Published: December 28, 2011
Sylvia Robinson was not necessarily the person you’d imagine as the birth mother of hip-hop. She was in her early 40s in the late ’70s, and already a veteran of several waves of pop music. Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York City in 1936, she was a professional singer from her teens. At age 20, she joined forces with her guitar teacher, Mickey Baker, to form a duo. The combination of her sultry but sweet vocals and his agile electric guitar led to a mega-hit in 1957: “Love Is Strange,” a knowingly flirty tune released under the name Mickey and Sylvia. But Vanderpool wasn’t just a pop puppet; she co-wrote songs with Baker too.
After marrying Joe Robinson in 1964, Sylvia Robinson continued in the music business, both behind the scenes and in front of the mic. She and her new husband ran a nightclub and built their own recording studio, Soul Sound, in their new hometown of Englewood, N.J. They soon formed All Platinum Records, where Sylvia Robinson not only helped run the company, she wrote songs for its artists, such as vocal group the Moments, and produced many of the label’s records. (Female producers remain rare today; female label executives rarer still.) She even sang All Platinum’s biggest hit, 1973’s “Pillow Talk,” a slinky disco number that ended with Robinson cooing in feigned coital bliss, years before Donna Summer would become famous for that.
As the ’70s waned, disco did too, as did All Platinum. The Robinsons had purchased the catalog of the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records, an investment that backfired and all but sank its new home label. But their teenage son Joey Robinson had been going to parties uptown in New York and caught on to this crazy new scene where kids chanted rhymes over the instrumental breaks from old funk records. Stories vary on how it all came together, but there’s no dispute that Sylvia Robinson heard something in the nascent sound, recruited three utterly unknown MCs, appropriated Chic’s disco hit “Good Times” as a backing track (the first de facto uncleared sample), and recorded and released the first hip-hop single, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
More than a hit, “Rapper’s Delight” was a phenomenon, and the Robinsons’ new Sugar Hill label would become the first company devoted to releasing hip-hop. In addition to releasing any number of deep old-school party cuts, such as the Sequence’s epic “Funk You Up,” Robinson also scouted a young party DJ named Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, and basically browbeat him into being the artist of record, so to speak, for a more serious-minded rap written by Sugar Hill house musician/producer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher. Fletcher recorded his lyrics with Flash’s cohort Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and co-produced the track with Robinson. With its gritty description of inner-city living and despairing tone, “The Message” proved another sensation, and also tipped anyone paying attention that hip-hop could be, and would be, capable of more than starting a party. And Robinson made that happen every bit as much as Fletcher, Glover, or Saddler did.
Times changed, as they do, and Sugar Hill had trouble keeping up with hip-hop’s explosive evolution. The Robinsons eventually sold the label (and later divorced). Sylvia Robinson never had any more hits, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the hits she did have, and the influence of the genre she helped put on the map, will outlive us all, as they outlived her. She died on Sept. 29 at age 75.
> Email Lee Gardner