By Chris Rotolo, The Creator
Music is a powerful medium for an artist to partake in. The right beat, the way in which a series of words flow from a pen and collect on a track, can catch the ears, captivate and motivate the minds, and enrapture the hearts of a generation. One great song can transcend musical genres and tastes, sealing cultural divisions, while soothing the savage beast that is humanity for 4:55 at a clip…or 14:37 if you happen to spin the record.
“Rapper’s Delight” was such a song. The Englewood, NJ-based Hip Hop collective known as the Sugarhill Gang shattered musical and societal barriers with its 1979 debut single, quickly transforming the group into a household name and the record an essential on playlists at every pool hall, record shop, dance club, Rock haunt, and street corner assemblage. At 23-years old Wonder Mike (Michael Wright), Master Gee (Guy O’Brien), and Big Bank Hank (Henry Jackson) were international touring artists and beloved on a global scale as more than 10 million units were sold and spun on turntables EVERYWHERE…and yet, the group returned home to their Garden State abodes penniless.
This was the scene set by Roger Paradiso, the director and producer of I Want My Name Back, a cinematic achievement documenting the rise, fall, and rebirth of the world’s first professional Hip Hop outfit during a well received screening before mixed bag congregation of the young and young at heart at the 10th Annual New Jersey Film Festival within The Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on Saturday evening.
The film recounts the shady business practices of Sugarhill Records founder Joe Robinson, who proceeded to appropriate millions of dollars from the group; the future misconduct of his sons and heirs to the Robinson empire, Joey Jr. and Leland Robinson, who went as far as to copyright the name “Sugarhill Gang,” as well as Wright and O’Brien’s stage monikers “Wonder Mike” and “Master Gee,” during the Old School Hip Hop Boom of the new millennium; not to mention the Robinson brothers’ shameful venture to cash in on the originator’s good names by posing in concert as a reunited Sugarhill Gang, alongside Big Bank Hank, in an attempt to end the MCs performing careers and erase them from a more than deserved place in music history…among other atrocities.
However, like the proverbial phoenix, the pair of fire breathers (minus Jackson who is still considered a traitor by the pair of wordsmiths) rose from the depths of their personal despair and doubt, shedding a past filled with physical and emotional scarring from heavy depression and drug use to rekindle the artistic flame and recapture a life stolen.
A lengthy battle through the appeal torn jungle that has become the American legal system was fought against an opposing force in the Robinsons that are rich in funding and litigation tactics. However, with a court ordered settlement, Wonder Mike and Master Gee returned to the stage in 2009, the 30th anniversary year of “Rapper’s Delight,” with Teaneck, NJ-native Hen Dogg and DJ T Dynasty under its new moniker, Rapper’s Delight, wiser, matured, and primed to use this second chance to its fullest extent, to teach, to preach, and to rock the house.
A scene that played out at The Paramount upon the conclusion of I Want My Name Back, and an introduction caked in snarky comedy by the talented voice, television, and film actor Ed Asner (Up, Elf, The Boondocks, lots more).
When the curtain rose revealing the Hip Hop collective, backed by one of Asbury’s most savage Punk outfit’s, The Obvious, a slow roar built over the mixed bag audience whose ages ranged from toddler to teen, and middle aged to the aforementioned Asner, all waving their hands in the air with reckless abandon, dancing in the aisles, and rushing to the orchestra pit when invited by the gang…a practice usually against protocol at said Theatre, but who was going to tell them different?
The group delivered an inspiring rendition of the film’s title track as Wonder Mike used the heaviest of guitar riffs (Angie Sugrim and Daniel Astorri) and bass play (Mike Smith), as well as Rob Blake’s trampling drum beats, to elaborate on his feelings toward the “sheisty” record label of yesteryear, following each methodical verse with an adrenaline coursing refrain of “I want my name back!”
And despite the anger in that opening number, the resentment and bitterness exhibited in the film, Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Hen Dogg used this platform to promote messages of peace and solidarity, dismissing race, religion, and personal politics while asking the assemblage, and by association the rest of mankind, to fine common ground.
“I wrote this song,” said Wonder Mike of “I Want My Name Back, “about a 33-year battle with record company and I got a lot off my chest. It was very cathartic, but life is too short to be angry.”
“Everyone on the planet is fighting for something,” he continued. “It’s the big guy versus the little guy, or your fighting for your job, for your family, for respect, for all different reasons, but we should never be fighting each other. I want us to gel, I want us to come together over this music. So come on, if you lost your house, you’re having a fight with your kids and you want them back, you lost your job and you want it back; We wanted our name back, so come together, and whatever you lost, replace it with “name” and scream it with me…’I WANT MY NAME BACK!!!’”
That wasn’t the only song they screamed as the outfit led the assemblage through an hour-long performance including several deeper cuts from the group’s catalogue including the party-time staple “Apache” and closing house quaking rendition of “Rapper’s Delight.”
See the film, see Rapper’s Delight, put you peace signs up and the middle finger down. Music is a natural healer, let it do the work…you just enjoy it.