Wednesday, October 16, 2013

That's a Rap

I should draw your attention to two documentaries, both good, one of them great. Both touch on a genre with a vested interest in "keeping it real", and both paradoxically concerned with fakery.  The first, The Great Hip Hop Hoax (available for another 6 days on iPlayer) told the story of Silibil 'n' Brains, purportedly two Californian Eminem-alikes, but who were really two college pals from Arbroath and Dundee respectively, and who inked a deal with Sony, partied with the stars and supported D12  back in 2004.  It's a fascinating story, extremely well told using contemporaneous footage, interviews with music biz talking heads, animation and commentary from then then-estranged duo themselves, speaking in their native brogue rather than the Californian twang they affected to get themselves signed.  Ostensibly a cautionary tale, it seems to have had an unexpected coda, as the pair have become reacquainted and seemingly relaunched their musical careers. 

The other documentary, I Want My Name Back, has some similarities, outlining the story of the Sugarhill Gang and their fractious and litigious relationship with the label that gave them their name.  A story of fakery and subterfuge, it told of how Sylvia Robinson of Sugarhill repeatedly inserted her name into the writing credits of Sugarhill artists, how her husband and business partner withheld royalties from the bands, and, most egregiously, of how the group had their band name and (in the case of two of them-Master Gee and Wonder Mike) even their own rap pseudonyms trademarked behind their backs.  The net result of this chicanery was that he group was left unable to perform, their efforts being thwarted by lawyers at every turn.  The David vs. Goliath narrative, though, was slightly undermined by the less-than-black-and-white nature of the participants, a point elided over by the documentary makers.  What might initially appear as a clear-cut case of identity theft was attenuated by the fact that one of the original group members (Big Bank Hank) was still performing with the supposed usurpers, making this less a case of straightforward imitation, and more one of factionalism, akin to that of many rock groups the world over-  cf the Sugababes.  Also not dwelt upon in this tale of piracy and copyright refutation was the fact that the group's most successful song, Rappers' Delight, was itself based upon a stolen piece of music by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, both of whom went uncredited during the song's heyday.  Despite these cavils, the sheer magnetism of Wonder Mike and Master Gee was enough to convince this viewer that while they may not have had the sole rights to the name and the songs, as they claim, they have a stronger case to be called the official Sugarhill Gang than do those who are the current legal owners of it.  The doc is available on Netflix and on iTunes. 

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