Sylvia Robinson (1935-2011) has deservedly been called “the mother of hip-hop” for her efforts in co-founding and running Sugar Hill Records. But even as impressive an honorific as that can’t begin to encapsulate a wide-ranging career that predated the dawn of rap and unfolded over a remarkable half-century in music.
Like her fellow 2022 Ahmet Ertegun Award honorees, Grubman and Iovine, Robinson created a world in which musicmakers could come to the fore and thrive. Not only did she co-found one of the first hip-hop labels, Sugar Hill Records, and serve as its CEO, but she was one of the architects of its signature hits as co-writer and producer of “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang and “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
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Robinson had tasted musical success as an artist before moving behind the scenes. First it was as part of the slinky soul-pop duo Mickey & Sylvia, whose single “Love Is Strange” topped the R&B and Billboard pop charts in 1957.
She returned as a solo artist, Sylvia, on 1972’s “Pillow Talk,” a track she originally wrote for Al Green. Although she’s not as well-remembered for it, Robinson was a guitarist, too, playing on tracks including Ike & Tina Turner’s Grammy-nominated “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”
During her time in Mickey & Sylvia or as a mononymously named solo act and beyond, Robinson created her own record labels to maintain a sense of control, starting with Willow Records, co-owned with Mickey Baker, and All Platinum Records, with her businessman husband, Joe Robinson, both in the 1960s. But her greatest legacy remains Sugar Hill.
Formed in 1979 with husband, Joe, their partner Milton Malden and funding from the legendarily controversial Morris Levy, the label — named for the Sugar Hill area of Harlem — was built when New York City’s boroughs were the flashpoint for early hip-hop.
Along with the cunningly humorous likes of “Rapper’s Delight,” Robinson oversaw the cutting import of “The Message” and other significant, socio-conscious 12-inch singles such as Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” which touched on the heartbreak of a community plagued by drugs. From the genre’s streetwise, storytelling rappers and scratching, sampling DJs to its colorful breakdancing crews, hip-hop was in its infant stages — and Robinson was there at its birth.
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