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Sylvia Robinson: rapper's delight

Number one in the US charts by the age of 16, writing hits for Ike and Tina by 26 and producer of one of the the first ever disco singles aged 40. And all that before Sylvia Robinson created the billion dollar industry we call hip hop

Taken from the February 2000 issue of Dazed:

A pizza chef, an apprentice barber and a street hustlin' school kid are sitting in the back of a 98 town car. They are parked on the kerb of the same shopping street in the quiet, prosperous suburb of Englewood where they all work. It's 1979 and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn to the myriad of reds and yellows that this part of New Jersey is famous for.

The boys actually live across the Hudson River in Harlem, but even so, all three of them know the elegant woman in the front passenger seat to be Englewood's local music industry veteran, Mrs Sylvia Robinson. At her instruction, her teenage son, Joey Junior, starts the cassette player and immediately the unmistakable bass groove of the summer's big disco hit, "Good Times" by Chic, starts pounding. The three boys start finger-poppin' along with the small crowd that has gathered around the open door.

“Okay now, one at a time, let's hear what you can do,” says Mrs Robinson. Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, clears his throat and kicks off with a stream of his favourite party rhymes, mixing them up with some off-the-cuff descriptions of his surroundings.

“Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rappin' to the beat. And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.” These boys have never rapped together before but instinctively "Big Bank Hank" Jackson picks up the flow at just the right moment, breaking into his fame and fortune fantasy boasts before passing the baton to "Master Gee". Without any further encouragement Guy O'Brien bursts into his own well practiced word play, his young voice the perfect foil for the more robust deliveries from the other two. After a short while Mrs Robinson has heard enough and the audition is over. Her search for members of the world's first ever rap group has started and ended in just one sitting. The three boys each took half an hour off work, walked the few blocks to the studio and recorded "Rapper's Delight" in one take – all 17 minutes and 21 seconds of it – before returning to their daily routines.

Within a matter of weeks the single had sold two million copies and what, up until then, was nothing more than the latest permutation of unfocussed, black, street expression, was now an art form that had gripped a global audience. Just as their parents could recall where they were the day JFK died, a whole slice of America's youth would remember where they were when they first heard "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugar Hill Gang.

For most people today, the name Sylvia Robinson doesn't even ring any bells, when in truth, it should be a household name. For whatever reasons, the woman who invented the billion-dollar industry called rap music has been shrouded in mystery and speculation for decades.

It had taken four months of research, phoning and faxing; two and a half transatlantic flights (including one mid-Atlantic near death experience); two false trails, various unqualified warnings of underworld connections and one piece of good luck, before we finally got to speak to Sylvia Robinson. But even after an unforgettable day at the home of the infamous Sugar Hill Records, the 63-year-old Godmother of Street Music's veil of intrigue, remained, to some extent, intact. Sylvia spoke only via her son Joey Jr's speakerphone from her sick bed in a mansion somewhere nearby. She may have been suffering from flu, but this was the first interview of any kind that Sylvia has done for as long as she cares to remember, so when Sylvia does eventually speak, everyone pays close attention.

“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. It was God that was showing me, you see.”

The way she recounts it today, the moment she realised that the future was hip hop, was without a doubt, a clear moment of divine guidance. At the time, however, it may also have been a sudden glimmer of light that might just guide the way out of the deep financial chasm that had opened up beneath her once great family record business. A last throw of the dice to make many years of hard work, talent and acumen, on behalf of her and her husband, count in the minds of her children and her children's children. Perhaps it is only desperation that can drive people to take the kind of risks that can change the world, then again, who's to say it doesn't take something out-of-this-world. But whatever Sylvia's inspiration, it's fair to say that this split second of clear foresight has since revealed itself to be one of the few truly pivotal moments in the post war development of Western popular culture.

In her unfathomable modesty, Sylvia would probably be the first to refute this claim, but looking at her achievements leading up to the 1979 release of "Rapper's Delight", she should give herself more credit. Her career is literally dotted with musical landmarks, the effects of which have reached beyond the Billboard charts to play a part in racial, sexual and social progress. What is certain though, is that Sylvia Robinson has always had the gift of spotting talent and setting trends – from the rhythm and blues of Bo Diddley and Ike and Tina to the soul of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, through funk and disco to early electronic dance – her life is a timeline of the African American tradition that has come to dominate global culture. 

