Sylvia Robinson, Pioneering Producer of Hip-Hop, Is Dead at 75
Sylvia Robinson, a singer, songwriter and record producer who formed the pioneering hip-hop group Sugarhill Gang and made the first commercially successful rap recording with them, died on Thursday in Edison, N.J. She was 75.
She had been in a coma at the New Jersey Institute of Neuroscience and died there of congestive heart failure, a family spokeswoman said. Ms. Robinson lived in Englewood, N.J.
Ms. Robinson had a successful career as a rhythm and blues singer long before she and her husband, Joe Robinson, formed Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s and went on to serve as the midwives for a musical genre that came to dominate pop music.
She sang with Mickey Baker as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia in the 1950s and had several hits, including “Love Is Strange,” a No. 1 R&B song in 1957. She also had a solo hit, under the name Sylvia, in the spring of 1973 with her sultry and sexually charged song “Pillow Talk.”
In the late 1960s, Ms. Robinson became one of the few women to produce records in any genre when she and her husband founded All Platinum Records. She played an important role in the career of The Moments, producing their 1970 hit single “Love on a Two-Way Street.”
But she achieved her greatest renown for her decision in 1979 to record the nascent art form known as rapping, which had developed at clubs and dance parties in New York City in the 1970s. She was the mastermind behind the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop single to become a commercial hit. Some called her “the mother of hip-hop.”
“Back in the days when you couldn’t find females behind the mixing board, Sylvia was there,” said Dan Charnas, the author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop” (2010). “It was Sylvia’s genius that made ‘Rapper’s Delight’ a hit.”
At the time, the label the Robinsons had founded was awash in lawsuits and losing money. Facing financial ruin, Ms. Robinson got an inspiration when she heard Lovebug Starski rapping over the instrumental breaks in disco songs at the Harlem World nightclub.
“She saw where a D.J. was talking and the crowd was responding to what he was saying, and this was the first time she ever saw this before,” her son, Joey Robinson, recalled in a 2000 interview with NPR. “And she said, ‘Joey, wouldn’t this be a great idea to make a rap record?’ ”
Using Joey Robinson as a talent scout, she found three young, unknown rappers in Englewood — Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee — and persuaded them to record improvised rhymes as the Sugarhill Gang (sometimes rendered as Sugar Hill Gang) over a nearly 15-minute rhythm track adapted from Chic’s “Good Times.”
The song was “Rapper’s Delight,” and the Robinsons chartered a new label, Sugar Hill Records, to produce it. It sold more than 8 million copies, reached No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 36 on Billboard’s Hot 100, opening the gates for other hip-hop artists.
Ms. Robinson later signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and in 1982 she was a producer of their seminal song, “The Message.” It was groundbreaking rap about ghetto life that became one of the most powerful social commentaries of its time, laying the groundwork for the gangsta rap of the late 1980s.
Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York City in 1936, Ms. Robinson made her recording debut at 14 singing blues with the trumpet player Hot Lips Page on Columbia Records while she was still a student at Washington Irving High School in lower Manhattan. She went on to make several other blues recordings for the label, including “Chocolate Candy Blues,” before joining forces with Mr. Baker in 1956.
After several hits, Mickey & Sylvia broke up in 1962 when Mr. Baker moved to Paris. Two years later, Ms. Robinson married Joseph Robinson, a musician, and settled in Englewood, where the couple opened an eight-track recording studio, Soul Sound, and established the All Platinum label.
Ms. Robinson’s survivors include her sons Joey, Leland and Rhondo and 10 grandchildren. Mr. Robinson died of cancer in 2000.
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