*Sylvia Robinson was a bona fide boss in multiple areas of the music industry, and this EUR Video Throwback will celebrate them all – from her beginnings as a successful recording artist in the 1950s, to taking hip hop to the mainstream in the late 70s – by hook or crook – with Sugarhill Records.
The Harlem native was born on this day in 1935. She dropped out of Washington Irving High School at the age of 14, signed with Columbia Records and began recording under the name Little Sylvia.
I Miss You – Little Sylvia (1953)
In 1954, she began recording with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker under the moniker Mickey & Sylvia. He taught her how to play the guitar, and together they had the No. 1 R&B hit “Love Is Strange” in 1957, written by Bo Diddley and Jody Williams.
Love Is Strange – Mickey & Sylvia (1957)
Thirty years later, this song would feature prominently during a memorable scene in “Dirty Dancing.”
Love Is Strange – Dirty Dancing (1987)
After several hits, Mickey & Sylvia broke up in 1962 when Baker moved to Paris. Two years later, Sylvia married musician Joseph Robinson and moved to Englewood, NJ. They opened an eight-track recording studio, Soul Sound, and launched All Platinum Records. Sylvia Robinson became one of the few women to produce records in any genre with The Moments’ 1970 hit “Love on a Two-Way Street,” which Sylvia also co-wrote…
Love on a Two-Way Street – The Moments (1970)
and Stacy Lattisaw famously remade in 1981.
Love on a Two-Way Street – Stacy Lattisaw (1981)
In 1972, Robinson sent a demo of a song she had written called “Pillow Talk” to Al Green. But Green had transitioned from secular to gospel music and passed on the record, prompting Robinson to record it herself, under the name Sylvia.
The record became her second No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and reached No. 3 on the Hot 100.
Pillow Talk – Sylvia (1972)
“Pillow Talk” went gold and was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category. But making even more of an impact than “Pillow Talk” was Sylvia’s decision in 1979 to start Sugarhill Records, a label that would house artists in a budding new genre out of the Bronx called hip hop.
Named after the affluent neighborhood in Harlem, Sugarhill Records housed her first act, the Sugar Hill Gang, and produced their 1979 groundbreaking debut, “Rapper’s Delight.” Although hip hop had already been brewing in the Bronx before the record, “Rapper’s Delight” was the first commercially successful hip hop song, and widely credited with bringing rap into the public music arena.
Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” did a segment on Robinson’s determination to make her coin in hip hop, assembling the members of Sugar Hill Gang as her vehicle, and the backlash against the record from hip hop purists. Retta of NBC’s “Good Girls” plays Robinson.
During a Sugar Hill Gang performance at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina, a local all-girl trio bum rushed Robinson backstage seeking a record deal. After auditioning on the spot, they were signed and rushed into the studio to record the Robinson produced “Funk You Up.” It became the first hip-hop song ever to be released by a female rap group, the first by any Southern rap group, and the second release on Sugar Hill.
In 1982 Sylvia Robinson made another significant contribution to hip hop as a co-writer and co-producer of “The Message,” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song was first written in 1980 by Duke Bootee (Edward G. Fletcher) and lead rapper Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), in response to a transit strike that year, which is mentioned in the lyrics. With its subject of inner city poverty, “The Message” became the first major hip hop record to provide just that … a message rooted in social commentary rather than lyrics full of boasts and party chants.
As other hip hop labels like Def Jam and Profile began to emerge in the 80s,Sugar Hill Records ran into financial struggles and folded in 1985. But Robinson’s legacy in the genre have some calling her “the mother of hip hop.” She went on to form Bon Ami Records in 1987 and signed a group out of East Orange, NJ called The New Style. They released the album “Independent Leaders” in 1989 and the minor hit “Scuffin’ Those Knees” before leaving the label for Tommy Boy and changing their name to Naughty By Nature.
Robinson died of congestive heart failure on the morning of September 29, 2011. She was 76. It’s rumored that Sylvia Robinson was one of the inspirations for Taraji P. Henson’s character Cookie Lyon on the Fox series “Empire.”