Round Three: Have You Ever Heard of Hip-Hop?
Although Sylvia Robinson did not create hip-hop music, she’s known as the Mother of Hip-Hop. To understand how that happened, we have to move away from Sylvia’s story and talk for a moment about the birth of hip-hop.
Hip-hop was born on August 11, 1973, to siblings Clive and Cindy Campbell, in the recreation center at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, New York. Clive, aka Kool Herc, performed as the DJ at his sister’s back-to-school party. It was at that party that he introduced the technique he pioneered known as “scratching,” and his friend, Coke La Rock, showed off the young art known as “rapping.” In attendance at the party were hip-hop luminaries Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One and Red Alert – the early apostles of the genre that went forth and spread it to the masses.
If only it were that clean and simple. The truth is that while the beginnings of hip-hop were more localized and fast-paced than other music, it’s no less as muddied. Like jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, soul and funk before it, hip-hop can’t really trace it’s roots back to any one musical innovator. Much of what happened that day had been done before, and the date of August 11, 1973 isn’t meant to be so much a concrete date of creation as it is an indicator of a milestone that the early hip-hop community can agree on sharing.
Through the 70s, hip-hop grew as performance art in the clubs of New York. Breakdancers would take over the floor while a DJ did his thing, and rappers would take turn holding the mic. The environment was almost completely freestyle, and it was influenced by jazz poets like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. Musical sessions would go on sometimes for hours, and so it stayed a local, obscure art form because everyone understood that it just couldn’t be produced and recorded like regular music.
Until Sylvia Robinson decided to just do it anyway.
There were few people more perfectly poised to turn hip-hop music into a commercial enterprise than Sylvia Robinson. Her musical career up to that point encapsulated hip-hop perfectly. Her roots in performing with jazz musicians meant she was no stranger to the lengthy performances. She’d learned to write music by collaborating with people that were legendary for experimenting with the sounds their instruments could make. And the rappers, those front men of the industry, it was their role she understood the most having built a career on her vocal strength and ingenuity, a career that was in part launched by the call-and-response style lyrics that she used even before she grabbed the world’s attention with “Love Is Strange,” a style that was also very much a part of how early rap sessions were built.
By the end of the 70s, popular demand for R&B was beginning to wane, and All Platinum Records was feeling the pressure so much that they filed for bankruptcy, thinking that they would have to close the doors for good. Then, they took a gamble, and Sylvia and Joe Robinson launched Sugar Hill Records in 1979. They published “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang the same year, and the world of music was completely changed forever.
Robinson produced “Rapper’s Delight” in a way that would likely make her old mentors proud. The story goes that she was in a New York club when she first heard a rapper perform, and she immediately knew that she wanted to cut a “rap record.” Upon deciding that, she instructed her son, Joey, to go out, gather up rappers as if he were a jazz bandleader building a horn section, and bring them back for her to vet. Joey drove to the Bronx, where he met Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee, all of who demonstrated their rapping skills by trying to one-up each other in his backseat. They all went back to Robinson’s house, the group performed freestyle for her, and she told them to be ready, because they would be recording an album on Monday. That was on a Friday.
Three days later, they were in the studio. Sylvia had brought along musicians to perform the beat, she helped the three rappers write and practice their parts, and then they recorded a nearly 15 minute song in one take. The full version of “Rapper’s Delight” was released to an enormously positive response, and Sylvia was sold. From that point on she devoted her full attention to the Sugar Hill label. The first thing she did was cut and produce two shorter versions of “Rapper’s Delight,” one 6-and-a-half minutes long and one just less than 5 minutes. They were immediately successful.
“Rapper’s Delight” was never certified by the RCAA, but it reportedly sold more than 5 million copies, making it not just the first commercially successful hip-hop album (some argue that distinction should go to The Lost Poets; others argue that The Lost Poets produced a jazz-poetry album, not a hip-hop album), but the first hip-hop album worthy of a Diamond Record. More notably, the song affected mainstream culture at a fundamental level. The effect it had on music was so significant, inspiring so many others to artistry, that it was preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry, and is included as one of NPR’s “100 Most Important American Musical Works of the 20th Century.”
