Friday ‘Flashblack:’From Love Is Strange to Rapper’s Delight: Remembering Sylvia Robinson, the “Mother of Hip-Hop”

From On The Rise Magazine,  September 30, 2011


She founded Sugar Hill Records, signed Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, formed Sugar Hill Gang and was responsible for the inception of what is considered to be the first mainstream successful song in Hip-Hop history, “Rapper’s Delight”.  However, amongst names like Russell Simmons, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and others who’ve helped to engineer the sound and the culture of Hip-Hop, she is rarely mentioned.  But, Sylvia Robinson knew music and the music business when most of the artists she was responsible for putting on the map were infants or yet to be born.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia earned her own place in music history as one-half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, who topped the R&B charts in 1957 and made the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with their song, “Love Is Strange.”  It is believed the song was penned by Bo Diddley, but this has been hotly contested over the years as are many songs of that time written by African Americans.  The song has been covered by Diddley, Buddy Holley, Peaches & Herb, Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (yes, a country version), and Paul & Linda McCartney.  The song was featured prominently in the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing.  B.o.B. sampled the song in “My Sweet Baby,” featured on B.o.B. Vs. Bobby Ray: The Mixtape, released in 2009.  

In 1973, Sylvia Robinson had solo success with a song entitled, “Pillow Talk.”  The song was an early disco tune that pushed the envelope of female sexuality before Donna Summer’s, “Love To Love You,” and Madonna’s, “Like A Virgin.”  Robinson had originally written the song with the hope that Al Green would record it.  However, noting  its risqué content, the soul singer refused, leaving Robinson to record it herself.  Her version sold two million copies, reaching #1 on the Billboard’s R&B chart and #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In addition to being an accomplished performing artists, Sylvia Robinson was also a skilled songwriter and producer, having produced “Love On A Two-Way Street,” by The Moments in 1970, making her one of few women to be graced with the title (and credit) of “producer.”

By the late 1970’s, disco was suffering a backlash, Robinson and her husband Joe found themselves in dire financial circumstances, and their label, All Platinum Records, was on its way to becoming defunct. All that changed in 1978 when Robinson heard MC and DJ Lovebug Starski “playing music and saying things to the kids” in the club, the kids responded enthusiastically and Robinson thought, “that’s a great idea.”  

Soon after, the Robinsons partnered with Milton Malden to form Sugar Hill Records, named after a section of Harlem most people remember from Wesley Snipe’s box office flop of the same name.  Based in New Jersey, the label’s first group to sign comprised of three unknown talents (to the world and one another) from Englewood.  Inspired by Lovebug Starski, Sylvia Robinson masterminded their image and crafted what would become the first biggest selling Hip-Hop record in history.  “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in one take and sold more than 8 million copies and charted at #4 of Billboard’s R&B chart (#36 on the Hot 100).

She followed up that success in 1982 with “The Message,” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” both by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, producing what are considered to be among the first socially conscious records in Hip-Hop.  Yeah, a SHE produced them (and was co-writer, as well).

Legal problems over unpaid royalties and financial shortages continued to follow the Robinsons, who sold Sugar Hill Records in 1994.  

While in the years since, VH1’s acclaimed Hip-Hop Honors, a show that honors legends of Hip-Hop, has recognized both of Sylvia Robinson’s discoveries, Sylvia , herself, has yet to be honored.  Ironically, her grandson, Darnell Robinson, is an MTV personality; MTV is the parent company of VH1.  In fact, since the show’s inception in 2004, only the females in Hip-Hop have been honored at all.  Again, this oversight by VH1 is another reminder that women get little respect in the world of Hip-Hop, even when they are almost single-handedly responsible for it getting mainstream airplay, sales, and most importantly, money.

Sylvia Robinson died on September 29, 2011 in New Jersey of congestive heart failure.  At age 76, she leaves behind an amazing legacy and a void in the business of music that will not be easily filled.  Her light will continue to shine through the glass ceiling, giving strength and guidance to those of us who aim to shatter it altogether.  She was an inspiration.  She was the “mother,” the “midwife,” the architect of mainstream Hip-Hop; and tonight, I tip my glass in her memory.


Check out some of Sylvia’s work on YouTube:

Listen to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”:

Listen to Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk”:

Listen to The Moments’ “Love On A Two-Way Street”:

Watch Sugar Hill Gang perform “Rapper’s Delight” on Soul Train:

Watch Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message”:

Listen to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”:



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