Sylvia Robinson may be gone, but her legacy and influence continues like a looping sample.
Yesterday, September 29th, Ms. Robinson—the “Mother of Hip Hop music” and producer behind “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message”—died of congestive heart failure. She was 75 years old. Ms. Robinson had craftily recycled her career—from singer to record company executive—and stayed relevant into the present, contributing to a subculture that now dominates pop music.
Robinson, born Sylvia Vanterpool, was born in New York City in 1936. By the time she was 14, Sylvia’s progressive vocal range had already reached maturity. At the time, she was student at Washington Irving High School. Despite her age, Robinson begin making records thanks to a staffer at Columbia Records. Her first hit in the early ’50s was a collaboration with swing trumpeter and band leader Hot Lips Page.
Shortly after, Sylvia began taking guitar lessons from a hard-knocks guitarist by the name of McHouston “Mickey” Baker. Baker was a savant guitarist who dropped out of The New York School of Music because the curriculum pace lagged. There was mutual respect between them. This meeting of prodigious talent would turn the dial on both of their careers. Allegedly inspired by the success of Les Paul & Mary Ford, Robinson and Baker formed Mickey & Sylvia.
The duo went on to make “Love is Strange,” a covertly racy ditty with curlicued guitar breaks. By the early ’60s, Mickey & Sylvia broke up to pursue solo careers. Sylvia stayed in the States, and Baker became somewhat of journeyman, traveling to Europe to work with emerging talent in France.
In the early ’60s Sylvia met her husband Joseph Robinson, a real estate agent, and settled in Englewood, New Jersey. Their minds met with an entrepreneurial streak. They open All Platinum Records, and Joseph put his real estate enterprise aside to manage his wife’s career. Soul music was a growing market, so the Robinsons made themselves well-equipped by building an in-house recording studio and launching subsidiaries.
Though All Platinum had a successful start with “Love on a Two-Way Street” (1970) and “Pillow Talk” (1973), sung by Robinson, the label eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Soul music was still evolving, but disco was fading out like the label’s hits. But in New York, block parties were colored with a fun, improvisational form of music called “rapping.”
At these block parties, MCs and DJs—as they called themselves—caught the attention of Robinson. It wasn’t just the sound that fixated her. It was the dancing, the culture, that was a gleam to Robinson and her business savvy. At a pizzeria in Englewood, Robinson heard a young man who went by Big Bank Hank rapping to a tune playing on the stereo system. Impressed, Robinson asked Hank if he would like to record. Upon his acceptance, the Robinsons teamed Hank up with a student named Master Gee, and florist Wonder Mike. The trio became known as the Sugerhill Gang, the namesake of the Robinsons’ new label.
This musical form, which included rapping, popping, and locking, got its christening from “Rapper’s Delight.” This was hip hop.
I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie,
to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat
This hip hop track was the first of its kind produced by Sylvia Robinson. Recorded in a single fifteen-minute take, “Rapper’s Delight” transcended its high position on music charts to become a call-to-action for a new musical movement.
The Sugar Hill label expanded. Artists such as Funky Four Plus One and Spoonie Gee became part of the roster. The label’s oeuvre consisted of songs that were party-themed. But the Robinsons’ added a new dimension to the Sugar Hill label with six buddies from South Bronx: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Instead of going with the blooming trend of celebration music, the Grandmaster and his team of five rapped like street poets. Their hit “The Message,” produced by Ms. Robinson, highlighted the decaying streets of an urban landscape with gritty lyrics and metallic beats.
Ms. Robinson’s business savvy made hip hop music a viable element within a market shared by punks, mods, rockers, new wavers, crooners and divas. In the same period, these other musical cultures reached a new level of exposure through the newly established channel Music Television, which we know better as MTV. Along with its fellow genres, hip hop music shared a wholesome exposure by way of MTV.
Hip hop music’s annexation into the market was largely due to Sylvia Robinson doubling down on her penchant for enterprise. Since she had been in the trade for many years, she was well-adjusted to the ebb and flow of the music industry. With songs like “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message,” Sylvia Robinson did what any music entrepreneur would’ve done, make a tune to which you could celebrate or relate. And that says a lot about her hustle.
In the shifts and changes that propelled her lifelong career, one thing that never changed is harmony. That’s beyond hip hop music. Sylvia Robinson just simply brought us music. Rest in peace.