Wonder Mike from Sugar Hill Gang Give respect where it’s due! Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” which was the first rap song ever to reach Top 40, is back! The group that also brought you “The 8th Wonder” and “Apache” have recently been touring around the world with the “hip-hop, the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop”. Now touring as Wonder Mike, Hen Dog, and Diamind, Sugar Hill Gang speaks on the controversy behind The Furios Five, Sugar Hill Records, and what life was like touring as one of the first big rap groups ever.
interview by Rob Schwartz
WHO?MAG: Take us through the history of the Sugarhill gang. WONDER MIKE: In 1979, I was in a group called Sound on Sound, which was my cousin’s DJ group. My DJ heard about an audition about a lady named Sylvia Robinson who wanted to make a record, so then she went and got Big Bank Hank. She sent her son Joey out to recruit somebody and he heard about Hank. Hank was working in a pizza parlor. He auditioned Hank, right in his car with pizza dough and everything in his new 98. Master Gee was across the street and he heard somebody in the car rhyming. He walked up with his friend Mark Green and was like “yo, your man is nice, but my man is nicer.” He hopped in the car and started auditioning. So they went up to Mrs. Robinson’s house and I was already up there with my DJ. They started going back and forth and back and forth until she said, “ok, we’re going to use you two guys instead of one.” I was sitting there like “man, speak up and say something!” So I said, “Hey Mrs. Robinson, I can rap too.” She said “ok sweetie, speak up let’s see what you got.” So I just started going “hip, hop, the hippie the hippie” and just started rhyming about everything from the dog, to the furniture, the statues, and everything. She was like “yeah, I like that. Now Hank, you come in with your hotel, motel, and Master Gee, you come in with your part” and the rest was history.
WHO?MAG: What’s your first memory of hip-hop? WONDER MIKE: My cousin Mark Wright, AKA Daddy Wright, came to my house with a big boom box and I remember hearing someone coming over to my house and I remember hearing someone reciting poetry over a beat. Going “yes yes ya’ll, to the beat y’all” and I was like “what is that???”. He told me “yo, this is the hottest thing in New York right now. It’s called rap.” I kind of liked it, but every song on the tape, everyone was saying the same thing “yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all”. I ended up making up rhymes in my head that were better. It was different. I was going a little bit my own way. I asked my cousin if I could join his group. That was May 28th, 1979. That was the first time I heard it from my cousin Mark.
WHO?MAG: How’s your current experience with Sugarhill Records? WONDER MIKE: This is going to go back to 1964 when I saw “Hard Day’s Night” which was a Beatles movie. While this was happening, I was like, “Wow! That’s bad! I got to do that for a living!” The girls were chasing the Beatles around and I thought that would be a cool career. Here it is, only 15 years later and it was history in the making. I know rap hasn’t been on the radio, and we’re cutting a record that is getting played on the radio and we go from forming a DJ group in New Jersey to in May to performing in Germany in January and this thing was taking of like a wildfire! It was all good at first. I was 22, Master Gee was 17, and Hank was 22. It was all good at first. But like anything else since the beginning of time, things began to get a little worn out. We were pigeonholed into having a certain sound. We had other rhymes that dealt with where we were from. I grew up in Newark and DC. It wasn’t a cakewalk. Maybe because of the way I speak, “oh, he talks white”. Well kiss my ass! I had to scrap just like everybody else. I didn’t carry any guns or anything like that, but we had certain rhymes, but most of them were never used. “Oh, you have to sound like the all-American rapper.” That’s why my voice from “Rapper’s Delight” and “Apache” are completely different. On “Apache”, it’s like this (emulates his sound from the song). That was whack! The song was cool because it made us some paper, but that’s not really me. So we weren’t allowed to grow as musicians or artists. I mean, I listen to everything from The Allman Brothers to Prince, to old Motown, to Yanni, to Van Halen but we were never using those influences. So in the end, I was grateful for what happened. I made some friends, met some famous people, but it could have been so much more. It could have been a dynasty. People were coming over the bridge from New York to Sugarhill like it was Motown! It was a mass exodus from New York trying to get signed. I mean people like LL Cool J, Naughty By Nature, and Angie Stone. When things aren’t done right, people get tired and move on. Everyone who left Sugarhill went to blow up. Naughty By Nature, nobody knew who they were until they left Sugarhill (shout out to Naughty!). When they left, here comes O.P.P. and all these other records. Angie Stone, she had a group called Sequence (starts singing “We’re gonna funk you right on up, we’re gonna funk you right on up!). Now she leaves and look at all the things she’s doing. LL came through. He said he wanted a deal. They said, ” Ok, let’s here you rap.” He did his thing and they said he was whack and he won’t be anything! At this point, this man is one of the biggest living legends. The Deele with Babyface came through. This was on a continual basis. This was like with Deco, when the Beatles were brought to them, “oh groups that use the electric guitar sound is going out of style.” That was the most ignorant style ever made. Whoever said that must have been the biggest ass in history. After the Beatles came out, then all the electric guitar wars started with the Joe Perry’s and the Alvin Lees. Another blunder.