Sylvia was born Sylvia Vanderpool in 1936, the youngest daughter of a General Motors employee who had swapped Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands for the boom town streets of pre-war Harlem. Her sister Audrey was already a successful opera singer, appearing in productions of Carmen and Porgy And Bess by the time Sylvia first took to the limelight.

“I just wanted to say things that women wanted to say but were afraid to. I sang about sexy thoughts and fantasies” – Sylvia Robinson 

“I was singing since I was about 11 or 12 years old. I used to go under the name Little Sylvia and would take weekends away from school to do the review shows and such. Then really it was my brother-in-law who was taking me around to different record companies and so forth when I was a kid, that's how I started.” After being asked to cut "Chocolate Candy Blues" with trumpet impresario, Hot Lips Page for Columbia Records in 1950, Little Sylvia was picked up by Savoy Records and before the age of 16, had scored her first rhythm and blues hit with "Little Boy (You're Gonna Be Sorry)."

“I wanted to learn how to play the guitar and as soon as I learned to play guitar, I started writing.” Sylvia's guitar teacher was Savoy session player McHouston "Mickey" Baker. The pair gelled immediately and soon "Mickey and Sylvia" were signed as a double act to Willow Records. By 1956 Sylvia had penned her first million-selling-single, "Love is strange". It was the first demonstration that she knew a hit when she heard one, and that nothing would get in her way of making sure it reached the public.

“Mickey and I were working at the Howard Theatre in Washington. Bo Diddley was on the same bill and he would play this chant where Jerome Green, his maraca player would say to him, 'Bo? How do you call your woman?' And Bo would say, 'C'mere woman!' And it went on like that until Bo finally says, 'Baby, my sweet baby'. I told Bo that he should record that tune, but when he took it to Leonard Chess, he told him it was nothin'.” Undeterred, and with Bo's approval, Sylvia rearranged the song to fit into the Mickey and Sylvia mode and then took the track to RCA subsidiary, Groove. That label too was unimpressed and it was only when Sylvia threatened to leave them all together, that they let her record "Love Is Strange". The result was a sensual, latinflavoured call and response groove that became an overnight jukebox and radio sensation. All of a sudden they were the number one pop band in America.

It was around that time that Sylvia met a young entrepreneur-in-the-making named Joe Robinson on a boat trip down the Hudson River. The couple were married within the year and started on the path to setting up their own record company. In the meantime, Mickey and Sylvia continued a successful run with songs like "There Oughta Be A Law", "Sylvia's Blues" and "Baby You're So Fine".

“We had a nice sexy act and I wore clothes designed by Felix DeMasi who was known for doing clothes on the big gay entertainers, very creative you know.” But Sylvia didn't enjoy life on the road and before she retired in 1962 to have her three sons, there was time for just one more taste of chart success.

“Mickey and me were working at the Apollo theatre with Ike and Tina. I had written "It's gonna work out fine" but I couldn't get Mickey to like the song. I said, 'this is a smash!', but he just used to laugh at it you know. To prove him wrong, after one of the shows, I took Tina into my dressing room and I played it for her on the guitar and she fell in love with it. Well I think it was the next night that I went to the A&R studio and recorded her on the tune. Ike wasn't even there; he had nothing to do with that. That's me playing the guitar and Mickey that's talking with her on the record. We didn't get paid, hell I paid for the session just because I wanted to prove to Mickey that it was a smash. A while later, Mickey and I were at a diner after one of our shows and the song came on the jukebox and everyone started jumpin'. Well, Mickey was so pissed off he didn't even eat, he just slammed down his food and ran right out.”

