Judge Alice Nelson wants her figure back.
"I don't mean to brag I don't mean to boast, but we're like hot butter on breakfast toast…"—Rapper's Delight
I'm not normally one to encourage activism among our Verdict readers, but I Want My Name Back has caused me to break my "no protest" rule and encourage you to flex your activist muscles. Don't worry, it doesn't involve the NSA or the IRS, or any other acronystic government agency. This mission involves the godfathers of hip hop—The Sugarhill Gang. What is a Sugarhill Gang, you ask? They are the group credited with popularizing this musical genre around the globe with their 1979 hit song "Rapper's Delight." I Want My Name Back covers the real life intrigue surrounding Michael Wright (aka Wonder Mike) and Guy O'Brien (aka Master Gee), betrayed by the people they trusted with their careers. This story could be the plot of an urban Shakespeare play: Two men swindled out of a fortune after writing a hit song, spending the next 30 years in relative poverty and obscurity before finally fighting back to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
Facts of the Case
On 16 September 1979, The Sugarhill Gang released a song that introduced the world to the hip hop sound, and kicked opened the doors for every rap artist since. Unfortunately, success was fleeting for the trio, when those they entrusted with their careers not only stole millions from the naïve musicians, but also took their very identities. This documentary chronicles the early success, hard fall, and path back to stardom for the gang known as Sugarhill.
Remember these names; Sylvia Robinson, Joe Robinson Sr, Joey Robinson Jr, Moe Levy, and Leland Robinson; these are the key players and con artists in Roger Paradiso's (Moonstruck) documentary. Sylvia, Joe, and Moe (sounds like a comedy act), are no longer among the living, but the Robinsons' spawn are still alive and as devious as their parents were. Joey Jr and Leland upped the ante of their parents' thievery by stealing the band's name, as well as the stage alias' of two of the original members. Apparently the putrid acorn doesn't fall far from the rotten tree.
The Robinson's were straight up con artists from the very beginning; they founded Englewood, New Jersey's Sugarhill Records in 1979, and quickly partnered with another shyster named Moe Levy, owner of Roulette Records. Levy was well known for giving himself credit on songs he didn't write—most notably Frankie Lyman's hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"—and was well-versed in showing the Robinsons' how to steal from their talent. Although Sylvia did have a moderately successful singing career in the 1950s with the hit "Pillow Talk," she and her family received a financial boondoggle with "Rapper's Delight" the first single released by the very first act they signed. Sylvia also gave herself and her children writing credit on Sugarhill Gang songs they didn't write, and stole the publishing rights estimated to have earned the family over $100 Million. While Sylvia and her kin were unabashedly living high on the hog, Mike and Guy were living hand-to-mouth.
Imagine going from touring the world between 1979 and 1984, with platinum albums and gold records, then suddenly living in a one room apartment barely able to afford food for the table. Guy O'Brien was hit hardest by the betrayal. He remembers the Robinson's treating their group like family, never knowing they were robbing them blind. O'Brien turned to drugs and fell into a deep depression, leaving the music business and the Sugarhill Gang altogether in 1984. When Joey Jr. contacted him in 1995 for a reunion tour, Guy turned down the opportunity because once again he was being offered scraps while the family would rake in Millions.
Michael Wright left the Sugarhill Gang in 1985 and ran his own painting business for a while. Unlike O'Brien, he agreed to go on the reunion tour, and from 1994 to 2005, Wonder Mike was resurrected. He would later say it was the dumbest 11 years of his life. The stress of the betrayal wreaked havoc on Wright's health, struggling with heart problems and vision loss. However, between the two men, Wright came out of it a bit more positive, even praying for Joe Robinson when the man was on his deathbed.
There was a third member of the Sugarhill Gang whose name is scarcely mentioned, and whose picture was conspicuously removed from the DVD cover just before going to press—Henry Jackson, better known as Big Bank Hank. Jackson was almost as big a swindler as the Robinsons, considered by those in the know to be a second rate MC who stole his part in "Rapper's Delight" from a hip hop artist named Grandmaster CAZ, also known as Casanova Fly. Jackson was the manager of CAZ's band and promised the man he would receive full credit and payment for the use of those lyrics. CAZ never saw a dime, and never heard a word from Jackson once the record became a hit. On top of all this, Jackson sided with the Robinson family and continued on with them after they stole the Sugarhill Gang name along with Wright and O'Brien's stage monikers. Needless to say, the bitterness Guy and Michael felt towards Hank was palpable, and understandable.
As a documentary, I Want My Name Back is a bit long, a bit disjointed, and at times hard to follow, but the core of the story is so compelling it's definitely worth watching. Michael Wright and Guy O'Brien were thoroughly wronged, but somehow, after many challenging years, were able to pull themselves out of that pit of despair and fight back. Roger Paradiso did attempt to talk to the Robinson family, but they declined to be part of the film. This wasn't intended to be a movie slanted towards one side or the other, but because of the Robinsons absence and litigious nature, it's very easy to empathize with Wright and O'Brien.
I Want My Name Back hits hard at an industry that often takes advantage of individuals with big dreams and little knowledge of how the business works. I only wish Roger Paradiso and company had done it more effectively. With all of the real life drama involved here, this should've played out like a dramatic motion picture. Instead, it felt amateurish with some of the interviews sounding like tales from the neighborhood gossips. It's too bad, because Michael Wright and Guy O'Brien are worthy of so much more. These pioneering men have paid dearly for the craft they love, and I hope this film can be a part of them getting the credit they so richly deserve.
Someone from the old neighborhood said with a sigh, "Sugarhill Records could've been the Motown of hip hop." But the Robinsons greed and villainy took precedence, and after a mysterious fire burned Sugarhill Records to the ground, an empty lot is all that's left to commemorate the beginnings of these pioneering artists.
Presented in standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film's appearance is adequate at best. The colors are muted and the film looks as if it were shot on a minimal budget. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is of such poor quality, that it's often hard to decipher what's being said. As for extras, there are none.
Despite its obvious flaws, I highly recommend I Want My Name Back because of what it stands for—justice for two men whose careers were halted because of the greed of others. I never would've imagined that one of the most popular and beloved songs of my youth had such a notorious history, and I will never listen to it the same way again.
Not Guilty! A long overdue tribute to Wonder Mike and Master Gee.
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