Making Peace With Big Bank Hank

Jonathan Shecter
Nov 19, 2014 · 9 min read

By Grandmaster Caz

Editor’s Note: On November 11, Henry Lee Jackson, better known as Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang, succumbed to cancer at age 58. The honey-voiced MC had the whole world chanting “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn!,” and he played an important role in disseminating the new style of music called hip-hop. “Rapper’s Delight” became one of the best-selling 12-inch singles of all time, although Hank had “borrowed” his famous lyrics on the seminal recording from pioneering Bronx rapper Grandmaster Caz, who was never properly credited and received no royalties. Following Hank’s untimely passing (he is survived by his wife, Valerie, three children and a stepdaughter), Cuepoint asked Grandmaster Caz to reflect on their relationship. In the process, Caz came to terms with the unresolved issue that drove a wedge between old friends.

When I met “Big Bank” Hank he was the doorman at a club called the Executive Playhouse in The Bronx. It was 1977 or 1978, I’m not sure. I was performing then as Casanova Fly, and he’d be at the door. We got cool. He was a funny guy, jolly. We were always snapping and telling jokes. That’s how he was. That eventually led to him hanging out with us, the group that I was in before I joined the Cold Crush Brothers called the Force Five.

At the time I was a young DJ trying to come up in hip-hop. We didn’t have promoters and booking agents and publicists and all that. I did everything. And I couldn’t do everything. Grandmaster Flash had a manager, The Funky Four had management, and it looked like hip-hop was headed in that direction, so I asked Hank to manage us.

I liked his enthusiasm for the music and the scene. He was a big guy. He looked like, walking into a room, he’d get some respect.

He was the closest cat to me, and I trusted him.

We were still on the “street struggle.” Hip-hop hadn’t graduated to records or anything yet, so what we were vying for was to have some credibility and status in the streets. And you had to have a decent sound system to be able to compete, to be heard. When you played in a park you needed your own equipment. And that’s what Hank brought to the table by taking out that $2000 loan from his parents.

Our idea was that we could do parties and maybe rent out the equipment and eventually pay for it that way. But that was gonna take time, and I guess his parents wanted an immediate return, to see that he was doing something to make it happen. And that’s why he got the job in the pizza shop in New Jersey.

Not long after that, Hank came back with the story of how Sylvia Robinson visited the shop. And he was like, “Yo, she just came in there and she liked my voice, and we was talking and she asked me to be on this record.” When he told me about it I was like, “Yeah, well, what about us?” So right there, once I saw that we wasn’t involved I lost any kind of enthusiasm about it. I figured, hey, if anybody in their right mind would pick Hank to be in a group, then that must not be much of a group. Cause he ain’t even no MC.

He asked me if he could borrow my rhyme book, so I just threw it on the table. I mean, I’m not short on lyrics, never have been. When people used to be worried about people biting their rhymes, that was the least of my worries. So I was kinda nonchalant about it, I’m not thinking anything is gonna come from it. And if it did by happenstance, then all right well, hey, he comes from us, so if there’s any trickle-down, it’ll trickle down to us. Who thought it was gonna become an international hit? And as far as trying to protect myself, we didn’t know about lawyers and publishing and writers and mechanical royalties or nothing like that. We weren’t part of the music industry.

A few weeks later he came to my house and gave me two copies of “Rapper’s Delight.” I had my DJ equipment set up in my living room, put it on the turntables, and listened to it. And it was so damn long I almost fell asleep. It was like 15 minutes long! And they were doing that “disco style” of rhyming, emulating the early disco DJs like Hollywood and Lovebug—all of them trying to sound like radio DJs, that same cadence. It was the style that we in hip-hop all had before we eventually found our own voice. I used that disco voice myself when I was younger and coming up in hip-hop. But I had found my voice by then, so by the time “Rappers Delight” came out, I was like, that’s corny.

The very first thing Hank does on the record is spell my name out. The ironic thing is that people around the world who have heard this song for 35 years, most of them have never realized that he spelled out “I’m Casanova Fly.” I’m like, He ain’t even change it! But I knew he didn’t have an MC mentality. All he had to do was not spell my name and spell his own name out. It’s hilarious to think of it, ‘cause you saying that you’re me.