When Sylvia did eventually begin raising a family in New Jersey, Mickey Baker came to England and started working with the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac and has remained in Europe ever since. By the end of the 60s, the Robinsons had finally set up their own independent record label, All Platinum, which grew to include a string of subsidiary labels, Stang, Turbo and Vibration. Sylvia was happy to stay behind the scenes, looking for stars, hiring musicians, writing the songs and producing the records, whilst her husband took care of the business. Most of the biggest hits came for "The Moments", a sweet soul trio that Sylvia had discovered in Washington. Between them, Joey and Sylvia also learnt about foreign markets. In America, The Moments were known for their sugary love ballads, like "Love On A Two Way Street" while in the UK , probably their biggest hit was the gloriously un-PC 1975 uptempo soul cut, "Girls" featuring The Whatnauts with "More Girls" on the flip.
"That's right, "Girls" didn't even get a release over here,” explains Joey Senior. “It was l ike this. In the UK, you had one radio station, two if you count Capital. So the only way to break the records was in the discotheques using dubs. We broke a lot of hits off of dubs. We had this MP booth right here in my office where we could play a track down a special line to a dude in a studio in England like as if they was in the next room. They would tailor each track for us, 'a little more bass here, take down the high hat there', and that's how we did it.”

“The last time I saw Marvin Gaye... He gave me a real nice shout out that had the whole audience clappin’: ‘The “Pillow Talk” lady is in the house!’ A year later he was gone” – Sylvia Robinson

Sylvia would have remained out of the limelight if had not been for the tragically young death of one of her favourite signings, Linda Jones. “I was crazy about Linda, it broke my heart when she died. I picked up my guitar and tried to write something for her, but nothing would come out. So I told a friend of mine to go downstairs and put on some Aretha. They played "Daydreaming" and I said to myself, 'Ohh, they're ready for me now!' I wrote "Pillow Talk" in about 15 minutes.”

"Pillow Talk" was the song that would eventually bring Sylvia her greatest mainstream solo success, but at the time she wrote it there was only one person whom she had in mind to sing it.

“At that time Al Green was sizzling hot and so when I met his producer Willie Mitchell at a convention I told him I had a smash for Al.” Mitchell invited Sylvia to come down to Royal Studios in Memphis where she played the song to Al on her guitar. “When Al heard it, Arkansas gentleman that he is, he said, 'You sing it so well why don't you do it?'” For once, Sylvia's hard bargaining didn't work out and she returned to New Jersey without the single deal that she was pushing for. It wasn't until about a year later in 1973, that Joey took Sylvia's own recording of "Pillow Talk" to superstar radio DJ Frankie Crocker and to Sylvia's delight he agreed to play it on his number one rated show. “We were driving down Broadway when suddenly it came over the car speakers and it sounded fantastic. Frankie called us later to say that the phones had lit up like crazy. All these people including a famous basketball player had called in asking, 'Who was that?'.”

"Pillow Talk" was a huge hit and became the title track to her first hit solo album in 1973. The song was a brazenly eroticised slice of female sexual empowerment that was equally reviled and championed by women's liberationists who interpreted it to suit their needs, much to Sylvia's annoyance. “I told them I wasn't into that. I still believe that men wear the pants! I just wanted to say things that women wanted to say but were afraid to. I sang about sexy thoughts and fantasies.” Two mid 70s follow up albums, Sylvia and Lay It On Me built on her growing reputation as the Pam Grier of soul.

Sylvia's most successful cover was a steaming rendition of Marvin Gaye's "You Sure Love To Ball". “The last time I saw Marvin was when I went to Radio City Music Hall with the Isleys. He gave me a real nice shout out that had the whole audience clappin': 'The "Pillow Talk" lady is in the house!". A year later he was gone.”

In 1975, in the middle of all the solo attention, Sylvia made another of her extraordinary talent-spotting coups. While on the phone to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion in California she was impressed by the smooth and sensual tones of the receptionist, one Shirley Goodman. “I thought her voice would be perfect for this track I had been thinking of, so I had her come over.” Sylvia sent Shirley a plane ticket to New Jersey and together they produced the proto-disco masterpiece, "Shame, Shame, Shame" under the name Shirley and Company. It was received by rapturous dancefloors across the world, heralding the dawn of the dance era that would ironically be the downfall of All Platinum and its mainstay of old time soul. 

