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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
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The past two weeks have been heavy with hip-hop nostalgia. Two weeks ago, VH1's Hip-Hop Honors held its annual awards show, which has essentially become a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame for rappers. Everyone from DJ Kool Herc and Fab 5 Freddy to KRS-One has been "inducted" since the award show got started in 2004, and the criteria to be a part of the show are fairly steep.
For this year's inductees, legendary rap group Whodini finally received its indoctrination to the award show, as did A Tribe Called Quest, Missy Elliot, Teddy Riley, and Snoop Doggy Dog (with even a bit of local significance thrown in, as Whodini's longstanding DJ, Grandmaster Dee, lives in Plantation).
If you're not familiar with the show or if you've never seen it, VH1's Hip-Hop Honors is essentially an awards ceremony and performance venue for pioneers. As the show's executive producers put it, "to be a part of Hip-Hop Honors means you're an original."
Although that's supposed to be the case, this week, an interesting exception is coming through town. The Sugar Hill Gang, which was indoctrinated in 2004 and is often credited with putting out rap's first record, "Rapper's Delight," in 1979, is playing a show at Nectar Lounge inside Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.
Having the Sugar Hill Gang perform should fit right in with the venue's penchant for highlighting old-school legends — from Stevie B to T.K.A. and Rob Base — except the Sugar Hill Gang that's coming to town this week isn't exactly the same Sugar Hill Gang that put out "Rapper's Delight" and "Apache" so many years ago.
There's a good chance not a single member of the original Sugar Hill Gang will be performing.
The trio will include, if we're lucky, Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, and Wonder Mike — which sounds like the original lineup, but not so fast. There are two Sugar Hill Gangs, and they're not friendly with each other at all.
In a telephone conversation, Joey Robinson, president of Sugar Hill Records and manager of the Sugar Hill Gang that's expected to roll through Broward, swore that local concertgoers will be treated to a unique performance from all three original members of the group.
The only problem is, the real Wonder Mike and Master Gee, whom I spoke with last week, know nothing of an upcoming performance in Florida, and they label Robinson as little more than a two-bit imposter. Master Gee and the other originals are trying to stage a comeback of their own, having just performed in London with stateside gigs planned for the rest of 2007.
According to Robinson, "The original Sugar Hill Gang will be performing next week in Florida, including Master Gee, Big Bank Hank, and Wonder Mike," he said via phone. It was only because I've got good ears that I heard Robinson mumble in a much lower tone, "Those are just stage names."
While Robinson may be doing the right thing by covering his ass, the situation turns what should be an enjoyable concert into an event that's clouded with illegitimacy and deceit.
To get a proper grip on this, you must understand that Robinson is the son of legendary singer Sylvia Robinson, who once headed Sugar Hill Records. Together, the mother-and-son team scouted a plethora of hip-hop talent in the late '70s and early '80s and signed the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as their two biggest acts.
The original Sugar Hill Gang recorded a 15-minute song called "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 and seemingly turned hip-hop into a global phenomenon overnight. If you're old enough to read, chances are you've heard the popular rap phrase: "I said a hip hop the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop, and you don't stop/the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat."
That classic refrain is one of hip-hop's most widely recognized stanzas. But the men who wrote it are in a bitter dispute over royalties and trademarks, which has resulted in, among other things, a war of words. To be clear, Sugar Hill Records owns the rights to the name the Sugar Hill Gang; when Robinson and company arrive here on Thursday, they're entitled to call themselves just that.
But according to the original Master Gee (born Guy O'Brien), "That's the Joey Hill Gang, not the Sugar Hill Gang — and that dude is a phony. They're just a group of guys that have no talent doing prerecorded music."
Robinson does acknowledge that there are two entities trying to use the name Sugar Hill Gang, but he does his best not to sling dirt. "It gets ugly, man, believe me," he says. "These guys [the original Sugar Hill rappers] are trying to come back 26 years later, [and they] haven't been in the group since 1983."
To be fair, at least one of the originals, Big Bank Hank, does perform in the group frequently, but due to health problems, he's not always able to make the performances.
If this situation sounds unique, trust me, it's not. Members of New York's popular spoken-word group the Last Poets argue to this day over trademark issues related to their name, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had a similar situation in 1979 after Teddy Pendergrass left the group.
For the show this week at Nectar Lounge, fans will get treated to the same classic songs that Sugar Hill Gang recorded decades ago: "8th Wonder," "Apache," "Rapper's Delight." But there's just no guarantee the folks who wrote those songs will be here in town to sing them.
As Robinson sees it, this is all essentially a version of Hip-hop History 101.
"We opened the doors to hip-hop globally," Robinson says. "This is a business, man. We wouldn't be here talking about hip-hop if it weren't for the Sugar Hill Gang. That's what really matters. That's what the fans will remember no matter what."