Sylvia Robinson: Hitmaker who co-founded Sugar Hill Records and became known as ‘the mother of hip-hop’

Sylvia Robinson was a formidable figure in the music industry. In her teens she recorded as Little Sylvia for the legendary R&B and jazz labels Savoy and Jubilee. In 1954, she joined the guitarist Mickey Baker and, as Mickey & Sylvia, they topped the US charts with the infectious and much-covered "Love Is Strange". In 1968, she and her husband Joseph Robinson started All Platinum Records Enterprises and scored a succession of R&B and crossover hits, notably with The Moments, whose single, the gorgeous "Love On A Two-Way Street", she co-wrote and produced.

In 1973, she returned to the charts in her own right as Sylvia with "Pillow Talk", a slinky, proto-disco single that prefigured the more suggestive records of Donna Summer. The following year, she penned and produced another classic of the disco era, the irresistible "Shame, Shame, Shame" for Shirley & Company. Yet Robinson bettered all these achievements in 1979 when she, Joseph and the infamous, mob-connected, Morris Levy launched Sugar Hill Records, and she masterminded the label's debut release, "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang.

Considered a novelty hit at the time, "Rapper's Delight" sold 14 million copies and helped establish a new genre. During the early 1980s the Sugar Hill imprint defined hip-hop with groups like Funky 4 + 1, The Treacherous Three and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Robinson oversaw the ground-breaking 12-inch "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel" (1981), the first record to feature quick mixing and scratching, as well as "The Message" (1982) and "White Lines (Don't Do It)" (1983), the two arresting singles featuring Melle Mel that took rap into a socially conscious direction and paved the way for its current popularity.

However, those seminal records featured samples or rerecordings of tracks that hadn't been cleared or properly credited, while Grandmaster Flash was edged out of his own group in 1982 and sued the Robinsons for non-payment of royalties, along with other acts. These lawsuits stretched Sugar Hill, while an ill-fated distribution and marketing alliance with MCA Records resulted in another legal case that eventually lost them the Chess catalogue they had acquired for $1 million, and effectively did for the label in 1986.

She was born Sylvia Vanterpool in New York in 1936 and made her recording debut at the age of 14 with the trumpeter Hot Lips Page. In 1953, she co-wrote her first song, "Blue Heaven", and teamed up with Baker, a session musician who had been her guitar teacher. The duo often cut their own compositions, though the million-selling "Love Is Strange" was credited to Ethel Smith, Bo Diddley's wife. They also charted with "There Ought To Be A Law" in 1957, and "Baby You're So Fine" in 1961, the year they played on Ike & Tina Turner's R&B smash "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" and started their own publishing company and Willow label.

The partnership broke up when Baker moved to Paris, and she married Joseph Robinson in 1964. The couple ran a nightclub in the Bronx; in 1968 they opened the eight-track Soul Sound studio in Englewood, New Jersey, and began issuing singles on All Platinum and a raft of subsidiaries.

"Love On A Two-Way Street" had flopped when first recorded by Lezli Valentine – who subsequently claimed, to no avail, to have composed part of it – but the Moments' 1970 version became a memorable falsetto soul ballad and the vocal trio's signature song. It was sampled by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys for "Empire State Of Mind" in 2009. The authorship of "Shame, Shame, Shame" was disputed as well, with Donnie Elbert arguing that he had contributed more than Robinson, the only person credited on the disco smash sung by Shirley & Company.

Robinson had written the raunchy "Pillow Talk" for Al Green in 1972 but after he passed on it she cut it herself and scored a Top 3 US hit. Always opportunistic, she made three albums of risqué material, and a dozen singles including, "Soul Je T'Aime", a cover of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's "Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus", in 1973. When the comedic film-maker Mel Brooks recorded a rap based on his catchphrase "It's Good To Be The King" in 1981, Robinson cashed in with the autobiographical riposte "It's Good To Be The Queen".

In June 1979, she caught Lovebug Starski spinning records at Harlem World disco in Manhattan and identified a new trend. "The DJ wastalking over the music, and the kids were going crazy. He would say something like, 'Throw your hands upin the air' and they'd do it," she recalled. "All of a sudden, something said tome: 'Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing you ever had'. I didn't even know you called it rap."

Driving through the Harlem neighbourhood of Sugar Hill inspired the name of her new label and its first group, the Sugarhill Gang. With the help of her son Joey Jr, later a member of the West Street Mob, she recruited three would-be rappers from New Jersey, Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson, a pizza-seller and bouncer, Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, a flower salesman, and Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien, a high-school student, and made "Rapper's Delight" for $750.

Its opening – "I say a hip hop, hibbit to the hibbit to the hip-hip-hop and you don't stop" – gave the new movement a name and identity. It also popularised the practice of sampling, though the backing track – basically the instrumental break from Chic's dance hit "Good Times" – had been duplicated by studio musicians.

After a slow start due to the reluctance of DJs to play a 14-minute record, "Rapper's Delight" began selling upto 50,000 copies a day and made Sugar Hill the leading hip-hop operator. Robinson was soon buying up thecontracts of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three from rival Enjoy Records,and signing Spoonie Gee, Crash Crew, Busy Bee and The Sequence, anall-female group featuring Angie Stone.

However, by the mid-'80s the once trailblazing Sugar Hill was losing out to Tommy Boy Records and Def Jam Recordings, and the Robinsons eventually shut up shop. In 2005, Robinson rationalised her cavalier attitude towards copyright and royalties by mentioning the dubious practices she'd been a victim of. "I made a lot of people a lot of millions and I got jerked," she said. "I didn't get nothing."

Sylvia Vanterpool, singer, songwriter, producer and record label owner: born New York 6 March 1936; married 1964 Joseph Robinson (died 2000; three sons); died Secaucus, New Jersey 29 September 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Life and Style
love + sex
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - Managed Services Provider

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Eng...

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot