Jump on it! Hip-hop pioneers The Sugarhill Gang brings ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to City Winery

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Sugarhill Gang at City Winery (Part 1)

Don’t miss your chance to see true pioneers of the hip-hop genre live on stage in D.C.

The Sugarhill Gang performs this Sunday at City Winery at 1350 Okie St. Northeast.

“A Sugarhill show is an experience, man,” co-founder Master Gee told WTOP. “You’re talking about the first commercially successful hip-hop group on the planet Earth. … You’re going to have an opportunity to get down with the people that brought this thing to the world. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry and it started off with me, Mike and Hank.”

He, of course, is referring to the trio of Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, who died in 2014. Enter Henry “Henn Dogg” Williams, who says audiences are consistently impressed by the group’s on-stage energy.

“When we first get there, they’re doing the math, they’re doing the analytics, saying, ‘OK, this song came out in ’79. How much do these guys really have left in the tank? Let’s keep it real,'” Henn Dogg told WTOP. “Then after the show, after we done rocked the house and did our thing, they’re like, ‘Oh my God! You guys were amazing! We can’t believe it!'”

The Sugarhill Gang officially formed in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1979.

“Summer of my junior into senior year of high school, I was DJing in my neighborhood,” Master Gee said. “[Our producer] ran into me in front of a pizza parlor listening to Hank. … The audition later ended up in her home up in the hills. … Three was her favorite number, so she wasn’t going to choose between the three of us, so she put us all together.”

Their 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap single to become a Top 40 hit.

“Mike had the best way to open up the song: ‘What you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat,’ then you pass the mic to the next person,” Master Gee said. “Mike would go first, Hank would go second, I would go last [and] I passed it back to Mike. … His lead-in to his rap was, ‘I said a hip, hop, the hippity,’ because that’s what he’d do at parties.”

The original version was more than 15 minutes long, which had to be trimmed for radio.

“Nobody told us to stop!” Master Gee said. “Nobody told us it’s gotta be five minutes. … It was Mike, Hank and myself standing in the studio, no vocal booths, we had headphones on, microphones in front of us, just going for it. … The short version is seven minutes!”

In 2008, “Rapper’s Delight” ranked No. 2 on VH1’s countdown of the “100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs,” behind only Public Enemy’s social justice anthem “Fight the Power” (1989).

“It should be No. 1, but that’s OK,” Master Gee said. “It’s a crapshoot, either one.”

Their follow-up song “8th Wonder” (1981) was performed on TV’s “Soul Train.”

“We just did a show with Ice Cube, who told us ‘8th Wonder’ was his favorite song,” Henn Dogg said. “He was riding in the car with his uncle and his uncle played it. He kept telling him to keep playing it. The record was so fly that he couldn’t get enough of hearing it.”

“Ice Cube told me to my face, I can definitely testify to the fact that he told me to my face, one on one, having a conversation, that ‘8th Wonder’ was his favorite record,” Master Gee said. “He said that’s what inspired him. That’s what made him want to start rapping.”

That same year, “Apache” delivered “Lone Ranger” imagery of Tonto and Kemosabe.

“‘Apache’ is a derivative of a song called ‘Bongo Rock,’ a break beat that we used to play at the parties,” Master Gee said. “Because we called it ‘Apache,’ we started to shape the song in the context. Back in our time, ‘The Lone Ranger’ was on television. It was a big deal with Kemosabe and Tonto, so that’s how the references came with ‘The Lone Ranger.'”

The song was immortalized by the TV sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro performed a now-iconic dance routine to the track in 1995.

“My daughter’s 23 now, so she was 10 or 11 when they did it on the show,” Master Gee said. “I came home one day and she was like, ‘Dad, you’re huge right now!’ … She takes me in the house and plays it on TiVo. … Everywhere I went, everybody was doing this dance. I was like, ‘Yo, what the hell is going on with this dance?’ … Will Smith, man.”

In fact, the song became a pre-show anthem for “Fresh Prince” tapings.

“We have a podcast, ‘The Sugarhill Gang Podcast,’ and we interviewed Jazzy Jeff,” Master Gee said. “He and I had a conversation about the impact and he said that Will used to come out during the taping of ‘Fresh Prince’ and warm the crowd up with ‘Apache.'”

The Sugarhill Gang disbanded in 1985 before officially reuniting in 2005.

“I came back in ’94 to do a few shows, but everything wasn’t really like I wanted it to be, so I went into business,” Master Gee said. “Mike and I have always been the best of friends. … We’ve been together 42 years. … In 2005, Mike wanted to put another version together, so that’s when he called me to ask if I would be interested in getting back out there.”

The group began touring again, but sadly Big Bank Hank passed away in 2014.

“There’s a little bit of controversy behind his lyrics in the initial ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ but when it comes to delivering, when it comes to a person to get on a stage and rock a crowd, there was none better,” Master Gee said. “Hank’s voice was just amazing, his personality was ingratiating, he was an infectious guy. … He’s our brother. We love him and miss him.”

Most recently, they performed at a New Year’s Eve NBA game at the Boston Garden.

“[For] 75 years, the Boston Celtics have been in existence, as long as basketball,” Master Gee said. “They’ve never had a national act come in and do a halftime performance. We are the first ever in the history of team, in the history of the league, to perform at halftime.”

Today, they are blown away by how much young folks still embrace them.

“We could be in the airport … and you see this young generation,” Henn Dogg said. “‘Who are you guys?’ ‘We’re Sugarhill Gang.’ ‘Umm.’ ‘We do that song ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ ‘We do that song ‘Jump On It.’ ‘Oh! Y’all do ‘Jump On It!’ … During the pandemic, somebody did a challenge and it went viral and it blew up big again on TikTok.”

Through it all, they remain grateful for all of the fans over the years.

“You always want to do something with your life, you want to make an impact, you want to have an effect,” Master Gee said. “I just turned 60 on Sunday. I’ve had an amazing, amazing, amazing run and a large part of it is that I put positive energy out into the universe. The body of work … has given me an opportunity to touch so many lives.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Sugarhill Gang at City Winery (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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