By 1979, with her sons almost out of education, the family business was struggling. Phonogram had filed aligation against them in a marketing and distribution wrangle and it seemed there was no longer a demand for simple love songs or even simple sex songs. "Rapper's Delight" came along just in time, but before Sylvia could release it she needed to set up a new label. Phonogram couldn't give a damn as long as it had nothing to do with them.

Sylvia had already decided that her next band was going to be called The Sugar Hill Gang long before she had ever even heard of rapping let alone met the boys that would carry the name around the world. She had been to the Sugar Hill area in New York and seen it on a Count Basie record and, well, she just liked the name.

After "Rapper's Delight" everything changed. By the start of the 80s Sugar Hill Records had a virtual monopoly over New York's most prodigious hip hop, funk and disco-rap artists. Some of them, like Spoonie Gee, Funky 4+1 More and Treacherous 3, were inherited from Enjoy Records who had failed to compete with Sugar Hill's high profile. The hits kept coming; "Disco Dream" by Mean Machine, Positive Force's "We Got The Funk", Funky 4 + 1 More's "That's the Joint" and The Sugar Hill Gang's "Apache" and "8th Wonder". Just about every track was recorded using the Sugar Hill in-house band overseen by Sylvia's Midas touch with arranging and producing. Joey Jr, who was instrumental in a lot of the street level A&R, also emerged as a musical talent in his own right coming out with the early electro b boy classic, "Break Dancin': Electric Boogie" by West Street Mob, taking his nom de plume from the address of the Sugar Hill Studios. Sylvia even had a go at rapping herself with "It's Good To Be The Queen", her 1982 retort to Bronx anthem "It's Good To Be The King".
Possibly the biggest star name to rise up from the streets though, was original ghetto superstar, Grandmaster Flash. But as Sylvia is determined to point out, his fame was ill-deserved.

“My cousin brought this group to me and they was called Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and I thought, wow, what a fantastic name. So all the records went out under that name, but Flash actually had no input on anything, and I mean anything, that I recorded. He was a great DJ but that's all, you know.”

“I had never heard anyone rap before [but] I knew that minute that I had to put this new music onto a record” – Sylvia Robinson

Sugar Hill's second milestone recording after "Rappers Delight", was "The Message". It was the first socially conscious and politicised rap and the 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. “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.'” 

In Flash's defence, the Robinsons were only too happy to exploit the situation by issuing further hits like "White Lines (Don't Do It)" and "Step Off" under his name for maximum impact. All the while, the real talent was coming from Melle Mel who had to settle for a less prominent role to that of his DJ. While The Sugar Hill Gang were open to accusations of being manufactured pop opportunists who openly copied rhymes from unsung street MCs like Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel was an awesomely talented rapper whose influence is still felt today.

“I didn't start off as a rapper for Flash, I was actually his dancer,” explains Melle Mel. “Flash didn't have a rapper, he would do his thing, and the mic would be open to anyone. I actually wanted to rap for Kool Herc, but he had a rapper, so me and my brother The Kidd Creole started writing these rhymes, and most of the people getting on Flash's mic were crazy drunk or high. We were the most polished people getting on the mic', so we started rapping for him.”

With the mid 80s arrival of the Profile and Def Jam labels and tough talking acts like Run DMC and LL Cool J, Sugar Hill was rendered out-dated virtually overnight. The company went into rapid decline and accusations of selling out and not paying the artists their rightful dues, wouldn't be silenced.

After 10 years of virtual dormancy, Sugar Hill has, in the last few years, been shaken back to life by the revival of interest in all things 'old skool': breakdancing, scratch djing, graffiti, beat-boxing; the so called lost art-forms that had been shoulder barged out of view by the rap industry that Sylvia created. Last year the decks turned full circle when the current generation of dance and breakbeat producers lined up to pay homage to the label that started it all off 20 years earlier, with a Sugar Hill remix album. This tribute encouraged The Sugar Hill Gang to reform for a sell-out tour with Joey Jr. replacing Master Gee – now a successful marketing exec. – on third mic, and they have since completed an album of new material.

Sylvia is clearly moved by all the acknowledgment and obvious affection. “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.”