Block parties, mobile discos and basement DJs. Before any hip-hop record label was ever formed, people were out rapping on the streets, plugging equipment into any socket they could find and rapping over R’n’B and soul tunes. You weren’t at a party unless it was a rap party. In the early 1970s, Sylvia Robinson and her husband became aware of the burgeoning rap movement and set up Sugarhill Records to focus on this new genre, and make a little money besides. They created the Sugarhill Gang – a commercial hip-hop group who unbeknownst at the time would lead the path for tens of thousands of others. The trio were Master Gee, Big Bank Hank and Wonder Mike. Their first track borrowed heavily from Chic’s number one hit, Good Times, and it provided the bassline for Rapper’s Delight. It was the first hip-hop track ever to make it into the charts. Thirty years later – Master Gee is on the phone from New York where it’s a very, very hot summer.
When did you first hear hip-hop music?
I was in high school at the time and I heard somebody rapping behind a DJ table, he was playing records and then he started talking over the music. He was a friend of mine and I walked up to him and asked him, you know, what he was doin’ and he was rapping and that is what was starting to become the thing.
What year was this?
1977. There was no rap music at that time. It was just in the streets. Hip-hop didn’t really start until we came out with Rapper’s Delight.
So basically there were just block parties?
Yeah, everybody would have DJ equipment and take it outside and set it up. A lot of us were hanging out in the New York/New Jersey area, we would go to dance halls and also peoples’ basements and we’d set up our equipment, like mobile discos. That’s how the scene started. It was all live, there was nothing recorded at that time. There was no music scene before the Sugarhill Gang, nobody was playing records – there weren’t any records. There was nothing on the radio, there were no record companies. Nobody even started realising that it could be done in a record form until Sylvia Robinson had the idea to put it on a record in 1979.
So it was infectious.
Exactly. Anybody who had the ability and had the DJ equipment, they had their own little DJ groups. It was a cultural thing. Everybody from the Bronx to Jersey had started doing it. In the community it became what was happenin’.
How did the Sugarhill Gang form? How did you all meet?
Wonder Mike and I were in rival DJ groups in the area. Mike was in a group called Sound on Sound, I was in a group called Phase Two. So I knew of Mike, and he knew of me. Hank was from the Bronx but he was in our area making pizzas at a pizza parlour and we were all discovered in front of Hank’s job. They were actually auditioning Hank when I was walking by with a friend of mine who knew the people – Sylvia and her son – and they told him that they really wanted to get someone rappin’ and my friend looks at me. Hank and I went to Sylvia’s home later on that night and Mike came along with us. After me and Hank’s audition, Mike auditioned also. Initially they were going to choose one person to make the record but they choose to put the three of us together.
What does Rapper’s Delight actually mean?
The whole idea of the song and the music is that we used Chic’s Good Times. That summer, it was the rap beat of the year. Everybody was rapping to Good Times. So it was the rapper’s choice, that’s how we came up with the name Rapper’s Delight because, you know, it was three guys rapping to their favourite record.
How did Chic react to this?
It was very controversial at the beginning because the whole time there was no sampling. We recorded the whole song and recorded over that. It’s not the original Good Times. The musicans in the studio recorded the track over but there was a bit of controversy about the usage of the song, you know, they had to work out arrangements and agreements down the road. Mike, Hank and myself weren’t privy to that information because we were really the artists on that project, we weren’t involved in the production stages.
What was your initial reaction when you heard the track?
We knew that it was gonna get some response. We thought it was just gonna be a hit in areas like New Jersey and Connecticut. The fact that it became one of the biggest records in record history and it is still played today 30 years later, it’s pretty surprsing, I was really taken aback by that. Mike always said he knew that it was gonna be a hit. I didn’t, I thought it was just gonna be in the area, make me popular with my friends and that kinda thing but the next thing I knew, I was on my way to Germany, you know, a little bit more popular than being in the neighbourhood now (laughs).
You were very young when you made Rapper’s Delight.
Yeah, I was 17 when I recorded it. I had experience of recording because my father was a recording engineer. I had a jazz background so I had been in studios. I started playing the drums when I was seven years old and hanging out in studios with my dad. I knew about recording but I had never recorded myself and I didn’t know about the business of recording so it was an education. I tell people all the time: I went to college as a musician. I dropped out of school at eleventh grade and travelled around the world.
