Back in 1979, three young rappers—Wonder Mike (Michael Wright), Master Gee (Guy O'Brien), and Big Bank Hank (Henry Jackson)—were hired by a small New Jersey record label, Sugar Hill Records, owned by the soul singer Sylvia Robinson and her husband, Joe, to make one long rap record (it ran for a quarter of an hour). The result of this almost accidental event (the Robinsons were trying to make a quick buck, the rappers were happy to make a quick buck) was the most important hiphop record in the history of American popular music, "Rapper's Delight." It is by no means unreasonable to argue that if "Rapper's Delight" had not been recorded, hiphop would have briefly lived and quietly died in the confines of NYC's metropolitan area. The event of "Rapper's Delight" transmitted this unknown and radically new urban culture across the entire surface of this world.
Millions of records were sold; millions of dollars were made. The Sugarhill Gang became famous, their raps were memorized by a whole generation, and they released two other hiphop classics ("8th Wonder" and "Apache"). But after the sun set on their moment in history, they found themselves penniless and still young (Master Gee was barely in his mid-20s when the Gang dropped their second and final album in 1984). The documentary I Want My Name Back is about this dark period: Master Gee becomes a drug addict and a door-to-door salesman, and Wonder Mike becomes a grumpy, bitter, resentful father. (Two quick notes: One, we never learn the fate of Big Bank Hank because, for reasons that are clearly explained late in the documentary, he is never interviewed; two, the section on how Big Bank Hank stole his moment in hiphop glory is the best part of this doc.) For Wonder Mike and Master Gee, life after the Sugarhill Gang has been and continues to be an endless legal battle with the owners (or better to say, the children of the founding owners) of the label that put rap on the map. Northwest Film Forum, Wed-Thurs 7, 9 pm.