By Francesca D’Amico
When The Sugarhill Gang wrote and recorded “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, little did they know that this single-take recording would serve as a template for establishing an audience and market for Hip Hop, and would also mark the beginning of their thirty year-long battle with contractual turmoil. This story is not new to African American artists. Rather, it has its historical antecedents in the 1920s when African American recordings first became commercially viable.
On February 16th, in its Canadian TIFF premiere, I Want My Name Back, directed by Roger Paradiso and produced by Josh Green, tells the story of the founding members of The Sugarhill Gang, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. For years, many in the Hip Hop community knew of the controversy surrounding the group’s former third member, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, who had been labeled a plagiarist for lifting his verses directly from a rap written by Bronx emcee Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. I Want My Name Back however complicates this story as Paradiso focuses on the wholesale exploitation of these pioneering emcees by the unscrupulous owners of the now-defunct Sugar Hill Records label, Sylvia and Joe Robinson. When Sylvia Robinson signed Wright and O’Brien in the late 1970s, the two Englewood, New Jersey rappers were young and inexperienced in contractual matters, as was the Hip Hop culture they would come to represent. Hip Hop was still a largely local and underground music that had yet to make its mark on the mainstream, and as such, record executives had no idea how lucrative its future was or how to properly compensate its artists. What follows is a 30-year long story of exploitation demonstrating that after token payouts, often in the form of cars and clothes, the group saw few royalty cheques or concert earnings. Wright and O’Brien’s label not only removed their writing credits from recordings and stole their profits and publishing rights, but trademarked the group’s name and Wright and O’Brien’s stage names, making it virtually impossible for the emcees to perform their original material when they attempted a comeback in 2005. Over the span of three decades, Wright and O’Brien would collectively earn an estimated $250,000 USD, a little less than minimum wage, while watching others impersonate them on tour.
The historical roots of this date back to the 1920s with the advent of commercially viable African American music. Major and independent record labels and publishers crassly exploited bluesmen and routinely concealed the profitability of recorded music. African American artists, who often lacked familiarity with the system of royalties distribution, were driven by necessity to accept an immediate cash payment without considering the long-term consequences. Up until 1939, it was ASCAP, a membership-driven organization, that retained a virtual monopoly on all copyright music. ASCAP, along with major record labels, spent the first half of the 20th century abandoning racial minority markets, segregating black artists from mainstream profitability, and focusing investments on the white middle-class market. As such, African American artists were routinely excluded from ASCAP’s membership and systematically denied the full benefits of collective power and copyright protection. By the mid 1950s, one of the most offensive instances of exploitation was the practice of “covering,” when majors supplied consumers with re-recordings of Rhythm and Blues records as “covered” by white artists in order to protect their financial interests. The “cover” phenomenon occurred frequently enough to confirm the suspicions that prejudice, plagiarism, and financial exploitation continued to be central factors in American recording industry practices.
In an interview with director Roger Paradiso, he argues that what makes the story of Sugarhill Gang unique is that while many African American artists have experienced this con game, Wright and O’Brien were not allowed to use their names on top of being unable to recapture their royalties. According to Paradiso, in an age of identity theft, this is a cautionary tale about two renowned artists who, “were being effectively cleansed from music history.” Consequently, I Want My Name Back tells the story of label corruption that goes deeper than what we traditionally know of the industry; it documents an instance of exploitation that has never before happened in music history, identity fraud and impersonation. Wright, a.k.a Wonder Mike, tells ActiveHistory, “to not get compensated, when there is enough money in this business,…I felt used, and no one likes to feel used. I felt taken for granted.” He describes label practices as being rotational; working on artists one at a time and then throwing them out of the studio, instead of developing all their artists at once. Wright argues that, for him, it was never about anything more than being treated fairly. “Its not a matter of greed, it’s a matter of numbers. All I want is my cut of it and no one else’s. Period,” he says.
I Want My Name Back, with its tag line “You Can’t Stop the Truth,” is a story of the human will and the power of truth to eventually unveil itself in the face of coercion. As a powerful narrative in the history of African American artistry and recording industry practices, I Want My Name Back, marks Wright and O’Brien’s ability to triumphantly take their stage-names back as well as their rightful place in Hip Hop history. While the legal battle over their group name continues, Wonder Mike and Master Gee, along with new members DJ T Dynasty and Henn Dog, continue to perform under the group name Rappers Delight. Along with Paradiso and Green, Rappers Delight will spend the coming months showcasing their film in a number of festivals, later to be followed by a European concert tour.
Francesca D’Amico is a PhD candidate in American & Cultural history at York University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Fight the Power: The Socio-Political function of Black Urban Music, 1968-1996,” examines the genres of Soul, Funk and Hip Hop in the post-Civil Rights era and the role of Black Power rhetoric in the practice of cultural consciousness-raising.