“The Message” and the Rest
As influential and successful as “Rapper’s Delight” was, it didn’t sit well with the hip-hop community that it was hip-hop culture’s ambassador to the world. It was a party anthem, and although hip-hop was performed at dance clubs in a party atmosphere, the lyrics were often more socially conscious and culturally-aware than what could be found in the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. It didn’t help that two of the Sugarhill Gang were from New Jersey and not the Bronx, and that the only member from the Bronx, Big Bank Hank, used lyrics written by fellow Bronx rapper Grandmaster Caz, aka “Cassanova Fly,” without giving Caz credit. (“Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, And the rest is F-L-Y”)
All of this painted Sylvia Robinson, who herself was based in New Jersey and not the Bronx, as an outsider, an interloper exploiting the local music for her own financial gain.
Robinson herself admitted that initial response was mostly business, considering she was trying to save a once-successful record company from shuttering. Her outsider status, however, was what helped her look at the music from a production sense. She knew what the music scene she saw blossoming around her felt like, as she’d been part of similar scenes in the past, from jazz to disco, only this time she wasn’t caught up in the raw emotion that made up the core. Hip-hop was socially conscious music, but socially conscious music is rarely a hit. If Sugar Hill Record’s first album hadn’t sold, there likely wouldn’t have been a second.
The success of “Rapper’s Delight” allowed the label to start producing hip-hop in earnest, and in 1982, Sylvia Robinson would once again leave her permanent fingerprints on hip-hop music with “The Message.”
Co-written by Sylvia, Duke Bootee, and Grandmaster Melle Mel, “The Message” was the first commercially successful, socially conscious hip-hop song, and it shaped everything that came after it. It organized hip-hop, and solidified the rapper, the emcee, as the star of the show, above even the DJ. The track inspired countless people to follow, and was the first hip-hop album to ever get inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.
Sugar Hill Records would continue until financial troubles caused by even more controversy (this time around artist’s royalties and a distribution deal) caused them to go under in 1986. Before they did finally shut their doors, they mentored a number of artists that would spread their own influence. They also helped pioneer the music video, including giving a young Spike Lee his first video production job. Also of note, The Sequence, one of the first all-female hip-hop groups, who saw moderate success in their time on Sugar Hill Records.
The closing of the doors at Sugar Hill Records caused Sylvia and Joe to split. After that, she would retire from public life, avoiding the media and the controversy they brought to her door in favor of spending time with her children and grandchildren. In retirement, she watched the music world change and adapt as hip-hop spread, until it finally became the dominant force it is today. She continued to produce occasionally, and founded Bon Ami Records after Sugar Hill folded. It was there that Naughty By Nature got their start.
When Sylvia Robinson passed away on September 29, 2011, she left behind a legacy that few will ever be able to match. As a performer, she’s a significant and valuable part of the musical zeitgeist, but her largest contributions lie in her dedication to the industry as a whole. As a writer of music, she has more than 550 songs to her credit, and the list includes some of the most important pieces of music ever produced in the United States. She also used her influence to help shape other artists, producing work that let them tell their own story in a way that made others want to listen.
Her career was long and marred with controversy. The history of American music is also long and marred with controversy. One needn’t be a metaphor for the other, however. Sylvia Robinson’s story doesn’t reflect the history of music, it is the history of music. Not the whole history, but a piece. An important piece.
Sylvia Robinson was one of music’s most influential figures. The music she performed, wrote, arranged and produced inspired countless artists, some of which would go on to inspire further, weaving a web that extends to almost every corner of modern music. She created a name for herself as a young teen star from New York learning to appreciate and incorporate musical styles from all over the world into a voice she could call her own. She guaranteed a legacy for herself by helping to give New York’s music to the world, and give countless young emcees a voice of their own.
WFMU – October 2, 2011: Tribute to Sylvia Robinson (music podcast)
The NPR 100 – “Rapper’s Delight” (radio program podcast)
Further Reading: Books
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas
Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews by Steve Cushing
The Death of Rhythm and Blues
The Vibe History of Hip Hop by Vibe Magazine
Sh-Boom!: The Explosion of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1953-1968) by Clay Cole
The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Every Made by David Marsh
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro, Caesar Glebbeek