by R.C. Samo
Juliet Capulet pondered “What’s in a name? That which we call a roseby any other name would smell as sweet…” but it is only makes sense that a 15-year-old would question the significance of ones own identity, whether for love or life. As we grow older we realize that our last name becomes more significant than our first; if not for our ancestors who insured our survival.
In the game of hip hop, your name means just as much if not more than your surname. In the case of Michael Wright and Guy O’Brien it was purely identity theft. If you aren’t familiar with their given names, you might recognize them as Wonder Mike and Master Gee, from the famed hip hop group The Sugarhill Gang.
Wright who was the first person ever to be heard on a rap record along with Big Bank Hank and Master Gee, revolutionized music and in 1979, commercial rap music was on the Billboard Charts opening the way for acts like Funky 4 + 1, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, all the to today with 50 Cent, Flo Rida and Kanye West.
If not for Wright and O’Brien, who currently tour as, “Rapper’s Delight featuring Wonder Mike and Master Gee,” hip hop would not be a multi-billion dollar industry, unfortunately for Mike and Gee, they’ve only seen a total of about $250,000 in the 32 years since the best selling rap record in history was released. Sugarhill Records founded by Sylvia and Joe Robinson Sr., on the other hand, the record company that published and stole the rights to not only Sugarhill Gang’s music but there identities. That’s right, their identities!
In the documentary, “I Want my Name Back,” Roger Paridiso crawls through the webs of deceit, cons and outright lies in how Wright and O’Brien lost their identities. Joe Robinson Jr. in 1995, copyrighted, “Sugarhill Gang”, “Wonder Mike” and “Master Gee”, using falsified documentation claiming that Wright and O’Brien were dead and under oath claimed that these names did not pertain to any living persons.
“We kicked down the doors for others to get their deals,” said Wonder Mike, who flew in from Germany in order to attend the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Big Bank Hank, sided with the Robinson’s and stayed with the record label’s version of the crew, allowing them to continue to tour as The Sugarhill Gang with an original member. Ironically, Hank wasn’t a rapper, his famous introductory line in “Rapper’s Delight,” was “I’m the C-A-S-an the-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you you why,” stealing these lyrics from New Jersey Rapper, Curtis Brown, the real Casanova Fly, better known today as Grandmaster Caz.
The documentary takes us through the highs and lows of the lives of Wright and O’Brien, the legal battles with the Leland and Joe Robinson Jr. copyrighting their songs, their names and their identities. From 1994 to 2005, Wonder Mike referred to this period as, “The dumbest 11 years of my life,” in which he went along with Joe Jr. who took on the persona of Master Gee, performing with the group claiming to be an original member.
When Wright left in 2005, he reconnected with O’Brien, began creating again and with the buzz of return of the ORIGINAL Sugarhill Gang, the Robinson’s were out to shut them down. One fiendish example was during the 30th anniversary for the hit single, Wonder Mike and Master Gee were returning to O’Brien’s alma mater at Dwight Morrow High School, hosting a free seminar for the students as well as a concert. The school board, after receiving word from Sugarhill Records, claimed it was too expensive to host such an event; that cost — an astronomical $600.
“You are 90 percent more likely to encounter more honorable people on death row than you will with executives in the music business,” said Gregg Wright, Wonder Mike’s older brother and the lead guitarist for the Jackson’s Victory Tour.
Wonder Mike’s younger brother Paul, remembers a time when The Sugarhill Gang were on tour and met with the Robinson’s.
“I remember seeing The Sugarhill Gang at Howard University and Sylvia Robinson sat my parents down on their tour bus and said to my mother that Mike would be a wealthy man,” said the younger Wright brother.
These days, Rapper’s Delight featuring Wonder Mike and Master Gee, by a court order have gotten their names back, and are touring with Grandmaster Caz and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Their first single to break the top 40 in over 25 years entitled, “LaLa Song,” was also a smash hit in Europe and recently recorded the infectious club hit, “I Want my Name Back.” The court battles have not diminished their desire to create music.
What’s in a name? Ask Wonder Mike and Master Gee, it means the world.
“Know your worth, that way shysters won’t take you down. Whether you’re a baker, a stone mason or whatever, do it to the best of your ability,” said Wonder Mike.