Roger Paradiso has documented this engaging story in I Want My Name Back, which is premeiring at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. Paradiso answered some of our questions via e-mail about the movie and about Sugar Hill Gang. The final screening of I Want My Name Back will be on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Treasure Mountain Inn; tickets are $12.
City Weekly: What interested you in the story of the Sugar Hill Gang -- Master Gee and Wonder Mike?
Roger Paradiso: The story. Story is what drives me to do anything -- when I heard their story and it was involving identity theft and extreme elements involving larceny of all types like stolen names, credit, money, etc. That was different. Not too many groups and individuals in music have their names and identity taken. And then I saw a 30-plus-year relationship based on a chance meeting at a Pizza Parlor, the Crispy Crust in Englewood, New Jersey. That was interesting, but it was their commitment to music and each other that really drew me in. It was a buddy movie and they were out to preserve their legacy for their children and to continue to create music despite all these obstacles.
CW: There’s a story here of why the three platinum-selling albums were not enough to cement their success in the hip-hop legacy, so the press materials say. Please describe, because every music fan I know, knows “Rapper’s Delight.”
RP: Most companies want to promote their artists as individuals so this is a little hard to understand. But the strategy at Sugar Hill Records ran counter to that when it came to Wonder Mike and Master Gee. It seems there was a premeditated con game going on where they took their publishing rights then took their stage names and then took their band name -- identity theft of the strangest kind. Also you have to remember, hip-hop was just thought to be a passing fad in the early days. And there was no MTV. So it was easier to pull this off, less scrutiny. But it goes deeper than that. I think the Robinson family felt that they owned these guys and these young black teenagers could be controlled, and furthermore, they should be grateful for being taken off the streets. No one back then ever thought hip-hop and Rappers D would survive all these years. Like I said in the beginning, they thought it was a fad that might last a few years, certainly not generations. So there was no effort to promote the individuals. Why bother? This will all go away. Well, it didn’t. And that’s where we get into the legal issues over who owns their own names. So a lot of people know Rappers D and the Sugar Hill Gang, but they don’t know the individuals and they certainly don’t know this story. Which is why we made this film and people need to see it 'cause it’s more than the story of these guys. It’s really what has happened to people in this country since the late seventies. People can relate to that. They relate to getting ripped off and struggling to survive in a ruthless, corporate world. You know the whole Occupy thing, he one per cent versus the 99 percent? That’s the story of Wonder Mike and Master Gee. We all want our names back. And our bank accounts and pensions. Hah.
CW: What does the title of this documentary I Want My Name Back allude to?
RP: I said to myself, "What do these guys want?" They want their names back -- literally. Figuratively, they want their legacy to be known. They want their children to know what they did. They want the musical history books to get the story straight because there’s been so much misinformation. They want what’s due to them, financially and historically.
CW: What were some surprises that came up in your research or during the interviews?
RP: I could not believe that a fake Master Gee and Wonder Mike were touring -- lip-synching to the original artist’s voices.! And getting away with it, even at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Also, in the end credits, when you see the writer credit for Rapper’s Delight, you will not see their names. They had their names taken off the record by a deal cut between Nile Rodgers and his people at Universal and Joe Robinson Sr. at Sugar Hill Records. It’s really unbelievable.
CW: Was there a moment when a story unfolded during an interview or there was a scene when you thought, "Yes! We have a winner here."?
RP: In terms of scenes that really hit home there’s a bunch, but what really shook me up is the radio interview between Leland Robinson, his brother and Master Gee. There’s a line there where someone says in a nasty tone to Master Gee, “Who are you? You’re a nobody …” Scary, 'cause they tried to wipe him off the face of musical history; also, Master Gee’s retort that he just wants Joey Robinson to stop saying he is him -- Master Gee -- and that he just wants his legacy intact. That that is what is owed to him. It’s an unbelievable interview, very sinister and quite scary when it comes to artist’s rights as well as human rights.
CW: How did the group’s legal infringements affect hip-hop as a whole?
RP: Hopefully, if we can break this film out to a wide audience, it will have an effect. You can’t understand the full history of hip-hop until you understand this story.
We are going to find out, but I know every hip-hop fan will really know who the real Sugar Hill Gang is if they see this film. We certainly want to reach the general audience, because it is an important and inspirational story whether you know anything about hip-hop or not.
CW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your interest in documentaries and in music.What’s next?
RP: I am working on a screenplay I wrote with the novelist Jack Engelhard called Days of the Bitter End.. It’s about three young kids running around the Village on the day Kennedy was assassinated. Years ago, they told us the Sixties weren’t interesting, but I guess it’s in now. So I hope to get it going in the fall. It’s a great story.