Obviously Money IS A Thing.
Here is a really interesting interview with the directed and co-produced of a new documentary on financial disputes surrounding The Sugar Hill Gang’s classic “Rapper’s Delight”
“I said a hip-hop, hippie to the hippie” could quite possibly be one of the most significant verses uttered in rap history–but most fans don’t know the legal and financial battle the words unleashed.
The Sugarhill Gang released what’s widely regarded as the first hip-hop hit, the 15-minute“Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, and the single went on to sell 10 million copies. MCs Wonder Mike and Master Gee at first were co-credited with writing the song. The documentary “I Want My Name Back” directed and co-produced by Roger Paradiso, unveils how a faux version of the Sugarhill Gang allegedly co-opted the song, the royalties and their legacy. As a result, the real Sugarhill Gang was forced to work menial jobs while embroiled in an over 20-year legal battle with their former boss.
Paradiso records candid interviews with the real Master Gee and Wonder Mike. Speakeasy spoke with Paradiso in conjunction with the film’s premiere at Slamdance Film Festival this week.
Why did you decide to do this project?
Basically, I met the guys through their manager [Edward Albowicz]. I gotta say I was a little skeptical because I didn’t know too much about the story. I was not interested in a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll story. But I was really struck by a couple aspects of the story. As soon as someone said to me we got these guys going out saying they’re us and they trademarked our names, I was like whoa, that got my attention. There were other areas that needed to be explored that came up later in the discovery and the discussion. Also, I said, well, that’s an interesting story because I don’t know any band of their renown that you could say that someone else went out and said, I’m Paul McCartney or John Lennon. It’s a strange situation. I said that might be an original story. And talking to them I realized that there are parts of the story that are fascinating. It’s a 30-year buddy movie. It’s a 30-year having hung in together, having grew up together. How as teenagers they became stars. How they helped ignite a whole new form of music. I just thought of the relationships and these two guys overcoming these two obstacles and I thought that’s something we can do and make interesting and hopefully we have.
What’s the response been so far?
We’re getting some inquiries. We’re hoping the big boys could take it and wide release on it. You get pigeonholed a lot of times. I see it as a story with commercial and mass appeal. I think it’s like the “Rocky” of hip-hop. It’s Erin Brockovich. These guys went through a lot trials and they’re still standing.
People don’t know the real story. They kind of were famous before MTV really took hold. The strategy of the record company was really not to make any artists famous – it was just to make money for the record company. So they really didn’t get a lot of promotion. People kind of know generically “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang .The Sugarhill Gang is well-known. Unfortunately, in the compromise settlement in the trademark issue, the guys chose their actual names and the other party took the group name. A lot of people know the Sugarhill Gang, but they don’t know the story behind those individuals and that’s why we made this film.
What do the Master Gee and Wonder Mike think of the documentary?
I always kid them. I say they’re just like actors. Actors can’t watch themselves. But I think they’ve gotten used to it. I think they were surprised at some things that came up on our research. I think the whole backstory, kind of connection, probably opened their eyes a little bit. I think they obviously feel comfortable with it. We’ve done shows where we’ve performed after it. We’ve gone on a lot of talk shows and interviews and talked about it. It’s pretty much their life story. When you’re doing a documentary sometimes, there’s this objectivity thing. Since I couldn’t get the other party to participate, it pretty much became a documentary about their lives and their point of view.
They still have a lot of followers, don’t they?
They’re really big in Europe and as I discovered there’s reasons for that. There’s laws now currently in the States where you can’t present a band without original members and if you do, you have to let the audience know. That’s a rather recent thing here. It was more traditional for that to happen in Europe. Actually, logically if you think about it, the promoters there had a distinct advantage over the promoters here. To go over there from the States if you’re American, you have to a have a passport. That passport has to show your picture and name, so it was harder for someone to pull identify theft over there. So I think the audiences were maybe a little more sophisticated about the story and the promoters were a lot more diligent.
Why do you think “Rapper’s Delight” endures over 30 years later?
I think it’s “Apache” and “Rapper’s.” I think it’s like magic. You can’t predict what people will like in terms of a song or a movie or anything. It captured everyone at that time. I think there’s a nostalgia about it. There’s also a structure to it that’s pretty amazing, if you think about it. A 15-minute rap. That’s kind of hard to do. When they actually recorded it, it was pretty amazing that it was done in one take. The aura that we presented just was one of those things where all of the stars aligned and it just kind of happened. To think these guys could show up coming from different angles and different places and get in a studio without much rehearsal at all. I don’t think they had any rehearsal. And just go out there and record it in one take. 15-minutes of verse. It’s pretty incredible.
When they finally won back their names, did they get the money they deserved?
My understanding is the settlement is still not complete. The tragedy of the royalty situation is that there’s a statute of limitations of 7 years. They were able to go from 2010 to 2003, by then obviously all of the songs had hit their stride in terms of revenue. I must say I’m really surprised and happily surprised that I hear “Apache” and “Rapper’s Delight” all over the place. “Apache” is a big anthem song for sports arenas. And “Rapper’s” just keeps showing up on the airwaves. “Rapper’s” has been on several international and national commercials.
Maybe they’ll still get their happy ending.
The thing that’s fascinating about it from a story point of view is as I mentioned, they stuck with it. They’ve overcome all these obstacles and they’re still together after 30-plus years, and they’re sort of a comeback. They still claim people love them and we show that in film a little bit. I just think that if we can get this story out it could be a really good ending for them.