R.I.P. Sylvia Robinson (1936-2011) [Voices]

By Arturo R. García

In 1957 she had a Billboard-charting single called “Love Is Strange,” a duet with ace guitarist Mickey Baker. The song has been used in movies from “Dirty Dancing” to “Mermaids” to “Casino.”

But after “Love Is Strange” the Harlem-born musician moved to New Jersey with her husband to raise their children. Sylvia and Joe Robinson were ambitious. They built a nightclub favored by boxers and Motown stars, and a recording studio where Robinson began writing songs for other artists. Al Green rejected one because he found it too sexy. So Robinson sang “Pillow Talk” herself.
– Neda Ulaby, NPR

However, it was in 1979 that Robinson began forging her indelible mark on an emerging art form that began taking shape at clubs and dance parties in New York. Inspired after listening to people rap over instrumental breaks, Robinson formed the Sugarhill Gang. Comprised Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien and Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, the trio rapped over a rhythm track that sampled Chic’s 1979 R&B/pop hit “Good Times.” It was the first commercial hit for the burgeoning rap revolution and for Robinson and her husband’s post-All Platinum label Sugar Hill Records, named after Harlem, NY’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

Robinson later signed seminal rap act Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to Sugar Hill. The group struck top five (No. 4) status on the R&B charts with the socially conscious “The Message,” featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee in 1982. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

“‘Ms. Rob doin’ the job’ was a rhyme boast on recordings from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five,” Public Enemy frontman Chuck D recalled to Billboard.biz. “Sylvia’s artistic talent and public notoriety have been mimicked without due credit for the past 30 years in the recorded art form she birthed. She was a black woman who pushed the button and turned the key to crank up a billion-dollar industry.”
– Gail Mitchell, Billboard Magazine

By 1979 Flash was approached by legendary record producer/store owner Bobby Robinson of Enjoy Reords, who wanted to Rrecord Flash and the Group. During this same period Cowboy, Melle Mel, Kid Creole and former Funky Four member Raheim had recorded a record for Brass Records called “We Rap More Mellow” under an assumed name, The Younger Generation.

Soon After, Flash and the Furious Five (with Raheim now a member) began recording for Robinson, with their first 12-inch single for the label being “Superappin’.” Disappointed with Robinson’s inability to get them on radio, the group soon signed with Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, on the strength of her promise to get them to perform on the backing track of a record that was a DJ favorite at the time, titled “Get Up and Dance,” by the group Freedom. Flash and the Furious Five’s first record for Sugar Hill was, in fact, titled “Freedom,” and was a hit with the Hip-Hop crowd. During that same year the group recorded the song “Birthday Party”
– Grandmaster Flash bio on Sing365.com

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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