R.I.P. Sylvia Robinson ‘The Mother of Hip Hop’

Sylvia Robinson, the singer, songwriter and entrepreneur who died on September 29 aged 75, unleashed rap on the mainstream musical scene with her label Sugar Hill Records and the single Rapper’s Delight.

The track was a 1979 hit on both sides of the Atlantic for the Sugar Hill Gang, and showed that rap could appeal far beyond New York’s black inner-city youth to become the successful and highly commercial form that it is today.

The record took shape after Sylvia Robinson accompanied her son to “block parties” – street gatherings in Harlem and the Bronx where MCs would sing or talk over backing beats provided by a DJ.

At one party Sylvia Robinson witnessed the spell that the MCs cast over their audience with instructions (notably “throw your hands way up in the air, and wave ’em all about like you just don’t care”) eagerly followed. “If he’d said ‘Jump in the river,’ they would have done it,” she noted later.

Recognising the music’s potential, she assembled three local MCs (Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee), called them The Sugar Hill Gang (after Sugar Hill, the affluent Harlem neighbourhood) and got them to perform over the infectious bass line of the disco tune Good Times, a hit for the band Chic. The result was a 15-minute track which, when edited down to six, became the crossover smash Rapper’s Delight.

Buoyed by its success, Sylvia Robinson moved quickly to sign other rap artists, buying out the contract from Fire Records of New York’s premier DJ, Grandmaster Flash. The series of singles that she produced and released with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five introduced more elements of hip-hop culture – not just rapping, but also mixing records, break-dancing, and graffiti – to a mass audience.

The most famous of the songs with Flash was The Message (1982), which is often referred to the greatest record in hip-hop. A searing account of the vicissitudes of life in the ghetto, it is also celebrated as a socially-conscious track that – unlike many hip-hop records that followed – refused to glamorise criminality.

This was followed by the anti-drugs hit White Lines (Don’t Do It), which Sylvia Robinson produced and co-wrote. By then, however, she and Sugar Hill Records were engulfed in legal cases arising from claims of unpaid royalties to the label’s own artists, as well as claims from other performers whose work it had sampled.

She was born Sylvia Vanderpool on March 6 1936 in New York City. Aged 14 she was discovered by a talent scout and made her first recording with the trumpeter Hot Lips Page for Columbia Records.

Later she recorded as Little Sylvia for Savoy Records before, in 1956, she began taking guitar lessons from Mickey Baker. She quickly determined that they could succeed as a duo, and Mickey & Sylvia were duly signed to RCA that year. Her instincts were vindicated when their debut single Love Is Strange topped America’s R&B charts, also reaching No 11 in the Pop charts.

Mickey & Sylvia went on to have several other minor R&B hits; all failed to match the success of Love Is Strange, and when Baker left to settle in France in the mid-1960s, the duo split.

In 1964 Sylvia Vanderpool married Joe Robinson, who had long experience working in New York’s black music scene. Based in Engelwood, New Jersey, the couple set up Soul Sound, an eight-track studio, and started operating a string of independent record labels. Sylvia’s ear for talent did not desert her and she signed, produced, and often wrote the songs for local soul groups.

Among the tracks she wrote was Pillow Talk, intending it to be recorded by the Memphis soul artist Al Green. He turned her down, however, on the grounds that the heavy-breathing melody was too risqué. So Sylvia released her own recording in early 1973, and saw it top the R&B charts and reach No 3 in America’s Pop chart (No 14 in Britain). Then, in 1975, Sylvia Robinson also wrote and produced the proto-disco hit Shame Shame Shame for Shirley & Company.

Her long apprenticeship in the ruthless Rhythm & Blues world had shaped her into a tough businesswoman – too tough for some tastes. Artists complained that she was reluctant to pay them and, by 1979, threatened by several lawsuits, the Robinsons’ mini music empire looked set to collapse. Then came Rapper’s Delight.

When, in due course, Sugar Hill Records attracted court cases too, the label initially struggled on. But by the 1990s it had been overtaken by other recording houses, and Sylvia Robinson decided to retire from the music industry. Forever the Queen of Harlem, she occasionally held court with journalists, never apologising for any financial misdemeanours she might have committed.

Sylvia Robinson is survived by three sons. Joe Robinson died in 2000.

via The Telegraph

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