You may have heard the song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang (“I said a hip hop, a hippie, a hippie to the hip hop”), but what you might not know is this song helped hip hop break into the mainstream and helped a genre that, up until that point had been brushed off as a fad, start to take root in our musical history. Even though the group was changing the face (and sound) of the music industry, The Sugarhill Gang found themselves on top of the charts with barely a dime to their name. While this is not the first time we have heard stories of talent swindled by shady and greedy record executives, the story of the Sugarhill Gang is not just about losing money, it is about having their name and the true identity of the band member’s themselves stolen from them.
The Sugarhill Gang was originally made up of Wonder Mike (Michael Wright), Master Gee (Guy O’Brien), and Big Bank Hank (Henry Jackson), a trio that was put together by Sylvia Robinson who, along with her husband Joe Robinson, ran Sugar Hill Records and released the group’s first single, “Rapper’s Delight.” While the track climbed the charts and the fame and popularity of The Sugarhill Gang grew, the three members continued to find themselves broke as the Robinsons got richer.
Eventually Wonder Mike and Master Gee had enough of being stuck in a situation that was clearly making those “in charge” rich while they were left with almost nothing and left the group (and the music industry) while Jackson stayed. After the exit of O’Brien, the Robinson’s son, Joey Jr., began performing as Master Gee and not only began claiming he was the original Master Gee, he went so far as to copyright The Sugarhill Gang’s name and Wonder Mike and Master Gee’s individual names as well. I Want My Name Back follows Wright and O’Brien as they work to get back into the industry and find themselves faced with legal issues and threats that they are not who they claim to be.
Told through interviews with various legends and names in the industry, I Want My Name Back shows Wright and O’Brien as they try to not only move forward with their careers (and their names), but also attempt to right musical history. The film works in not only telling the true history of one of the industry’s most noted hip hop groups, but does so in a way that is almost baffling as it shows how blatantly some have tried to rewrite that history. While director Roger Paradiso is a bit bumpy in his documentary style, I Want My Name Back succeeds in taking viewers through the group’s first meeting and shows how everything that happened after that moment not only changed the face of hip hop, but these artist’s lives as well.
Part cautionary tale, part inspirational story, I Want My Name Back proves that talent and creativity can end up meaning very little in a business that works to sell (more than create) music, but those who create music out of their love of the art may end up being truly richer in the end.
The Upside: An interesting, frustrating and important look at the true birth of hip hop and who actually created the rhymes that brought rap to the mainstream while never losing the positive and hopeful message of the original Sugarhill Gang.
The Downside: Filmed in a slightly awkward documentary style with quick cuts between interviews and on screen information, along an almost monotone narration from former Sugar Hill Records employee Tony Rome, the style ended up being more distracting than helpful when attempting to move the story along.
On The Side: Adding insult to injury, while Wright and O’Brien each wrote their rhymes in “Rapper’s Delight,” Jackson’s verses were stolen from Grandmaster Caz (known then as Casanova Fly) as proven from his opening verse in the song stating, “I’m the C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y.” Not to mention the fact that the track itself sampled (and did not originally pay credit to) “Good Times” by Chic.