Sylvia Robinson, the pioneering cofounder of Sugarhill Records who died of heart disease yesterday at 75, is best known for making hip-hop’s first commercial hit, "Rapper’s Delight."
But Robinson was already a music industry veteran when she tapped three unknown rappers to record the infamous "hip, hop, the hibbit, the hibbidibit hip, hip hop and you don’t stop the rockin’" single. Three decades earlier, at just 14, the New Yorker born Sylvia Vanderpool made a blues record with trumpet great Hot Lips Page. In 1957, she scored a number one R&B hit with "Love is Strange," a song she co-wrote and performed with Mickey Baker. Robinson also co-wrote 1968’s slow-jamming earworm, "Love on a Two-Way Street," and returned to the number one spot in 1973 with her solo "Pillow Talk."
By 1979, when Robinson conceived and produced "Rapper’s Delight," she and her husband, Joseph, were looking for a way to save their failing record label. Robinson observed how folks at Harlem World night club went nuts for DJ Lovebug Starski’s raps and decided to put that magic on wax. (It’s widely believed that the rhymes Big Bank Hank recites on "Rappers Delight" were stolen from Grandmaster Caz, but that’s another story.)
While some would argue that selling eight million records made Robinson the Mother of Hip-Hop, what really stands out is how she pushed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to record "The Message." In 1982, hip-hop was party music and the sinister track was declared commercial poison. But Robinson, the undisputed boss at Sugarhill, insisted: "The Message" would be the group’s second single. Period. Thanks to Robinson’s intuition, hip-hop became a vehicle for artists to protest injustice and express real-life pain.
So Today’s Love goes to Sylvia Robinson for making hits with staying power, for stretching the boundaries of an art form, and for reminding us that a woman’s place in hip-hop is on top.
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