a lot of love for Hank, but this would be, like, setting things straight a little bit. Hank is the voice on “Rapper’s Delight” and that won’t change, but Caz is the writer and he raps the lyrics different from Hank. Hank has a very forceful, aggressive style. But Caz says them in a smoother, slicker way. When I heard it for the first time, I was like, “Damn. That’s the way it’s supposed to sound.” But, how does Hank feel about this?

Master Gee: He’s gotta give credit where credit is due. It is what it is, man. If somebody wrote my lyrics and they finally got the credit for it, I would have to give them their props too. That’s what Hank’s gotta do. I mean, we all know each other and time has made it possible for the truth to be told. What me and Mike are doing now is working to get out and let people see the real deal, because some people aren’t even sure about who’s who. They think that this other guy is Master Gee. Fortunately, because our music is timeless, the public is going to have the chance to see what is the truth. They need to see Wonder Mike and Master Gee perform so they could see the song done the way it’s supposed to be done. Ok, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Grandmaster Caz performing “Rapper’s Delight” is not the way it was originally performed, do you agree?

Master Gee: [It isn’t], but Grandmaster Caz is also the person who wrote the lyrics. Now you get the chance to see the original lyricist and the original performers do the song. I would love to see me, Hank, Wonder Mike and Grandmaster Caz perform “Rapper’s Delight.” Could you ever see the 2nd Master Gee perform the song with you also?

Master Gee: No. First of all, you’re not supposed to use someone else’s name. There was never an agreement made between him and I. As far as performing, he didn’t write the lyrics, he didn’t record the songs. He’s not really entitled to say that he’s me. There’s only one original member performing as the Sugar Hill Gang right now, and that’s Hank. The rest are stand-ins and they’re duping the public. When people go out to see them, they’re not getting the real deal. You guys have gotten a rough deal as far as the history of the Sugar Hill Gang has been portrayed. But, if it weren’t for you guys, a lot of people would be out of a job; do you know what I mean?

Wonder Mike: A lot of these people that hate on us weren’t there when all these R&B groups pulled the plugs on us and turned the lights off during our performances back in the day. We had to set their punk a#### straight. We opened up for them and then we ended up headlining in a month. We kicked the damn door in for Hip-Hop and now everybody else is coming in to eat. Nobody f**king recognizes that. No one showed us any respect; we had to take the damn respect. Do you have any regrets about the Sugar Hill experience?

Wonder Mike: One time, we came out and surprised Busta Rhymes while he was on the Vibe show. We came out while he was doing an interview and he gave us a hug with tears coming out of his eyes. The next thing I knew, Sugar Hill was suing him for using Hank’s lyrics for “Whoo-Hah! Got You All In Check.” Come on, man, that’s just dumb. The same thing happened backstage at the second VH1 Hip-Hop Honors Awards with the Beastie Boys. They were jumping around like little kids, excited and happy to see us. Then, here came Sugar Hill again, suing them a few weeks later for something else that they used. All that happy, teenage, horses**t I used to say in the past about Sugar Hill [Records] is out the window. I will never go back to them. It will be all good once people know that we’re not with those clowns anymore.

Master Gee: Listen man, our music is a part of everyday life. Somewhere in the world, everyday, our music is being played. I can’t be mad at that.

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