I WANT MY NAME BACK (Roger Paradiso, US, 2011, 93 mins.)
The Gang today
I Want My Name Back isn't so much the story of the Sugarhill Gang, but the story of their lawsuit against Sugar Hill Records.
In 2005, Vanity Fair published a profile of the label (Steven Daly, "Hip-Hop Happens"). Roger Paradiso follows the template of the article for the first half of the film, but moves in a different direction once identity theft enters the picture.
He starts by introducing Wonder Mike (Michael Wright) and Master Gee (Guy O'Brien) of the Sugarhill Gang. From 1979-1984, they released three platinum albums and had a 10 million-selling hit with the 15-minute "Rapper's Delight."
Then, Paradiso profiles what he terms the Con Artists: Sylvia and Joseph "Joe" Robinson Sr., the label founders, and Morris "Moe" Levy, their silent partner. By phone, Daly discusses Robinson's R&B career and Levy's mob connections. Subsequent signings would include Spoonie G, the Funky 4 Plus 1, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (I'm not sure why he wasn't able to get Daly on camera; using a phone call in lieu of a pro recording always sounds cheap).
Sugar Hill Records
Just as Levy would "share" songwriting credits with his artists at Roulette , he and the Robinsons—including their sons—would do the same to the Sugar Hill acts. With most of their earnings going to the label, the Gang decided to hang it up in 1984, but Joey Robinson Jr. started to pass himself off as "Master Gee" in the 1990s. Then, after Joe Sr. died and Sylvia retired, Joey Jr. and his brother, Leland, took over the label. Just when the situation couldn't get much worse, a 2002 fire consumed the Sugar Hill Studios and destroyed everything in the place.
After Sylvia copyrighted the name "the Sugarhill Gang," the members decided to reform and record an album (with Hen Dogg and DJ T. Dynasty). Big Bank Hank, unfortunately, opted to perform with Joey Jr.'s fake version of the group. Following in his mother's footsteps, Junior proceeded to trademark the names "the Sugarhill Gang," "Wonder Mike," and "Master Gee" Is this guy a piece of work or what?
With few resources at their disposal, Master Gee and Wonder Mike turned to Jay Berger from Artists Rights Enforcement Corp. to represent their interests. Once he enters the picture, this music documentary segues into a film about copyright law, which isn't a bad thing, but don't go expecting a conventional biography.
I Want My Name Back is unapologetically one-sided, and if you only want to know how the case was resolved, you can Google the results, but if you want to hear Wonder Mike and Master Gee tell their side of the story in detail, Paradiso gives them ample opportunity (other speakers include Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mell from the Furious Five, and Vinnie and Treach from Naughty by Nature). Fortunately, they come across as reliable witnesses to a despicable injustice.
I Want My Name Back plays The Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave) for a second and final set of screenings: tonight, July 19, at 7 and 9 pm. I'd imagine a DVD release is imminent...unless the Robinsons have anything to say about it.