Rapper’s Delight had a rough ride. Besides you guys copying Chic’s bassline from Good Times, Hank also used Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics.
When Hank started with “I’m the C-A-S-A-N the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y” we didn’t know, the shit sounded good! We didn’t know that at the time because Hank was from the Bronx. We were in New Jersey. At that time, the lines of communication weren’t like they are now. We thought Hank had his own raps because everybody in our area that rapped, they wrote their own lyrics. We assumed because Hank was coming from New York – which is supposed to be where it all really came from anyway – we figured he wrote his own stuff too. We didn’t find out till a year later that he actually got those lyrics from Caz.
Are you not annoyed with him for causing so much hassle?
Yeah, it was good imitating initally. After Rapper’s Delight we wrote for a record called City Hill Blues. We were on the tour bus riding back to Jersey to record this song so Mike and I started writing lyrics on the bus. We were waiting for Hank to come up with his part and he had like one line forever you know. When we got to the studio, he still had one line forever, and that’s when we kinda realised that he couldn’t write. Hank never wrote anything. He’s got a great voice but he’s just not a writer.
Who wrote his lyrics then?
We ended up writing material for him, we figured he’d got writer’s block. Then of course once we started getting into the other records Jam Jam and all that stuff, he never could come up with any lyrics. Then the whole controversy came out about Caz. It was a bit irritating because people sometimes would start to think that Caz wrote all the lyrics. We’ve always had to legitimise ourselves, which is not fair, because we never did that.
How did other hip-hop groups such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five react?
They respected us as artists. You see, they knew Hank – Flash, Furious Five, Melle Mel – they all came from that same area in the Bronx. They knew about Hank but we didn’t. That was the whole thing. That was the reason why everyone was so upset when the record came out because they didn’t know about us in Jersey first of all, and then they find out Hank got on the record. That’s what a part of the controversy was all about.
Hank is now touring with Robinson Junior – Sylvia’s son. They are calling themselves the Sugarhill Gang…
His mother and father [Sylvia and Joe Robinson] owned the company and he inherited all that was left over. He doesn’t have a talent as a performer but he had usage of the name. So because Hank is an original member, he’s been able to kinda tour but he can’t rival us because Mike and I are two thirds of the original group. We’re the orginal Sugarhill Gang.
Why wouldn’t Hank be happy to rekindle the whole group?
That’s the $64 million question darlin’. We still don’t understand. I think part of it was he didn’t have faith in the fact that we could stand on our own. He thought we needed the record company to survive and here we are you know, on our way to Dublin, you know what I mean? (laughs). You would think with all three original members still alive that it would be awesome but unfortunately he doesn’t see it that way and good riddance to bad rubbish if you ask me.
Why don’t you sue them?
We are actually in a legal battle with them right now. We’re not really in the position to talk about the details though.
What do you think about hip-hop today?
In the beginning the record labels thought it was just a fad, you know, here today and gone tomorrow. Now, it’s a world culture. It is never going to die. If you listen to any radio or music, you still see some form of hip-hop, in the cars that we drive, in the clothes we wear. Even looking at commercials and stuff on the TV. It’s not dead, it’s revolving. It’s gone a little off-track. You’ve got to remember the world is all about balance you know, where there’s good, there’s always a bad side. Things are always equal so to speak. You know whatta mean?
What would you consider to be the bad side of rap?
What I mean by the bad side of rap is those records that promote violence, you know, talk about drugs and have the young people think that it’s cool to be a drug dealer. That wasn’t what hip-hop was supposed to be about. When Sugarhill Gang came out with Rapper’s Delight, it was about having a party, having a good time. No violence or nothing like that, with nobody fighting at the parties or whatever. It’s just about promoting having a good time.
Which artists do you rate today?
All of them. All of them are good today. I don’t want to single out anybody. For everybody to have a chance to express themselves is a great, positive thing. Everybody has the right to say what they feel and what’s inspirational to them and at that point it’s up to the public to make a conscience decision on what makes sense and what doesn’t.
What are you guys up to at the moment?
We’ve been touring for two years non-stop, working on a new album which is due out next year that’s gonna be really really hot. Also, we’re gonna go a step further, we are adding a new part of our show while we actually play live. It’s a new exciting element to the show. And it will give the crowd what they are anticipating. We love Dublin, can’t wait till we get back. The thing that we love about comin’ to Europe is that they love the history and they love the movement.