From the first rap single to sell a million to the first scratching on record, Sylvia Robinson created the template for hip-hop’s world domination. Her genius for production built an empire. Her bad business burned it down.
In 1960, a 25-year-old performer-songwriter named Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson — then of the guitar-and-vocal duo Mickey & Sylvia, known for their million-selling “Love Is Strange” — walked into a recording studio in Manhattan to work with a New Orleans artist named Joe Jones on a tune he called “You Talk Too Much.”
Sylvia Robinson walked out a record producer.
She did not receive credit for the session, one she claimed that she had run on behalf of Jones’ label, Morris Levy’s Roulette Records. If she had, it might have cemented her as the first-ever black and female independent record producer to have a top 10 pop hit. (The song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
Instead, Sylvia would become famous for another breakthrough: conceiving and producing the first successful rap record. Forty years ago, in the summer of 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang transformed the street culture of hip-hop into a commercially viable art form. It was not only the first rap single to conquer the radio and the charts — topping Billboard’s R&B tally and reaching No. 37 on the Hot 100 — but the first to sell over a million. After facing criticism from hip-hop’s pioneers for fabricating The Sugarhill Gang from three wannabe rappers, Robinson filled out her roster with genuine acts: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Funky 4 + 1, The Treacherous Three. Within a few years, she had built one of the top independent labels in America, Sugar Hill Records, along with her husband, Joe Robinson.
Her success with Sugar Hill was historic. She’s arguably one of the most consequential producers and label owners of all time. Her business opened the doors for all the independents that followed from Def Jam to Top Dawg, and her music pioneered distinct concepts that set the template for hip-hop’s entire creative arc. From party rocking, to the DJ as musician, to social consciousness, Sugar Hill made everything possible for today’s hip-hop stars.
She was celebrated as “the Queen of Rap,” but success did not erase the slighting of her earliest production work, which included “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” the 1961 hit that earned Ike & Tina Turner their first Grammy Award nomination. “I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that’s me playing guitar,” she said in a 1981 interview with trade magazine Black Radio Exclusive. Production credit went instead to Sue Records owner Juggy Murray.
The erasure of women’s work remains a less-explored injustice of the rough-and-tumble early history of the record business. “It got covered up a lot,” says Leah Branstetter, creator of the Women in Rock and Roll’s First Wave website. “They would just get called a ‘secretary.’ A lot of women did the A&R-type work. They would be the ones building the relationships and doing all this administrative work that is an important part of producing but isn’t always the part that gets credited.”
Thus, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler are lauded for the glories of Atlantic Records, not Miriam Abramson, whose accounting and collection kept the company solvent; Jim Stewart is celebrated as a pioneer of Memphis soul, less so Estelle Axton, without whose money and ear there would have been no Stax; Elvis Presley’s discovery is ascribed to Sam Phillips when it was his assistant, Marion Keisker, who initially recorded Presley and pushed Phillips to call him back in for the session that began his meteoric ascent at Sun. A black woman, Vivian Carter Bracken, was the first to license The Beatles for American distribution at her label, Vee-Jay, when Capitol Records passed. Johnnie Mae Matthews founded Northern Recording Company in Detroit and introduced a young Berry Gordy to the DJs and distributors he would draw on in building Motown. And Sylvia Robinson, as she and Joe tell the story, was behind the boards to record major hits for Ike & Tina Turner and Jones.
Sylvia Rhone, who in May was named chairman of Epic Records — only the second time in history that a black woman has attained that title at a major label, the first being Rhone herself at Elektra in 1994 — began her own journey by following the paths of three female executives. “There was Florence Greenberg of Scepter/Wand Records,” says Rhone. “Ruth Bowen, who owned Queen booking [and] had Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington and Dionne Warwick. And Sylvia Robinson, who should be honored as one of the first black female creatives and businesswomen.”
Being denied that recognition may have fueled Robinson’s drive in the decades that followed, through boom times to bankruptcy and back again. But her success with Sugar Hill did not satisfy a hunger for credit that ultimately metastasized into greed and tarnished her reputation.
Nearly everyone knows the song, beloved by filmmakers who wished to evoke the spirit of the late ’50s in movies like Dirty Dancing and Casino. “Love Is Strange” hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1957. It made Sylvia Robinson’s career.
Before then, she had been “Little Sylvia” Vanderpool, a teen artist releasing a string of minor R&B singles on the Savoy and Jubilee labels between 1951 and 1953. The Harlem-born-and-bred daughter of immigrants from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Sylvia had nearly given up on her showbiz dreams, taking a typist position at Metropolitan Life while considering a career in nursing.
Two partnerships helped change that. The first was with MacHouston “Mickey” Baker, her guitar teacher. Eleven years older than Sylvia, Baker was inspired by the success of Les Paul & Mary Ford, and wanted to try a similar male-female duo. The second was with Joe Robinson, a young Navy vet who made a small fortune in the Harlem numbers racket and invested it in real estate and nightclubs. Joe met Sylvia on a day cruise up the Hudson River, courted her and wed her. But Joe played a supporting and supportive role in their marriage: He encouraged her work with Baker and set up a publishing company with her.
The sudden success of “Love Is Strange” took Mickey & Sylvia to stages across the country. On NBC’s Steve Allen Show, their act simmered with sexual innuendo — Sylvia wrapped in a sequined dress, cooing and throwing her hips at the besuited Baker. She was the architect of their prosperity, interpolating a Bo Diddley vamp, rewriting the lyrics and adding the song’s flirty repartee: “Oh, lover boy…” Still, it was initially credited to Diddley’s alias, Ethel Smith (his wife’s name), likely in order for Diddley to dodge contractual commitments — one woman denied credit, another used as a vessel for her husband.
“Love Is Strange” gave Mickey & Sylvia a forever hit that proved impossible to follow. Sylvia had the talent and the ability for a plan B — songwriting and production — but there was little precedent for a woman in that role. So she and Joe settled into nascent black suburbia in Englewood, N.J., and had three sons: Joe Jr. (aka Joey), Leland and Rhondo.
The Robinsons co-founded All Platinum Records in 1968 — the “All” inserted in the name because they knew distributors that paid their vendors in alphabetical order. She built the roster, signing groups like The Moments, while Joe handled the operations and scavenged for projects to promote, like a record by The Whatnauts that was bubbling at black radio.
“Message From a Black Man,” produced by George Kerr, was an opportunistic cover of a song from a 1969 Temptations album. Kerr, a former Motown artist, knew Gordy was never going to release a deep cut as a single, and his quickly assembled Whatnauts imitation was a play to shave off customers who didn’t want to buy a full Temptations album just to own the song. As such, Kerr was a hustler after Joe’s heart. Kerr was promoting the record at a radio station in Virginia when Joe found him.
“I was coming out with the program director to take him to lunch, and here are these two white Italian guys coming up the sidewalk,” remembers Kerr. “I knew they were gangsters. They said, ‘Which one of you is George Kerr?,’ and I pointed to the other guy!”
The gentlemen clarified that they merely wanted to introduce Kerr to someone who could help with his record. Walking back into the station, they put Kerr on the phone with Joe (“We got him, Joe!”), who convinced a reluctant Kerr to fly to Newark, N.J., for a meeting. When Kerr arrived, he found Sylvia and Joe waiting for him beside a black limousine, both bedecked in white mink coats and hats.
Sylvia hugged Kerr like an old friend. “How did you have the guts to go up against Motown?” she asked with a laugh. By the time they bustled Kerr back to Englewood, they had convinced him that All Platinum could take his record farther than he could selling it out of the trunk of his Cadillac — especially considering their connections.
Kerr already knew that those relationships ran along the fringes of organized crime, as was often the case for independent labels. Connected guys with money to launder could provide funding for a company, influence to get DJs to play its records and coercion to get distributors to pay for those records. Joe, with his years in the numbers game and New York nightlife, had amassed a lifetime of relationships with Harlem kingpins like Nicky Barnes and industry operators like Morris Levy and Nate McCalla, who were both tied to the Genovese family. “Joe was a good earner,” says Kerr.
Soon, Kerr began spending time with Sylvia in the studio the Robinsons had built at 96 West St. in Englewood. “She had one of the best ears for music I’ve ever known,” recalls Kerr. “She was genius. When she was producing The Moments, she would be in the studio with headphones dancing in front of Harry Ray or Billy Brown and open up the buttons on her blouse to draw the best performance out of them. She was good.”
That combination of intellect and intuition garnered Sylvia a string of classic ’70s soul hits for All Platinum, including “Shame, Shame, Shame” for Shirley & Company. Yet the artist who ended up with the label’s biggest hit would be Sylvia herself.
Sylvia’s sonics often paralleled the Philadelphia sound 100 miles to the south, awash with sweet strings and soft vocals, but Al Green’s Memphis machine was the mood she evoked in “Pillow Talk,” a tune she wrote with Michael Burton expressly for Green and shopped to his producer, Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell. When Mitchell balked at making it a single and insisted on taking the publishing, Sylvia shelved the tape.
Kerr was in the studio with Sylvia when that same reel fell onto her foot from behind a tape machine where it had been wedged. They cued it up — Sylvia moaning out an aural orgasm, “Uno momento poquito! Nice, Daddy!” — whereupon she made what Kerr had come to know as her signature pronouncement: “That’s a motherfucking smash!”
“Pillow Talk,” cut right from the half-inch demo tape, topped the Billboard soul chart in 1973 and rose to No. 3 on the Hot 100, thrusting Sylvia back into the spotlight. She shimmied on Soul Train, but her shyness was unmistakable — she seemed more comfortable in the studio than onstage.
Kerr’s turn as an All Platinum artist, with a song called “Three Minutes to Hey Girl,” had come with a price — a shared production credit with Sylvia where none was warranted and a knowledge that he wasn’t being paid his fair share.
“I made a lot of money with Sylvia and Joe,” says Kerr. “But about a quarter of the money I should have made.”
His grievances weren’t unique. The notorious ties that assured the Robinsons would themselves get paid also meant that those who expected payment from them thought twice about pressing the issue. Joe could be a true friend, but to know him was to know that he carried a pearl-handled pistol.
In the mid-1970s, All Platinum made an expansion play for the venerated Chess Records catalog with the help of PolyGram. But when the Robinsons couldn’t monetize the assets, that partnership ended in litigation. Joe’s under-the-table dealings resulted in a payola investigation and a conviction for tax evasion, after which Sylvia’s artists fled rather than forfeit their careers. By the end of the 1970s, All Platinum had filed for bankruptcy.
It was in the midst of this tumult that Sylvia visited Harlem World, a two-story nightclub on the corner of Lenox and 116th Street that had become by the summer of 1979 one of the few spots in New York that brought the flourishing culture of beats and rhymes indoors from the blacktops and parks. Sylvia’s nieces had taken her there for a party, but she was floored by the sight of Lovebug Starski rapping over the break from Chic’s “Good Times,” the hit of the summer. Fresh from a religious retreat to salve her burdened soul, she decided that she had found her personal and financial deliverance. She turned to her sister, Diane, and said: “Imagine if they were rapping for the Lord!”
The creation story of “Rapper’s Delight” is oft-told: how Sylvia’s teenage son Joey assembled three of his friends, none of them experienced rappers — Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien and Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright — at her studio to write and perform the rap; how Sylvia instructed her studio band to replay the instrumental to “Good Times” as the song’s musical bed; how the resulting 15-minute-long track caught fire at radio at a pace beyond even Sylvia’s divine vision; how fans across the country grappled and then grooved with this strange talking record. Sylvia’s epiphany birthed a million musical revelations. Perhaps no people were stunned as much as the creators of this rapping style who were across the Hudson River in New York and had never heard of any crew called The Sugarhill Gang.
Sylvia named the act after the fancy Harlem neighborhood that loomed over her own childhood home on 137th Street. She rechristened her label with the same moniker, making a clean break from the All Platinum debacle. The new record was Sylvia’s brainchild: produced by her, but financed, in an arrangement that Joe had brokered, by Levy. She slapped a writing credit for herself on “Rapper’s Delight” even though many of the lyrics were cribbed from Curtis Fisher, known as Grandmaster Caz, who had tossed his notebook to Big Bank Hank with a shrug. And the studio band played music composed by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who had to retain an attorney to secure their rightful credit.
None of this impeded the rise of “Rapper’s Delight,” which many retailers called their best-selling 12-inch single since the format had launched. And by 1981, the Robinsons had cornered the market on rap records, building Sugar Hill Records into a multimillion-dollar empire with a global reach.
Sugar Hill remained a family affair, with Diane and Sylvia’s niece Donna playing promotion roles and Joey acting as both A&R rep and artist (as one-half of the duo West Street Mob). Doug Wimbish, a young session bassist who had left All Platinum when the money got funny, returned at Sylvia’s sweet-talking behest to form the house band with drummer Keith Le Blanc and guitarist Skip McDonald.
There were some new faces, too, like Milton Malden, a balding, thin-mustachioed Yugoslavian who boasted that he had worked for dictator Josip Tito. In the trades, he described his bailiwick: “All administration — papers, documents, labels, contracts, shipping, distribution — goes through me … I control the overall situation.” But Malden had scant previous industry experience. “He was a military guy,” says Wimbish. “Morris Levy put Milton Malden in there to watch the money.”
The sudden influx of cash meant that Wimbish and his peers got paid, albeit in ways that pointed to the company’s complicated finances. “When we got our first checks, they were cashier’s checks that were written out in Arabic,” recalls Wimbish.
The parking lot at 96 West St. filled with expensive automobiles. Joe rose early to talk to distributors in Europe and stayed up late to hit radio programmers on the West Coast. But the engine of this money-making machine was the studio that Sylvia ran.
“She could see things,” says Wimbish. “Somebody might come up with an idea, and she knew how to take key elements out of it, magnify it and turn things into a recording.” He remembers Sylvia and her arranger, Sammy Lowe, mapping sessions out: “Maybe there was a bassline that was written out, or they would hum it to me. We would construct the rhythm section first. And she would give you the changes as you played through it: ‘No, make it a little more funkier. A little less high-hat here. Change that beat; it’s a shuffle. Doug, play a little more straight, more Motown here.’ Sylvia knew how to work with musicians.”
Although Sugar Hill’s first records ignored hip-hop’s original street culture by spotlighting the rapper and demoting the DJ, Sylvia was the first to correct the slight with 1981’s cut-and-scratch landmark “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” which paved the way for the break-, loop- and sample-driven tracks of golden age hip-hop. She was also the first to establish rap as a potent vehicle for political lyrics in 1982 when she produced “The Message” with Melle Mel and Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher.
The climax of Sylvia’s rap run was “White Lines,” the 1983 dancefloor smash by Mel, on which Wimbish replayed the bassline from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.” (The writers of which, of course, remained uncredited.) But that year also brought the debut of Run-D.M.C., whose “Sucker MCs” marked the overthrow of the Sugar Hill sound on the streets. That Sylvia never heard Run-D.M.C.’s demo owed everything to her bad reputation among up-and-coming managers like Russell Simmons. In retrospect, the deals that second-generation hip-hop labels like Tommy Boy, Profile, and Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam offered weren’t structurally much better, creating, in time, their share of tortuous lawsuits. But in the mid-1980s, the game was Sugar Hill’s to lose, and it lost because big money had reinforced its bad habits.
“They had a way of running stuff that was like, ‘Just give a person enough to make ’em happy,’ ” Wimbish told hip-hop historian JayQuan. “They leased ’em a few cars and gave them stuff that they always had wanted. As long as they didn’t have any access to their money. Soon as you pissed ’em off, they would cut you off and ice you.”
The last straw for Wimbish came after he and Mel composed and recorded a song for a soundtrack to Miami Vice. “I played every instrument on it,” says Wimbish. But the credit was “L. Robinson” — Leland Robinson, Sylvia’s middle son. “She gave my credit to Leland for a [high school] graduation present. Leland wasn’t even in the studio.” Leland, for his part, insists that he wrote it. “I produced that song. I did the drum track. Doug didn’t write that,” he told Billboard recently.
Wimbish and Mel retained the attorney Wimbish’s partner Le Blanc was using in his own lawsuit against the Robinsons. And like Le Blanc, Wimbish feared the ire of Joe and his associates. “I felt like I was being threatened,” he recalls. “My friend, one of my elders, gave me a pistol. He said: ‘Somebody comes, you just squeeze this.’ ”
Stiff competition, a disintegrating roster and cash-flow problems prompted the Robinsons to cast about for corporate partners. But their reputation preceded them — at Columbia, an internal memo cast them as “the black mafia.” It was, in fact, the mob to whom they turned to facilitate a pressing-and-distribution deal with MCA in the personage of a wiseguy named Sal Pisello. The catch: They wouldn’t get any money upfront, and their prized Chess Records catalog would be held as collateral against any losses.
By 1986, Sugar Hill was upside down in its deal, and with their masters on the line, Joe and Sylvia sued MCA and Pisello, accusing them of conspiring to strip the company of its assets. A four-year legal fight ensued, and by the time MCA settled — keeping the Chess masters but relinquishing Sugar Hill’s — Sylvia and Joe had divorced. Acquaintances and Sylvia herself intimated that the divorce was as much about splitting their business interests and making sure Joe paid her as it was about personal differences. Their ongoing arrangement was a peculiar one.
“At 5:30, 6:00 every night, he would come by,” recalls Leland. “They would go to a restaurant — The Palm, whatever. Then he would drop her off, go home. Sunday mornings, he got up, brought bagels to the house, lox, cream cheese. He didn’t want the divorce to affect us.”
“Good friends,” in fact, was the name of Sylvia’s first solo venture. She launched Bon Ami Records in 1989 with an album from an East Orange, N.J., rap group called The New Style. It tanked, but the act resurfaced two years later as Naughty by Nature — proof that Sylvia still had an eye for talent. She rebranded again as Diamond Head Records in 1994, but by then hip-hop had creatively left her behind.
The mid-’90s CD boom proved fruitful — Sugar Hill sold its back catalog to reissue label Rhino Records in a seven-figure deal. The Robinsons would need the cash: By the late 1990s, Joe had been stricken with cancer; Kerr, despite their difficult history, shuttled him to chemotherapy. After a period of remission and then a relapse, Joe died in 2000. “I loved Joe,” says Kerr. “I was there to see him take his last breath.”
Despite the divorce, this final separation devastated Sylvia. “I think she lost the will to live after he passed,” says Leland. “She wasn’t the same.” Her spirit was further gutted in 2002 when a fire ripped through the studios on West Street in Engelwood, destroying the building and most of Sugar Hill’s masters. In a 2005 “Rapper’s Delight” retrospective in Vanity Fair, she sounded as bitter as any of the artists who had left the label: “I made a lot of people a lot of millions, and I got jerked. I didn’t get nothin’.”
Sylvia died of heart failure on Sept. 29, 2011. Hundreds attended her homegoing at Englewood’s Community Baptist Church. Here she was still royalty — her casket borne in a white carriage by two ivory-colored horses, the altar bedecked with a perfect floral replication of the Sugar Hill logo.
In the last decade of her life, Sylvia had turned her business over to her three sons. They inherited not just the enterprise, but some of the bad practices that had built it. On March 29, 2012, all three entered guilty pleas in a federal tax-evasion case. The woes of Sylvia’s children stemmed in part from their failure to produce anything new, their business instead coasting on the fumes of the Sugar Hill brand and publishing royalties. Every dollar they earned, in one way or another, mother had made possible.
Rhondo Robinson died suddenly in 2014. Not long after Joey buried his brother, he walked into a meeting with Hollywood producer Paula Wagner and told her his mother’s story. Wagner snapped up Sylvia’s life rights. She identified with the story more than a bit — Wagner had risen from agent to producer to CEO of United Artists until a messy exit and split from her business partner Tom Cruise in 2008.
“She wasn’t afraid to be alone in the creative wilderness,” says Wagner of Sylvia. “She had to face the music business in the 1970s, a very male-dominant world.” Wagner remains confident the movie will go into production, but declines to say when.
A biopic of his mother’s story was a longtime goal for Joey, but he did not live to see it: He died of cancer in 2015.
Whatever an eventual film may portray, the story of Sylvia Robinson doesn’t tie up neatly. Any audit of her involves examining a tricky balance sheet of career-making generosities complicated by her tendency to pay her own injuries and slights forward. But to credit where credit is due: From Mel to Kurtis Blow, from Russell to Rick, from Latifah to Missy, Biggie to 2Pac, Jay to Dame, Kim to Foxy, Wayne to Drake, Nicki to Cardi, every dollar hip-hop earns, mother made possible.