Scientists all over the world have been working to prove the theory of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance for years. The theory suggests that behaviours and information can be learned for us and passed on in our genes by our ancestors. In experiments on mice the scent of Cherry Blossom has been used, the mice are trained to avoid it, subsequently their children (mice babies) and their children (mice babies’ babies) are born with an aversion to Cherry Blossom. Interesting stuff but it all seems a bit of a rigmarole. All this rodent bothering could have been avoided by getting a group of toddlers to listen to The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Immediate, obvious results. Heavy little heads bobbling on delicate little necks, so ingrained is the song in the consciousness of the civilised world. A song you always knew but were never cordially introduced to and the foundation upon which all hip-hop now stands.
Master Gee (pictured middle), founding member of The Sugarhill Gang, explains the sequence of happy accidents that changed the face of music and the subsequent pitfalls endured by hip-hop’s pioneering group.
“See the thing about us is we started out as musicians. I was in a band, I played drums. Mike (Wonder Mike, The Sugarhill Gang’s other founding member) was in a band, he played bass. DJing became something that was going on. I was a musician first then a DJ, then I became a rapper. It all happened the opposite way. We’re talking about like 71-73. All through elementary school and junior high school I was in a band. I was listening to Ohio Players, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chaka Khan. The Commodores, Kool and the Gang. There were so many great bands that we looked up to when I was a kid. Every one of them consummate musicians. All the George Clinton stuff, Parliament, Funkadelic, I used to spin all that. We played and listened to anything that you can think of.”
Separate elements like rapping, record scratching, looping and break beats where already happening on the East Coast. Slowly they started to converge, forming the genesis of what we now call hip-hop.
“I grew up in New Jersey. New York and New Jersey are a stone’s throw away from each other, so we started hearing about what was going on in the Bronx and Manhattan on the street level. Over in our little neighbourhoods we’d start doing our own DJ thing too. I saw other people doing it, got the idea of how it worked. Being a drummer I had basic rhythm anyway so I realised it was a matter of extending the music in a timely fashion. Now everybody’s got a computer to mark where to put the music in. Back in those days you did it by feel, by ear and by touch. I heard someone rapping at a party and I asked him about it, he said “That’s what they got goin’ on in New York”. It’s poetry but it’s rhythmic poetry. Because I was a drummer I heard all the words like drumbeats, so when I started writing my raps I heard everything in a syncopated rhythm. I already knew how to cut records, so I knew how to make a small piece of a record become a long piece. Find a break, get the break going and rap over it. So the next party I played, I did that and that’s how I started rapping.”
“I had no clue, I was fifteen years old when I first started DJing. Around 15, 16, 17 was when we recorded ‘Rapper’s Delight’ so I had only been rapping about two years before I ran into Sylvia and the whole thing.”
Sylvia Robinson was the matriarch of the Robinson family. A successful performer in her day, her record ‘Pillow Talk’ sold more than two million copies. Her husband Joey managed the Sugarhill Gang and was CEO of Sugarhill Records. The Robinson’s swindled the band out of their publishing rights so when the records stopped selling they stopped making money. In fact in the 30 years after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was released the band made roughly $250,000 each, an average of about $8,000 per year. Years later Joey Robinson Jnr went on tour as The Sugarhill Gang claiming he was both Master Gee and Wonder Mike at different stages, he went on to copyright the group’s name and their individual stage names. It all lead to one of the most bitter, damaging legal wrangles in the history of music, but Master Gee remains philosophical.
“The thing about Sylvia Robinson is there was some drama in our situation but creatively and as far as somebody giving me the insight into being an artist and an entertainer, performing in front of people and recording songs Sylvia was my mentor. She was inspirational in my life and that’s why you hear me talk about her despite everything that happened. She has a special place in my heart. My mother got me from birth and then Sylvia took me from 17 on.”
In the mid 80’s Master Gee walked away from the group turning his back on the genre he played such a pivotal part in creating.
“Musically I was totally against rap. Jazz, a lot of fusion. I would listen to anything other than rap. I got into Stevie Ray Vaughan at that time, one of my favourite musicians of all time, so sad that he passed away. I got hip to him, I got hip to Sting, I got hip to Peter Gabriel. Everything had changed by the time I walked away from the group, I felt very frustrated but no matter how far I tried to get away from it I could never get away from it. Something would always bring it back. I owned big companies and had hundreds of people working for me but it didn’t matter. Time would pass and a magazine would show up and I’d be in it and one of my employees would be like “Boss, is this you?!?”
Master Gee’s success outside of the music business helped ease the pain inflicted by the long, drawn out litigation process the band was dragged through.
“I started out as a door to door salesman, sold books and magazines for three years, then I was mentored by the guy that owned the company. He started the company and I eventually ended up buying the company from him and becoming his next door neighbour.”
“The music stayed around long enough for me to want to do it again, it called me back. As far as I was concerned once I left I was done, I wasn’t going back, but it just kept showing up. It was blowing up all around me, I was watching L.L Cool Jay, Cool Mo D and Ice Cube. It was really growing legs.”
Unlike the hard edge of the artists Master Gee mentions, The Sugarhill Gang were clean cut, well dressed, smooth-as-silk lady killers taking their lead from the soul bands of the 60’s and early 70’s.
“We were mirroring the people we saw. The Temptations…everybody wore the same outfits. It was completely taboo to wear your street clothes on stage. Our people, Sylvia and that whole set up they came from costume, stage presence and image so they thought us that. As the years went on it became a little different as the tolerance level for certain things changed, the envelope was pushed to do more, say more, to get away with more. So, a lot of the rappers start doing it like they did in the street.”
With all their legal issues now resolved the band look forward to recording new material. This time around taking influence from those they cleared the way for so long ago and maybe even collaborating with some of them.
“I love Common, he’s a phenomenal artist. Kendrick Lamaar, he’s very talented, J.Cole is really talented. The other one, I got to make sure I get this out there is Kanye my man, he’s a genius. He’s done amazing work. Musically he’s an amazing individual, but because of his lifestyle, he’s seen as a celebrity and everything he does is under the microscope. Every one of us has a little bit of lunacy in us. I got issues too man, trust me. But I don’t have paparazzi following me around every day. So, when I lose my mind I can do it in the privacy of my own home. I would love to do a record with him, if it was at all possible to collaborate with him I would jump at the opportunity.”
Kanye or no Kanye there’s new material in the pipeline.
“We’ve been working on getting back into the studio since we got back together but there’s been so many different things. The documentary, then tour schedule, then the legal stuff. Now we’ve got the name back we can just get back to work doing what we do. Get this tour done get it in the books, then we start focusing on recording some stuff. We want to, we really want to.”
The Sugarhill Gang play the Belfast Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on Saturday the 6th of May.