Old school delight

Pioneers of hip hop and rap The Sugarhill Gang are looking forward to bringing their classic beats to Tel Aviv.

IT’S A rap: From left; Wonder Mike, Master Gee and the late Big Hank Hank of The Sugarhill Gang. (photo credit: ANDREY MOTORICHEV)
IT’S A rap: From left; Wonder Mike, Master Gee and the late Big Hank Hank of The Sugarhill Gang.
(photo credit: ANDREY MOTORICHEV)
‘Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat.” With these famous words, Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank, otherwise known as the Sugarhill Gang, exploded onto the music scene in 1979 with the first rap single to ever become a Top 40 hit. The Sugarhill Gang helped usher in the genre of music that would eventually dethrone rock ‘n’ roll as the popular music of today. Four studio albums and 37 years later, The Sugarhill Gang is still rapping to the beat. They’re performing with Lucille Crew at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on August 30. Master Gee sat down with The Jerusalem Post to talk about becoming a teen idol, making a hip hop album for children, and the future of hip hop.
What are the roots of the Sugarhill Gang?
Sylvia Robinson had the idea. She had seen rapping done in New York and she lived in New Jersey, so she was enlisting talent in the New Jersey area. It was being in the right place at the right time really. She was auditioning somebody in front of a pizza parlor and I happened to be walking by. A friend of mine told her that I could rap, so she wanted to hear me. I auditioned in the back of the car. The rest is history, as they say.
Here we are. It’s 1979, you guys put out ‘Rapper’s Delight’; and it explodes. What happens next?
The world started being hip to it: television and being recognized in the streets. I went from being a regular high school kid to being a teen idol. I was 17 when that song came out. Imagine being in the 12th grade and trying to deal with all of that. I couldn’t even walk in my own neighborhood anymore.
You guys recorded three studio albums in the early ’80s and then there was a big gap with nothing until 1999. What was going on in that time?
We were learning about life. Things started happening in that period of time and we had to get it together and figure it out. Hip hop was also changing; it was the beginning. Hip hop was a different kind of party and it was something that many people weren’t ready for. They didn’t accept it. The young people accepted it more easily, but the world was harder to turn. But once we got the young people, then corporate people started getting interested. We had to wait for that transition.
But the cool thing about our stuff is that it’s always been a fan favorite. I’m 54 now and I’m still in it. I feel really fortunate because it’s been an amazing journey.
Okay, so in 1999, you guys released ‘Jump On It.’ It’s described as a hip hop children’s album. Can you talk about that?
We had a specific opportunity, but hip hop has always been a way to translate and a way to connect. Many young people remember lyrics to songs easily.
If you can remember lyrics, then you can remember times tables if it’s given in that way. It’s the same thought process, it’s just gotta be something that you’re interested in. That was the motivation for that album.
Do you think there should be more of that today?
Absolutely because information is in the presentation. If you give it to a person well, especially young people, then they’ll receive it and process it. But if it’s not presented well, then the purpose of the information is lost.
From your perspective, how has hip hop changed from when ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was first released until now?
As far as I’m concerned, our music and our form of expression has been given the same opportunity that we had to every young generation 40 years ahead. People are talking about what they’re experiencing. I grew up in a halfway decent environment. My inspiration was to date a girl and get a car. Hip hop is coming from all kinds of different areas and now people everywhere get to hear it. People in the ghettos of Brazil get to hear it. When it comes time to write and express something, you’re going to talk about what you know. It’s not a bad thing; it’s all information. Hip hop gets a bad name and it’s not fair. It’s always the generation that’s two or three decades behind that are talking about the music, just like they did when rock ‘n’ roll came out.
The people who were talking badly about rock ‘n’ roll were listening to big band music.
The people who are talking bad about hip hop now are the people from my generation. They try to say to me, “It ain’t like it used to be.” What do you mean?
It’s the same thing that it used to be! Because when you heard it and your parents said it was garbage, you stood up for it. When we first started making music, radio wouldn’t play it. It’s the same thing.
What do you see for the future of hip hop?
More expression, more people being connected to it, and lending their voices to it, plus more corporate situations to make it more profitable. One of the most successful movies recently was Straight Outta Compton. 20 years ago, that movie would have never have gotten made.

I read that Hank, a longtime member of Sugarhill Gang, died in 2014. What was that like for you; were you guys still in touch?
We continued to work together off and on, so we were always in touch, even though we may have had different perspectives. But there was a truce that we had with Hank to make sure that everybody was cool.
You’re coming to Tel Aviv at the end of August. Have you been to Israel before?
This will be my first time, so I’m looking forward to it. I just want to see it. The significance of the country itself is motivation for me to want to see it. I hope that I’ll have time to get caught up in the vibe of the country.
When I perform somewhere, I always want the chance to see the people and eat the food.