Artist, songwriter, producer, record label owner, and CEO: the original hip-hop mogul. Sylvia Robinson laid the foundation for rap to flourish into the most lucrative music genre today.
Sylvia Robinson’s motto was to always be original. Few Black women broke into the music industry in non-singing roles at rock’s beginning, but Robinson sang, produced, wrote, and wielded a guitar throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1964, she introduced husband Joe Robinson to the record business. In 1979, they created Sugar Hill Records in Englewood, New Jersey. Sylvia—the label’s CEO and main creative force—decided to focus their latest venture on an underground musical style she first heard at the Harlem World Club. She assembled a new group, the Sugarhill Gang, and produced their song “Rapper’s Delight,” combining rhymes from Grandmaster Caz with a re-recording of the breakbeat from Chic’s “Good Times.” “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip-hop gold record and enabled artists in the Bronx hip-hop subculture to enter the mainstream. It did for hip-hop what the Beatles playing Ed Sullivan did for rock in the 1960s—inspiring countless future MCs to pick up a mic and speak their truth.
Robinson was just getting started. She signed the Sequence—the first all-woman and first Southern hip-hop group to record commercially—setting the stage for groups like Salt-N-Pepa and the genre’s eventual geographic expansion beyond the East and West Coasts. She coproduced the first hip-hop track featuring turntable techniques (“The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”), which paved the way for production techniques like sampling. She convinced a hesitant Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to record “The Message,” a song that became the blueprint for both socially conscious hip-hop and gangsta rap. In other words, Robinson spearheaded nearly every significant innovation in the first wave of recorded hip-hop. Most impressively, she did so in a male-dominated world. The entire hip-hop industry began with the perseverance, creativity, and business savvy of Sylvia Robinson.
Mickey & Sylvia, “Love Is Strange” (1956) • Ike & Tina Turner, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (1961) • The Moments, “Love on a Two-Way Street” (1970) • Sylvia (Robinson), “Pillow Talk” (1973) • The Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight,” (1979) • The Sequence, “Funk You Up” (1979) • Funky 4 Plus 1, “That’s the Joint” (1980) • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981) • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982) • Sylvia (Robinson), “It’s Good to Be the Queen” (1982) • Grandmaster and Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983)
Berry Gordy, Estelle Axton, Bo Diddley
Sylvia Rhone, Missy Elliott, Beyoncé
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