Number one in the US charts by the age of 16; writing hits for Ike and Tina by 26; the producer of one of the the first disco singles, ever, aged 40 – all that, before she created hip hop.
This is Sylvia Robinson – an American singer, musician, record producer, record label executive (and total badass).
She’s best known for her work as the founder/CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records and is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre; “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, and “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
You’ll definitely recognise this one:
For most people today, the name Sylvia Robinson doesn’t even ring any bells, when in truth, it should be a household name. Up until the point that she released ‘Rapper’s Delight‘, MCs were generally young, black groups of friends performing out on the street.
Barely out of school (and auditioning while on their lunch break), Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Joey Robinson Jr (Sylvia’s son) auditioned their ‘party rhythm and rhymes’ over ‘Good Times’ by Chic. Satisfied by what she heard, Sylvia had them track ‘Rapper’s Delight’ (allegedly in one take) the next day.
Within a matter of weeks the single had sold two million copies and a brand new genre exploded into the mainstream.
“I guess it was just a couple of nights earlier, at my 43rd birthday party in Manhattan, that I had the vision,” recalls Sylvia. “Joey had hired some local DJs to provide the music okay, and they had this MC with them. Well I had never even heard anyone rap before, I just thought it was fabulous and I knew that minute that I had to put this new music onto a record.”
The Sugar Hill Gang in 1999. Left to right: Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Joey Robinson Jr
She talks a little more about taking that risk, and the day the boys effectively became the Sugar Hill Gang in this video.
Prior to the mid 80s arrival of the Profile and Def Jam labels and tough talking acts like Run DMC and LL Cool J, Sugar Hill’s significance was cemented by “The Message” (a song you may also recognise). It was the first socially conscious and politicised rap release and the very first to include street noise and sound effects.
The song took Grandmaster Flash’s celebrity to international status, but it was actually written by The Sugar Hill Gang’s percussionist Duke Bootee three years before Flash had even met Sylvia, who recalls how the song was almost never cut:
“After we had recorded Flash’s album I said to Flash, ‘I have a tune here that would make you bigger than anything.’ I played it to him and we recited the raps to him. Thing is, after that he kept calling me aside and he would say, ‘Mrs Rob’, what would our fans think if we did a song like that? We do party songs.’ He didn’t even want to put it on the album. So I said to Melle Mel, I says, ‘Well Mel, what do you think about it?’ and he said, ‘Well Mrs Rob’, if you believe in it, I believe in you.’”
Grandmaster Flash (centre) and Melle Mel (kneeling) with the rest of The Furious Five MCs
Ultimately she was very brilliant, but very modest: (0:29 – 0:59):
Asked about how she felt about the mark she made on popular culture at a defining moment during the evolution of hip-hop, Sylvia exuded “It’s so wonderful. I don’t have much to do with the business now, but I’ve been following it all from right here at home. It makes me feel very proud.”