WHO?MAG: After recording “Rappers Delight”, did you expect it to be such a big hit 25 years later? WONDER MIKE: No, not 25 years later. I though it would be big in the tri-state area meaning Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Two weeks after its release, we’re opening for Parliament Funkadelic. Coming from DC in the 70’s, Parliament was HUGE. We also opened up for Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang, and it just took off from there. What people didn’t realize was when Rapper’s Delight came out and people were touring with these guys, there weren’t any other rap groups, so we were forced to perform with other R&B groups. And you know they hated. Other groups would do all they can to downplay us. Back then, other groups were real competitive and they didn’t want anyone else to upstage them. It definitely wasn’t easy.
Most people love Sugarhill. There are a few guys out there with a thorn in their side saying, “Oh, there fake. They are not from the streets.” How the hell are they going to know all that? All I want to say is that we kicked the damn door in! Either if you love us and think we’re the best things since sliced bread or you think we absolutely suck, though the history of hip-hop, We broke the door in and it wasn’t easy. We fought with a lot of R&B groups which we had to earn THEIR respect. “Turn the lights off these n*ggas!’ “Cut the power”. “Pull the cord” “Cut short their set”. All we had to do was go out there and get that respect and after opening up in the first of August and then on August 31st WE were headlining. We opened up the door for everyone else to come in. We opened the door and said “Everybody come in. Everybody can eat now”.
It was never said in history that Sugarhill started rap. It was that Sugarhill was the first group nationally recognized for rap. I mean you have people up in the Bronx like Luvbug Starski and Kool Herc who started rap.
WHO?MAG: What did you feel was the turning point in hip-hop history that made America realize that hip-hop was not a fad? WONDER MIKE: I think it all changed the day in 1980. We did three big shows in two days. In two days we flew out of Kennedy Airport with a lady named Ray Alexander to do American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Solid Gold. That just took rap into more of a visual thing because with 12″‘s, there were no photos. Now it was easier to identify with something after the songs have been heard thousands of times because there were no videos back then. Those shows really turned up the heat for rap.
There were really five major milestones now that I think about it. It was when we first came out, it was those three shows, then when the Furious Five came out with the Message, that really turned things around, and then when Run DMC came out with Aerosmith where they combined rock with hip-hop, and then when NWA came out. Those were the 5 main milestones that made hip-hop what it is today.
WHO?MAG: Why did you end up leaving Sugarhill? WONDER MIKE: I was at the office over a year ago and I was getting tired of not working show wise and putting out albums that were half-ass. Mrs. Robinson was no longer part of the recording process. There was no more real Sugarhill magic. Nothing was really coming out. We were recording full albums. Christmas albums, children albums, nothing was happening. So I just called them up and told them I was out! After that was done, I called Master Gee. The original Master Gee, Guy O’Brian. I call the original Master Gee “Bam Bam”. I asked him if he wanted to make a new record since I left Sugarhill. He was real excited and started screaming and hollering and said, “Alright, lets do this!” I knew my man Hen-Dog had some skills so I told him that we have to do this. Also my man Diamond had some skills plus my son! Wow! He spits crazy! I haven’t looked back since.
WHO?MAG: After your second album, Sugarhill Gang disappeared for about 15 years before the released of “Jump On It”. What was the reason for the long break? WONDER MIKE: Rap has become more violent and women were suddenly became bitches and I wasn’t comfortable with that because my mother, sister, and aunt, and friends were considered bitches to me and that just wasn’t my style. More power to those who made their paper, but it just wasn’t my style. I got married and had some kids and all of the sudden, sampling started to come back and they were all sampling Sugarhill. And the promoters were saying that they could get the guys who really did it and we started getting shows and we have looked back since.
WHO?MAG: How did the Showdown Album come about when you battled Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? WONDER MIKE: I remember having totally different lyrics for that song and they got vetoed and we had to stay within that framework of the All-American rap group. I think the Furious got us on that record. I’ll tell anyone that. I don’t even like our raps on that song. They got their thing off. They were trading off on their lyrics back and forth because that was their style.
WHO?MAG: What’s next fro Sugarhill Gang? WONDER MIKE: As for Sugarhill gang, I don’t know, but for us? Keep making new music. Diamond, Hen-Dog and myself are working on a new CD that will be out soon. We are going to take our time and do it right. People will recognize our voices maybe. We are going to bring my brother on the album who was the guitar player on the Thriller tour and he rips guitars up! Hen-Dog is nice on the keyboards, so we are going be very creative since we are not being over seen by a staff that has tunnel vision and believed in “if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it” where as if that motto is true, then there will still be model T’s out there, not Jaguars and Chryslers 300’s.