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

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 22 October 2011 08:31

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.

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