Most hip hop fans today have never heard of Sylvia Robinson, but she is a pioneering figure in the music's history. A rhythm-and-blues singer and musician turned independent record label owner and producer, Robinson masterminded the first ever rap record, Rapper's Delight, by the Sugarhill Gang — a global hit in 1979 that launched hip hop as a commercial phenomenon. Robinson went on to produce several of hip hop's definitive early singles, which she released on her label, Sugar Hill Records. They included Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's seminal The Message, the first socially conscious rap record. Her nickname as the Godmother of Street Music is fully deserved.
Sylvia, the Singer
She was born Sylvia Vanderpool in Harlem in 1936 (some sources say 1935). Her father had moved there from the Virgin Islands and worked for General Motors; her older sister Audrey became a successful opera singer. Robinson began her own music career at 14, singing with a blues band led by the trumpet impresario Hot Lips Page. At 16 she landed her first record deal with Savoy records under the stage name Little Sylvia, and scored her first rhythm-and-blues hit, "Little Boy (You're Going to Be Sorry)." A Savoy session musician, McHouston "Mickey" Baker, began teaching her guitar and they went on to form a double act; Sylvia wrote their million-selling 1956 single, the latin-flavoured duet "Love Is Strange."
Around that time Sylvia met and married the dapper and streetwise bar owner Joe Robinson and although Mickey and Sylvia enjoyed several more hits, she retired from performing in 1962 to move to New Jersey and raise three sons with Robinson.
Songwriter and Sultry Singer of 'Pillow Talk'
But Sylvia was far from done with the music industry. She and Robinson founded a group of independent labels under the banner of All Platinum, and Sylvia worked tirelessly behind the scenes producing, writing songs and hiring artists. She is credited for producing the R&B group The Moments' hit "Love on a Two-Way Street." But it was the tragic death of a young artist, Linda Jones, that inspired Sylvia to pick up the microphone again in order to do justice to a song, "Pillow Talk," she had written for Jones. (Although not before she had tried to persuade Al Green to sing it; the soul legend turned it down for being "too sexy," according to Billboard.). In the end Sylvia sang it herself — and the breathy, sultry, unashamedly libidinous "Pillow Talk" became a huge, unexpected hit, reaching No. 3 in the U.S. pop charts, winning props from another soul legend, Marvin Gaye. "The last time I saw Marvin was when I went to the Radio City Music Hall with the Isleys," Sylvia told Dazed in 2000. "He gave me a real nice shout out that had the whole audience clappin', 'The Pillow Talk lady is in the house...' A year later he was gone." Sylvia Robinson was back in the spotlight and went on to release two solo albums, Sylvia and Lay It on Me.
'Rapper's Delight': First Hip-Hop Commercial Hit
But by 1979 All Platinum had fallen into financial difficulties, and the Robinsons were desperate for a hit. Sylvia found her opportunity at a party in Harlem, where she witnessed the DJ Lovebug Starski spinning R&B hits, rapping over the top and sending the crowd into a frenzy — it was her first encounter with early hip-hop culture, and it was a light-bulb moment. "A spirit said to me, 'Put a concept like that on a record and it will be the biggest thing you ever had," Sylvia told Vanity Fair in 2005.
Sylvia had no connection to the nascent hip-hop culture that had been bubbling away in the Bronx through the 1970s. She did not know any rappers. But her son Joey Jr. helped source three young unknowns — Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien. They auditioned outside a Crispy Crust Pizza in Englewood, New Jersey, where Hank Jackson worked. Days later, the trio recorded "Rapper's Delight" in a single take during their lunch breaks. Sylvia enlisted her in-house band to recreate the groove from Chic's hit "Good Times," and the Sugarhill Gang — as she named the trio — laid down a freestyle 15-minute "disco rap" in a single take. The resulting 12-inch single, "Rapper's Delight," was indeed a hit, selling 2 million copies within weeks of its release. But it alienated many of rap's original pioneers, especially the Bronx's Grandmaster Caz, who has long claimed that Hank Jackson stole his lyrics on "Rappers' Delight" without ever crediting him.
With her new label, Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia became a leading figure in the proliferation of hip hop around the world. Acts on Sugar Hill included Funky Four Plus One, Crash Crew, the Sequence — one of the first all-female rap groups — and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, whose hard-hitting single The Message, in 1982, is often acclaimed as one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. But by the mid-1980s Sugar Hill had fallen out of fashion, and the Robinsons sold their label to the reissue specialists Rhino Records.
Death & Legacy
Sylvia died aged 75 from congestive heart failure on September 29, 2011. Warner Brothers Pictures bought the rights to her life story in 2014. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Carlito Rodriguez and Malcolm Spellman, the writers of the hit Fox TV show Empire, are adapting it for the big screen.
(Profile photo of Sylvia Robinson by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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