Sylvia Robinson had keen ears.
But her vision was better still, according to many who worked with the late groundbreaking record executive, one of this year’s inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“Nobody else thought about turning hip-hop into a business, to put this [stuff] on records,” said Eddie Morris, aka Scorpio, one of the original members of the influential early hip-hop act Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.
Robinson, the genius behind Englewood’s Sugar Hill Records and thus the founding mother of the hip-hop revolution, is in good company this year.
Among the other inductees, announced Wednesday: Lionel Richie, Eminem, Dolly Parton, The Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, and Carly Simon (performance category); Judas Priest, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (musical excellence award); and Harry Belafonte and Elizabeth Cotten (early influence award). The induction ceremony will be Nov. 5 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
Robinson, along with Allen Grubman and Jimmy Iovine, is being given an Ahmet Ertegun Award, named after the pioneering co-founder of Atlantic Records — game-changers in the R&B world (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Otis Redding).
A fitting tribute, since what Atlantic did for soul music, Sylvia Robinson did for hip-hop. “Miss Rob,” as her artists called her, was its first superstar producer — the model for every Suge Knight and Russell Simmons who followed.
“Not only was she a producer, she was an artist, arranger and engineer,” said her son Leland Robinson, a Bergen County resident, and Sylvia’s only surviving child.
“She was the first Black woman to own her own record company, the first Black woman to produce, write, arrange, engineer and put out these rap records,” he said.
Hip-hop, you don’t stop
At her Sugar Hill studios at 96 West St. in Englewood, she basically brought the entire hip-hop industry into existence — starting with its first breakout hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” on Sept. 16, 1979.
That was the record that first put the term “hip-hop” on the map: the trademark phrase of Michael Wright, aka Wonder Mike, one of three Englewood kids who, as The Sugarhill Gang, kick-started a revolution in pop culture.
“Hip-hop, you don’t stop,” was Wonder Mike’s iconic phrase.
Neither Robinson, nor the Sugarhill Gang, invented hip-hop. Far from it. The art of doing rhymed boasting to a beat goes back to early ’70s block parties in the Bronx and Queens, hosted by pioneer rappers like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa.
Some have traced it back further — to Jamaican “toasting,” and to records by Gil Scott-Heron, King Tim III, even to a 1958 Bo Diddley song, “Say Man.”
But no one, before Sylvia Robinson, saw the commercial possibilities in recording the stuff that kids were doing at uptown parties in the mid-’70s.
“Nobody knew what to do with hip-hop,” Scorpio said. “We were used to doing parties for three hours. We couldn’t see reducing it to three minutes. It took her vision.”
Born Sylvia Vanderpool in Harlem, Robinson had been a recording star before she was a producer. “Little Sylvia,” paired with guitarist Mickey Baker for the act Mickey & Sylvia, had hits like 1957’s “Love is Strange.”
In 1972, billed as “Sylvia,” she’d had a big hit of her own, “Pillow Talk.” She’d also produced (1960’s “You Talk Too Much,” for Joe Jones) and played on other people’s records (Ike & Tina Turner’s 1961 hit “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”).
With all that under her belt, Robinson was about as schooled as anyone in the music business could be when she turned her talents to producing.
“She had an amazing (amount) of talent and knowledge,” said Jonathan Williams, who worked with Robinson in a number of capacities, from bass player to engineer to songwriter, between 1973 and the late 1990s.
“She handled everything in the studio,” he said. “Which musicians, which song you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it. Her ears were the final ears. If it didn’t pass her ears, it didn’t go out.”
She and her husband Joe Robinson moved to New Jersey in 1966. In the decades that followed, her attentions turned to scouting new talent — and giving it a label on which to shine.
Sugar Hill Records, co-founded by the Robinsons in 1979 as a nod to Sylvia’s Harlem roots, really got rolling the night she went to a birthday party at Harlem World, an uptown Manhattan club, and heard a strange new kind of performance. Rhyming to the beat was all the rage in the outer boroughs.
She approached the performer, Kevin Smith, aka Lovebug Starski, about recording for her.
“He didn’t want to do it,” Leland Robinson said.
The gang’s all here
So she put together her own rap “crew” composed of Bergen kids: The Sugarhill Gang (one of them, Big Bank Hank, actually lived in the Bronx and worked in Englewood during the day). The bass line came from Chic’s 1979 hit “Good Times.” But getting the industry to pay attention to “Rapper’s Delight,” and getting deejays to spin the disc, was another matter.
“When she took ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to radio studios, they said, ‘You don’t have to stoop to this. You’re a recording artist,’ ” Leland said.
It was when the influential WBLS deejay Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker began to give “Rapper’s Delight” airplay that it exploded.
“Lines lit up when that record played,” Leland said. “And what he played, the world played.”
By November 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” was on Billboard’s Hot 100. And Sugar Hill Records was off and running.
The record was no fluke. Robinson, said her son, was never satisfied until she got it right.
“When she was doing ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ once she finished recording at night, she would put tape on the consoles,” Leland said.
In an old-school multi-track recording studio, each track had “sliders” — knobs on the console to bring a particular track up and down. After a hard day of mixing, remixing and listening, she wouldn’t want to lose the settings she’d arrived at. Hence the tape.
“She had to make sure no one touched any of the sliders,” Leland said. “She had everything set at particular levels. So she would put tape on the consoles so no one would touch them. Then she could come back the next day and listen with fresh ears.”
It wasn’t only about having fresh ears. It was also about having an ear to the ground.
The earliest rap hits, like “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Breaks,” were good-time party records — all big mouths and braggadocio.
But then Duke Bootee, aka Edward Fletcher, a member of the Sugar Hill house band, proposed a new kind of rap record. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (2007 Hall of Fame inductees), was about serious stuff.
“Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess, I got no choice.”
It was about real people, and the real lives they lived in the decaying inner cities of the early 1980s.
“We used to live like that,” Scorpio said. “We came from broken glass everywhere.”
Change it up
This was not the kind of stuff Sugar Hill had been having hits with. But Robinson sensed something in the air, something in the culture. She ran with it.
“That record was actually brought to us by Miss Rob,” Scorpio said. “Nobody in the group wanted to do it, it was so different. But she had a vision in her head. That’s one of the records that really catapulted us to another level.”
The record, released July 1, 1982 — it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year — was another Billboard Top 100 hit.
And it changed the face of hip-hop forever. All the social commentary by all the hip-hop artists since then, from Run-D.M.C. to N.W.A. to Tupac Shakur to Jay-Z, all starts with that one record.
Robinson was a pioneer in other ways as well.
“She had the first female rap group ever, The Sequence,” Leland said. “She was the first to put out a Latino rap group, The Mean Machine. She was the first to do all those genres.”
And she did it all while doing another job.
“Mom was a mother, first and foremost,” Leland said. “She went and worked at the studio, but at night she cooked and had dinner for us — and dinner for the neighborhood. She would cook for us, and anybody who came home with me that night. She was a mom before anything else.”
It is not as a mother, of course, that she is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Robinson lost her husband in 2000 (on Nov. 5, the same day as her induction). She lost her studio in a fire in 2002. She died in 2011.
Two of her children, Leland’s brothers, died within a year of each other: Rhondo Robinson in 2014 and Joseph Robinson in 2015.
“That was one of the worst experiences,” said Leland, who is titling his upcoming autobiography “The Last Man Standing.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be her legacy now. And the records. They, as the Sugarhill Gang would say, go on and on and on, on and on.
“Rap has come a long way from when they told us it could never happen,” Leland said. “No one would have thought it would be as big as it is today. It’s just a beautiful thing to see a woman do what she did.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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Source: Asbury Park