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Interview: The Sugarhill Gang take Clockenflappers on a good vibes journey through rap

Flying in all the way from New Jersey, Wonder Mike and Master Gee – the remaining members of the original Sugarhill Gang – were joined by rappers Hendog, DJ T Dynasty and Rob da Noize at Clockenflap 2016. The group, who are widely credited with popularising rap music with their canonical chart-topper Rapper’s Delight, got festival-goers dancing on Sunday, and hopeful about the future once again. 

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The Sugar Hill Gang. Photo: Kitmin.

Their second Hong Kong live show featured hit-after-hit spanning the group’s entire career as well as tributes to other acts they admire. Wonder Mike and Master Gee led the show with non-stop energy, Hen Dogg chimed in whilst gripping his “magic stick”, whilst DJ T Dynasty and Rob da Noize kept the beats flowing. Some of the members may be approaching their 60s, but they put on a powerful show, electrifying the crowd on a journey through hip hop.

Following a legal battle with their former label and management, Wonder Mike and Master Gee were unable to perform as The Sugarhill Gang over the past six years and instead performed as the Original Sugar and Rapper’s Delight featuring Wonder Mike and Master Gee. But the group returned this year for a world tour as The Sugarhill Gang for the first time in over a decade, performing in Singapore a night before arriving in the city.

Wonder Mike appreciated the energy from the Clockenflap crowd: “It’s good when you feel that vibe, you get strength from it… It’s our second time in Hong Kong, I wish we had more time to see stuff.” He recalled a previous visit to the Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant. “The last time we took a boat out to the restaurant… and we greeted our dinner: ‘Hey how you doing? I’m gonna eat you.'”

The Sugarhill Gang

The Sugarhill Gang. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Released in 1979, the single Rapper’s Delight sold over two million copies in the United States and is now preserved at the National Recording Registry, which lists songs that are “culturally, historically, aesthetically significant.” It was considered to be the first rap song played on the radio and TV and it single-handedly influenced and inspired a slew of rap and hip hop movements which followed in the ensuing decades.

The members did not dismiss the rise of gangster rap at the turn of the century and, in fact, were humbled by the cascade of hip hop albums that emerged through the doors they themselves opened.

“Human nature likes to push the envelope. In movies, TV… you hear words now that you didn’t hear few years ago. That was just the course of nature. And life itself goes in cycles. Right now, it’s a cool party vibe, people having a good time, and it’s about to be political again,” said DJ T Dynasty, though the group shied away from sharing their thoughts directly on the election of Donald Trump back home.

Master Gee added: “When you try to change and it’s not natural, then you look like some big fraud. Because the classic stuff never changes… The Rolling Stones came out with Satisfaction in 1964, ’65… Now in 1990, they would play in stadiums and strike up that song. That 50-damn-year-old song! ‘I can’t get no…’ and bring the house down because it was classic. But when it’s classic, it lasts forever. It’s timeless.”

Touching on the message they wanted to spread with their music, Master Gee stressed that, “there’s no violence in our shows. There is no misogyny. We don’t advocate it.”

The Sugarhill Gang

The crowd throw up peace signs as The Sugarhill Gang wrap up the show. Photo: HKFP.

There were young people as well as families in the crowd on Sunday, which seemed appropriate given Master Gee’s stance. In the middle of the show, he grabbed the mic and began singing the first few lines of Purple Rain. The euphoric crowd held on to their partners and swayed their arms in the air. Of all the sad loses in the music industry in 2016, the group said the passing of Prince was the toughest.

“All of us are big Prince fans. And to actually see that love… everybody was right there in the audience with us,” said Master Gee before Wonder Mike jumped in: “You can feel music’s foundation shake when a real giant leaves too early. Same thing happened with Michael Jackson and then now Prince. It’s like a real quick homage to the people we grew up with.”

“We all started out as musicians. As kids, we all played instruments. Mike and I got into rap later on but we just transitioned into it. Stevie Wonder, Sly and Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire, people we all grew up with. Those were the songs we played in bands in our neighbourhoods. So what we did tonight was a direct representation of the things that we did when we were kids, before we became famous. That’s what the whole live thing is all about because it shows the crowd who we are,” Master Gee said as the band members nodded in agreement.

The Sugarhill Gang

Photo: HKFP.

He continued, “It becomes a completely different show. People don’t expect us to play instruments. They see the instruments on stage and they figured we’ll wait for guys to walk on stage. Then they see me getting on the drums, and everybody else comes in, and then we’re singing and it becomes a completely different show. Right there in the middle of a rap show, it now becomes a funk show. And they are songs that are indications of who we are and what we’ve become. And then we transition into that with the crowd that goes on and on.”

Wonder Mike remained hopeful about the evolution of hip hop: “Life is gonna keep changing, and that’s the same thing with music. If you look at music throughout the ages, you’ve got Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky… Now if you listen to Jimmy Page, doing a really kickass solo, back then it was a violinist. The violas and violins were the power chords of Bon Jovi. Music is still the same thing, in different forms.”

Master Gee emphasised that the young generation’s freedom of expression should not be condemned.

“The music scene today is the music scene of our era. Music is a young person’s expression. Every generation has its expressions. When we started making records, people thought our music was garbage. Now here we are, 40 years later – still the same guys whom the people before us said was garbage and that it won’t last, it’s not music… And you talking about our music because it’s iconic music. Same thing’s gonna happen 20 years from now.”

DJ T Dynasty was equally at peace with the direction of the genre: “Right now, it’s about partying. Somewhere along the lines, someone’s gonna talk about busting someone’s head open and that’s gonna be the new thing. Look, we went from politics to partying to violence and back to partying and now, I’m not gonna say his name – he’s in office – it’s gonna go right back to politics again. Because there’s such a strong voice out there, it’s gonna be political again.”

“But we don’t want him to ruin a perfect night,” Wonder Mike added with a big, gregarious laugh.

Staying true to themselves, the Sugarhill Gang flashed the peace sign towards the end of the show and had the crowd jumping around, begging for more. Not only are the Gang an iconic group, but their open-mindedness and tolerance for a greater possibilities will continue shape the music industry for decades.

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HKFP Writer

Maggie Tan

Maggie Tan

Maggie is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist covering a wide range of stories from adventure travel news to the daily lives of obscure artists. She graduated with a degree in Eastern European politics from UCL and recently completed her Masters in Journalism at the University of Hong Kong. She is interested in documentary filmmaking and enjoys anything out of the ordinary.

Interview: The Sugarhill Gang take Clockenflappers on a good vibes journey through rap