Born on May 29, 1935, the late Sylvia Robinson was a multifaceted musician and business woman who found success as a singer, guitarist, record producer and record label executive. Most notably, as the founder and CEO of Sugarhill Records, Robinson was one of the driving forces behind the birth of hip hop; bringing the genre into the mainstream and changing the very face of pop culture forever.
As a teenage musician and performer who grew up in New York City, young Sylvia Vanderpool’s first big break came when she secured a record deal with Columbia Records in 1950. Soon afterwards, she scored her very first hit with a song called “A Little Boy.”
One of Sylvia’s biggest hits was a 1956 collaboration with Mickey Baker (a prominent guitarist of the time), with whom she recorded a cover version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Love Is Strange’. The song was a smash hit on radio, but was given a new lease of life decades later for its use in the 1987 Hollywood movie, ‘Dirty Dancing’.
In the late fifties, Sylvia went into business with her new husband – a young entrepreneur named Joe Robinson. Single minded in their business mindset and hunger for success, they founded an independent soul label ‘All Platinum Records’ in 1966. Sylvia also continued to perform, going on to score a string of hits as an original artist in her own right throughout the next ten years.
Then, just as All Platinum began faltering financially, Sylvia caught wind of a brand new style of music being created by young African Americans on the streets of New York using nothing but two record turntables and a microphone. She recalled the moment she saw a golden business opportunity at a kid’s birthday party.
“As I was sitting there, the dee jay was playing music and talking over the music, and the kids were going crazy. 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.”
Sensing she was onto something big, Sylvia quickly founded a subsidiary label ‘Sugarhill Records’ and immediately set about auditioning young rappers from the fledgling scene. The resulting group, consisting of Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, were known collectively as the ‘Sugarhill Gang’ and their first single was 1979’s seminal hit, ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
The song was an instant classic, securing international radio-play and introducing the world to an entirely new form of black American music.
Sugarhill Records’ success continued, and in 1982, the label released ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. The track’s lyrical content was a far less playful and carefree than its predecessor and painted a hard-hitting picture of the stark realities the African American communities of New York faced on a daily basis.
These two releases have since become known as landmark singles in the hip hop genre, which in-turn led to Sylvia being dubbed “The Mother of Hip–Hop”. The floodgates to an entirely new form of cultural expression had been well and truly opened, and Sugar Hill Records had many more hits in the years to come.
And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Robinson received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and being the founder of Sugarhill Records at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000. She sadly passed away due to heart failure on September 29, 2011 at age 76. Her hip hop legacy however, is still going strong.