When soul singer and hip-hop pioneer Sylvia Robinson passed away yesterday at the age of 75, she left behind a legacy that started in the Bronx and Harlem and would become the dominant global soundtrack from the mid-80s to today.
Before forming Sugar Hill Records with her husband Joe in 1979, Robinson had a successful career as a soul singer/songwriter, recording the 1956 hit “Love is Strange” with partner Mickey Baker (later resurrected on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack) and continuing to write, produce and record into the mid-’70s. After releasing the top five soul hit “Pillow Talk” as cooing vocalist Sylvia, Robinson released Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on the nascent Sugar Hill Records in 1979. While rapping existed for years before “Delight,” the record introduced the then-fledgling genre to an audience outside of New York, paving the way for countless emcees and selling more than eight million copies, giving hip-hop its first hit. The record became so ubiquitous that for a while, it was known simply as “the song,” as in, “Throw the song on.”
Sugar Hill Records would go on to sign influential early hip-hop groups Sequence, Funky Four Plus One, Treacherous Three and, most notably, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. For months, Robinson pushed the Furious Five to record “The Message,” who initially balked at the song’s dark, nihilistic tone. When it was finally released in 1982, the song, with its tales of alienation and urban plight, instantly became a smash, playing in clubs ad infinitum and selling millions of copies worldwide.
In a male-dominated genre, Robinson wielded a mercurial and powerful figure and was commonly thought of as the “Queen of Hip-hop”. She was one of the genre’s first rainmakers — the Diddy of her day — holding court at clubs like Disco Fever in the Bronx, and was behind the boards for many of the label’s hits. But like most queens, she wasn’t without controversy. Even more so than today, the early days of hip-hop were a Wild West-like atmosphere of shady characters and nebulous record deals, which Robinson was part of. As rap began to flourish, many of Sugar Hill’s artists accused the Robinsons of profiting off their names without proper compensation. (Grandmaster Flash entered a protracted legal battle with Sugar Hill, who claimed ownership of the words “Grandmaster” and “Flash”, winning the rights to his name in 1986.)
The label closed the same year, with the Robinsons selling the company to Rhino Records in 1995. Still, even her detractors couldn’t deny the influence Robinson had on an entire genre and generation of music lovers.