“A hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop you don’t stop.” Who knew that those goofy lyrics-the opening verse to the 1979 hit song “Rapper’s Delight”-would turn out to be so prophetic? In the 28 years since Sugarhill Gang dropped one of the first rap songs, the hip-hop movement has, as the song predicted, not stopped. Since then, the song has brought in billions of dollars a year and shaped popular culture from Tokyo to Tehran.
While “Rapper’s Delight” might go down as the most significant one-hit-wonder ever, the crew of Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee are still riding high. In preparation for their stop at SOhO this Sunday, September 16, I spoke by phone with Joey Robinson-the son of Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson-who replaced the original Master Gee many years ago.
Is this your first tour in a while? No, we’ve been touring for the past 10 to 15 years. But now it’s gotten a little deeper, and this is the first time we’ve toured straight for 30 days or so. We were doing weekend shows, but then they set us up on this tour, which has been going since the middle of August.
What else have you been doing since the early ’80s? We’ve been touring a lot throughout the world. We’re huge in Europe as well. Besides that, we did some soundtracks. We did Dr. Dolittle. And also the song [“Rapper’s Delight”] went double platinum with [the release of] The Wedding Singer movie. From 1999 to 2000, we toured with Justin Timberlake and ‘N Sync for about 60 dates. :It’s been amazing. I don’t think there’s any group that can come out with a record in 1979 and tour with the number-one pop groups in the world without having made another record.
Why do you think that is? Well, the music has come back around, and it’s like we have a whole new generation of fans. We’d do a concert with ‘N Sync for a bunch of young kids, and the next day do another concert in the same city for a much older crowd. It was just amazing, because kids were coming to see us with ‘N Sync and they weren’t even born when “Rapper’s Delight” was released :
So how’d you guys come together? My mother, Sylvia Robinson, had an idea to do a rap record. One thing led to another, and my partner Warren knew someone who was rapping in a pizza parlor. So we got in my car, and to make a long story short, Warren went into the pizza parlor and told this guy he had an audition with Mrs. Robinson and Joey. He jumped in the car and started rapping. While all this commotion was going on, Master Gee walked past the car and my friend introduced me to him. He jumped in the car and started rapping. Then Wonder Mike, he heard all this commotion, so he jumped in the car and started rapping. So we had five people in my Oldsmobile 98! So we put them all together as a group, and they were the first group on the Sugar Hill Records label.
Did you ever guess that the song would become a fixture of pop culture, or that rap would become as mainstream as it is today? The guys didn’t know, but my mother felt it. She was real ahead of her time. She did “Pillow Talk,” which went to number one, and then came Donna Summers with “Love to Love You Baby.” My mother understood that rap was a new genre that no one would be able to understand, but it would be great for the public. People that heard this record at first said it wouldn’t work, and my mother said [it] would. And today it’s a multibillion-dollar business.
What does your mother think of hip-hop today? She loves it. Some of the songs, like that gangsta rap stuff-I mean, she believes in freedom of speech, but certain things, like concerts where people are getting killed, that was something she didn’t like. She likes the music though, and is a big fan of Biggie Smalls and Tupac : We turned down gangsta rap-in ’83 and ’84 it started coming in, and we just wouldn’t put it out because of what it stood for. I know that everything can’t always be happy-go-lucky and whatever, and that people are talking about their lives in the ‘hood, but there are ways of doing that without talking about women and calling them bitches :
What can we expect in Santa Barbara? We’re gonna bring all the hits. We do all the Sugarhill hits, and we’re gonna bring the funk too. We do medleys of all the funk we grew up on.
Live band? No, we got the turntables.
Anything else in the works? There is a possibility of a movie deal on the whole Sugarhill story. We’d be part of that. We’re in the studio right now putting together a new album, which will consist of greatest hits, plus four or five new songs.
Will the new songs be like the old ones? Of course you have to change with what’s happening today, but we’re not gonna go too far away from what we have always done. We’re not gonna go try and do a gangsta record. That wouldn’t be us. It’s gonna be a party. It’s gonna be fun. But it’s gonna be what today is too.
So it’s been more than 25 years since “Rapper’s Delight.” You guys must be getting old. Can you still keep up with the beat? Come on, man! You’re gonna see us do it!
The Sugarhill Gang comes to SOhO on Sunday, September 16. Visit sohosb.com or call 962-7776 for details.