Sylvia Robinson was not a rapper herself — she was a hit singer. In the late 1960s when she and her husband, Joe, founded All Platinum Records, she became one of the few women to produce records in any genre. Robinson discovered artistes, co-wrote and produced tracks, including the label’s hit song Love On A Two Way Street by the group The Moments before restarting a solo career in 1973 with Pillow Talk, a song she wrote for Al Green which he rejected. The song reached No. 1 on the R&B chart and landed No. 3 on Billboard Hot 100.
Even so, her greatest achievement was her decision in 1979 to produce a recording in what was then a new music genre — rapping. Eventually, Robinson would help produce the world’s first commercial rap single — Rapper’s Delight — by The Sugarhill Gang, which sold millions of copies. And that is perhaps why some have decided to call her “the mother of hip-hop.”
Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York in 1936, Robinson started making records aged 14, singing blues on Columbia Records under the name, Little Sylvia, while still a high school student in New York City. She made many blues recordings for the label but her first hit was in 1957 – Love Is Strange – as part of the duo Mickey and Sylvia.
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By 1964, she had married Joe, a musician, and the two settled in Englewood, NJ, where they established the soul music label, All Platinum label. Having worked with a lot of artistes and later reaching the top 15 with her soul classic Pillow Talk, what largely changed Robinson’s music career path was the visit she made to the Harlem World disco in 1979. There, she heard rapping for the first time.
“The DJ was playing music [Chic song Good Times] and talking over the music, and the kids were going crazy,” she told the New Jersey 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.”
Rap was then just developing, and had yet to be recorded, according to a report by The Guardian. Robinson, thus, brought together a trio of Jersey kids – Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee. She called them the Sugarhill Gang and got her house band to recreate the groove from the Good Times while the group rapped over the top. This gave birth to the first commercial rap single — Rapper’s Delight.
The song, released on Sugar Hill Records founded by Robinson and her husband, was a success, reaching No 4 in the R&B charts. Robinson went on to sign more rap artistes, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The latter’s 1982 single The Message is considered one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. Robinson subsequently signed all-female rap/funk group The Sequence. Her label would go on to grab 26 gold records before it closed in 1986 after a distribution deal with MCA went wrong. Then in 2002, The Sugar Hill recording studio in New Jersey was destroyed by a fire.
Robinson continued producing music until her death on September 29, 2011, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey, of congestive heart failure. She was 75. To date, some credit the singer, songwriter, record label executive, and record producer for being the dynamic force behind hip-hop.
As American rapper Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright said of Robinson: “She was really good on the artistic level, coming up with material and shaping lyrics and melodies into a song, not just a piece of music that’s five minutes long.”