By that time people are starting to run up on me in the street and school: “Yo, I heard your record on the radio.” And I’m like, “That’s not me, what are you talking about?” And they’re like, “Rappers Delight!” And I’m like, “Oh, nah, that’s Hank.” And everybody’s like “Hunh?! Hank?! What’s he doing on a record?! Why ain’t it you? Why is he staying your stuff?” So for a long time I went through that thing in the street. “Yo, I know you gettin paid from that.” And I’m like, “No.”

And not only that: Once that thing happened with Hank and the Sugarhill Gang, that was the end of the Force Five, because Hank kept our equipment. We had these Jamaican guys, really good cabinet makers, build us these refrigerator-size speakers, and we bought a big powerful amplifier. I don’t know what happened to them. We never got to keep any of that stuff.

My whole thing was: I moved on. I was in the end of my Casanova Fly days going into my Grandmaster Caz era. I joined the Cold Crush Brothers after that, and we were still bent on trying to be who we are in the street. I never went to anybody and demanded, “You owe me money, this is mine” or anything like that. I never thought how deeply “Rapper’s Delight” would come into play later on. Even when it became a hit back then I was like, “Yeah, ok, whatever,” and kept it moving. We signed to Tuff City Records, and put records out ourselves.

The next time I saw Hank was a couple of years later at the Disco Fever. This is after not hearing from him or seeing him in like two years. And I felt a little awkward because of the way things were left.

So I’m like, “Yo, what’s up, Hank? How’s your family, man?” And he started going on about how they just came back from tour, and they just went to such-and-such and they was doing such-and-such over here, and went into this whole spiel about his tour schedule. And I’m like, “Listen, I didn’t ask you about none of that. Man, I asked you about your mother and your sister.” Because I knew his family. And I guess it was a nervous thing where he didn’t want to have an intimate conversation. I walked away from him. I thought: “That’s what you’re going to throw at me after all this?” And that was it. I didn’t see him more than two, three times after that, always on the road somewhere, performing. Mostly I avoided him.

Since they left the Sugarhill Gang, Wonder Mike and Master G, we’ve become kind of cool, friends and compatriots. Mike and G say they didn’t really know that Hank was using my lyrics. They thought it was kinda strange he kept saying the same thing all the time over and over. You know the hip-hop community has known this for years. I’m not the first person whose lyrics got stolen and didn’t get compensated, and unfortunately I probably won’t be the last.

Eventually those guys realized that they weren’t getting what they were supposed to get. Master G saw the crooked dealings at Sugar Hill—now run by Sylvia’s son Joey Robinson—and left. Mike held out a little longer. And when things didn’t change, Mike left as well. Hank was the only one who stayed with the company. Joey took over Master G’s role and then eventually they got someone to replace Wonder Mike as well. So now you got Mike and G, who eventually got back together touring, and they can’t even use the name Sugarhill Gang. And then you got only Hank and Joey and whoever replaced Mike as the Sugarhill Gang going around doing shows. That was totally ludicrous to me.

Recently, Hank and Joey came here and did a show in The Bronx at Crotona Park, part of the Tools of War show I was hosting.

When I saw Hank, I was just like “Hey, what’s up, man? Let’s take a picture.”

And Joe Conzo took the only picture of us that there is.

I’ve been doing hip-hop sightseeing tours in New York for 12 years now. It’s kind of ironic because part of my routine has always been to do the “MCs Delight” song. It’s basically my explanation on how the whole situation went with Hank and the song; and how they asked him to be a part of it; and how he got the lyrics, and how he never looked back. I don’t even feel comfortable doing that any more. I could have been really nasty, and had every right to be, but I kind of tried to make it humorous. But still it just doesn’t feel right now.

I’d known about his condition. He had cancer, stage IV. He was taking dialysis. And Grandmaster Melle Mel, who saw him regularly and did shows with him, he said the last time he saw Hank about three weeks ago he weighed like 168 pounds. I knew that it was really a matter of time. And I didn’t feel good about it.

Mainly I just wish that things could have been different. It may have looked like he didn’t care about it, but he did; coming to New York and people being in the front of their shows booing Hank and saying stuff. And to walk around with this hanging over him all his life, I’m pretty sure it had to constantly eat away at him. I just wish he could have made peace with it. And I’m pretty sure that he didn’t.

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a…

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

Jonathan Shecter

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Editor-in-Chief, Cuepoint at Medium

Cuepoint

Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics