Sylvia Robinson was a singer, musician, music producer, and record label executive, most notably known for her work as founder/CEO of the seminal hip hop label Sugar Hill Records. Her untimely death today at 75 calls us to remember the very beginnings of a revolution.
She is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre. The first was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which was the first rap song to be released by a hip hop act.. The second was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.
As a solo performer and billed as Sylvia (not to be confused with the country singer of the same name) she recorded and released the single “Pillow Talk” on the Vibration label in 1973.She had originally hoped “Pillow Talk” would be recorded by Al Green, but he turned it down, because it was too risqué and against his religion. The drums on the recorded version seem to have been influenced by the productions of Willie Mitchell for Green.
“Pillow Talk” reached number one for two weeks on the R&B chart and number three on the pop chart, and is an early example of prototypical disco music. It sold over two million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973.The vocals are replete with moaning and heavy breathing, predating Donna Summer’s orgasmic moans on “Love to Love You Baby”. The drumming rhythm would reappear in 1985 on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”, then again in 1987 on Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love”. The song returned to prominence by featuring on the soundtrack of the movie.
In the 1970s the Robinsons with Milton Malden founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem, an affluent African American neighborhood in Manhattan New York City, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid 1900s. Arguably, Robinson’s most significant contribution to music was masterminding the formation of The Sugarhill Gang and the release of their hit, “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, which became the first commercially successful rap single. The group was discovered in Englewood, New Jersey, where Sugar Hill Records was based.
She also was the visionary and guiding force behind Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s most successful single, “The Message”, which is credited as the rap song that brought socially conscious lyrics into hip hop. She persuaded the group to record the song while it was still an estranged demo recording, surprisingly created by a studio percussionist for the Sugar Hill Gang. In 1986, the Robinsons sold the Chess Records catalog, that they had acquired from GRT back in the 1970s, to MCA Records (who was their distributor since 1984). Their son, Joey Robinson, was a member of another rap act, West Street Mob. Her grandson Darnell Robinson’s $297,750 fifteenth birthday party was featured on an episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen.
The lyrics to :The Message” helped teenagers in New York deal with the craziness of growing up in NYC.
Here is what will always be considered the most historical moments in hip hop
Sugar Hill Gang “Rapper’s Delight”:
GrandMaster Flash & the Furious Five: