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Sylvia Robinson’s Legacy as “The Mother of Hip Hop”

February 6, 2019
Written by
Stephanie Phillips
Illustrations by
Heldáy de la Cruz

This article originally appeared in the print version of She Shreds Issue #16, which was released in December 2018.

Looking out over the crowd at Disco Fever, the Bronx nightclub that became a breeding ground for early hip hop, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s Melle Mel nervously awaited the next song. Music industry veteran and Sugar Hill Records owner Sylvia Robinson had just handed the DJ the group’s new song “The Message.” A nightmarish, seven-minute synth-fueled social critique, Robinson knew it was a hit from the moment she heard it; Melle Mel and the rest of the gang did not, thinking it would ruin their party image.

Robinson had already spent decades being second-guessed by men, and that night she was on the cusp of proving herself right—again. The venue was known to many in the industry as a place to test the waters for new records. Speaking to writer Damien Love for Uncut in 2013, Mel remembered the moment he realized the song was a hit: “I didn’t think it was going to get much response. Fever was really a dance club. But people kept dancing. That’s when I knew it had legs.”

The Midas touch of the Fever dance floor worked again. “The Message” became one of the biggest hits from Sugar Hill Records and is listed as the greatest hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone. Like an attentive parent, Robinson forced hip hop to show us where it was hurting, and as a result the reality of inner-city life for black youth was exposed to the world.

Robinson defied stereotypes and adapted to the changing winds of the industry, playing her part in the early roots of disco, funk, soul, and, most notably, hip hop. As her granddaughter, singer LeA Robinson, declares, Sylvia was a “boss” who was devoted to her family and dedicated to helping new artists. Sugar Hill Gang’s Henry “Hen Dogg” Williams, who joined the group in the early ‘90s, is frank about Sylvia’s talents and influence, saying, “She had a great ear. She knew a hit record when she heard it. If she didn’t have that idea, who knows where hip hop would be today.”

Born Sylvia Vanterpool in 1935, the legend who would later be known as the “mother of hip hop” was singing from an early age, landing a record deal with Columbia Records in 1950 under the name Little Sylvia. Her talents were soon spotted by Savoy Records and by the next year she scored a hit with “Little Boy.” Though still a teen, Robinson had already found the subtleties that would define her as a vocalist; her honey-drenched warble wavered on the verge of cracking, with a jovial warmth suggesting she had a cheeky story to tell after the song was over.

Many women of that era were reliant on the male gatekeepers who decided whether they would have a career. A teenage Robinson knew that was not the path for her and decided to take guitar lessons from Kentucky guitarist and Savoy session player Mickey Baker. “I wanted to learn how to play the guitar,” Robinson told Dazed in 2000, “and as soon as I learned to play guitar, I started writing.” 

Soon after, the pair formed the duo Mickey & Sylvia and went on to enjoy success with the single “Love Is Strange” (1956), an Afro-Cuban-tinged pop number that featured Sylvia and Mickey playing guitar and singing in unison. Decades later, the single maintained its popularity when it soundtracked a prominent scene in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing. “Love Is Strange” is a reworking of a Bo Diddley original that included the same spoken interlude, with Diddley gruffly beckoning his lover, “C’mere woman.” With a gender-flipped version, Mickey & Sylvia created a softer take on the song’s raucous attitude and gently pushed an affirmative message of women’s sexuality into public consciousness.

By the late ‘50s, a number of black women guitarists had made an impact on music from Memphis Minnie and her influential blues music, to Lady Bo who joined Bo Diddley’s band in 1957, to proto rock ‘n’ roll singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Despite the few who made it, most were not properly documented. Seeing Robinson seductively wiggling in an exquisite cocktail dress while strumming along and dragging out her infamous pronunciation of “baby” on the Steve Allen Show would have been life changing for women and girls across America.

Mickey & Sylvia disbanded in the late ‘50s, reuniting briefly to record a handful of songs before breaking up officially in 1962. In that short time, Robinson met and impressed a young Tina Turner, convincing her to record the hit single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (1963). According to Robinson, the recording featured Baker trading vocals with Turner and Robinson on guitar instead of Ike Turner. If ever there was an example of the ways the patriarchy takes credit for the work of black women, this was it: Robinson’s playing would go uncredited, with her guitar skills being passed off as the work of the guitar virtuoso and known brute Ike.

In the late ‘50s, Sylvia Robinson married the young entrepreneur Joe Robinson. Equals in their business acumen and hunger for success, they founded the independent soul label All Platinum Records in 1966. Robinson’s move to the male-dominated side of the music industry turned many heads, as her granddaughter explains. “There were a lot of stereotypes and doubt, and people saying ‘I don’t know if she can do this, let her husband run this’,” says LeA. “But she was like, ‘No, I’m a genius too. His genius matched my genius and made a whole genius company.’”

From their base, Soul Sound Studios, a converted lumber yard in Englewood, Joe would handle the business side of the label while Robinson was in charge of everything from finding new talent to producing records and writing hit singles. The label found success with soul trio The Moments, whose 1970 ballad “Love on a Two Way Street” was co-written by Robinson, and Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” (1975). During this time, Robinson enjoyed her own solo success with the 1973 single “Pillow Talk,” a sensual take on women’s sexual empowerment. The single ushered in a new wave of women singers who could define their sexuality for themselves, and it brought Sylvia, now a mother of three in her late 30s, back into the limelight.  

By the end of the ‘70s, All Platinum Records was struggling financially. A change was needed for the label to once again reach the black demographic it relied on. In 1979, Sylvia found that change at a birthday party in a club. “As I was sitting there, the dee jay was playing music and talking over the music, and the kids were going crazy,” she told The Star-Ledger in 1997. “All of a sudden, something said to me, ‘Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing.’ I didn’t even know you called it rap.”

She asked her son, Joey Robinson Jr., to look out for talent, and soon she had Michael “Wonder Mike” WrightHenry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien auditioning in her house. She couldn’t decide between the three, so they became a group that she named the Sugar Hill Gang. She also created a subsidiary label, Sugar Hill Records. With a reworked version of Chic’s “Good Times” as a backing track, the group made “Rapper’s Delight” and brought a slice of black New York hip-hop culture to the world. Sugar Hill Records became the main proprietors of young black culture, though it was hard to win the music industry over to Robinson’s way of thinking.

“She went to every record label there was in New York, trying to get a deal for Sugar Hill Gang, and they thought she was smoking,” says Hen Dogg. “They said, ‘This will never work, you don’t know what you’re talking about, no one will play a 15-minute song.’” Their fears about “Rapper’s Delight” were unfounded, and at the peak of the track’s success, some DJs would play it back to back.

Reminiscing on those early days, the members of Sugar Hill Gang remember Sylvia fondly. “No matter what you’ve heard, she was like a surrogate mother when we first started out,” says Wonder Mike. “A man always loves his mother, and she was making sure we had the best tracks, made sure we had nice clothes, broke us off some advances here and there.”

The long, narrow hallways of the label’s New Jersey studio were soon filled with everyone from James Brown to a young LL Cool J, all looking to be part of a scene that was making history. The label went on to enjoy more success with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (“White Lines” and “Step Off” were both huge hits), The Funky Four Plus One, and The Sequence (an all-female hip-hop trio that featured a young Angie Stone). With each new development, Sylvia was still behind the desk, producing each hit.

Despite its success, Sugar Hill Records was short-lived, and by the mid ‘80s, major labels began taking over the hip-hop market. At the same time, a new, tougher sound was popularized by up-and-coming acts like Run DMC, which made the upbeat stylings of the Sugar Hill groups sound old-fashioned in comparison. By 1986, Sugar Hill Records was virtually dormant. Robinson started another label called Bon Ami with her son Joey, but she later shied away from the spotlight altogether.

Lea Robinson remembers her grandmother, who passed away from congestive heart failure at age 76 in 2011, in the way many remember their grandmothers: she made the best mac and cheese, loved seeing her granddaughter sing in church, and preferred to be called “mommy” as “grandma” didn’t sit well with her. There were times when Robinson’s star-studded past still lingered, though: the family once went on tour with NSYNC, and a young LeA started her performing career in her grandmother’s kitchen singing for Ronald Isley from the Isley Brothers.

For years, Robinson’s legacy almost became a fun fact reserved for hip-hop heads only. In 2017, to try and remain in the spotlight, the family appeared in The First Family of Hip-Hop, a Bravo reality series where they vied for the spot as the head of Sugar Hill Records. Today, the label is still dormant, and is currently managed by LeA’s father, Leland Robinson, the only surviving son of Robinson’s three boys.

And yet Robinson’s influence can be seen everywhere; in the Sugar Hill Gang, the group she formed that still continues to tour and release new material today, and in the groundbreaking work she made during the early hip-hop years, which will be studied for generations to come. It can even be seen in the work of prolific women producers such as Missy Elliott and newcomers Crystal Caines. For LeA, it still comes down to “Rapper’s Delight,” the song that made it all happen: “Even now, thinking [about how] that was a 15-minute song that went platinum. To this day I’ll go to any party and that’s the song that plays. All the Sugar Hill Records still play. She made timeless music.”

As the public grows hungrier for the stories of musical icons from marginalized backgrounds, Robinson’s impact will hopefully see a greater appreciation. To start, on the way is a biopic spearheaded by the Robinson clan and producer Paula Wagner, which could rightfully restore Robinson’s legacy, bringing it back to where it should be.

Using her talent and sheer determination, Robinson not only birthed a new musical genre, she also managed to break down the doors of several male-dominated spaces along the way. For every girl that picks up a guitar, conceives a toe-tapping arrangement, or dreams of a world that has more to offer, Robinson’s example guides the way.

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