Singer, songwriter, businesswoman and hip hop pioneer Sylvia Robinson died Thursday morning at the age of seventy-five. The controversial early hip hop mogul first made an indelible impact on pop-culture as one half of Mickey & Sylvia, a duo whose hit “Love Is Strange” received a lucrative second life when it was featured on one of the Dirty Dancing soundtracks.
Robinson went on to score a solo hit with 1973’s “Pillow Talk” but it was as a businesswoman that Robinson made the strongest mark. Along with husband Joe Robinson she founded All Platinum Records and later Sugar Hill Records but was floundering professionally until she started paying attention to a new kind of music sweeping the New York city streets, a stylized form of talking rooted in R&B but ultimately and undeniably its own thing.
In 1979 Sylvia brought together three aspiring rappers and had them perform long verses set to Chic’s “Good Times.” The result was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang , a seminal track widely credited with taking hip hop from the streets of New York to mainstream America.
Sugar Hill was a major player in early hip hop thanks to seminal early singles like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” but the popularity of Run-DMC signaled a sea change in hip hop from the Old School sound favored by Sugar Hill records to the stark minimalism of Run-DMC and a scrappy young label being run out of a college dorm room called Def Jam. Sugar Hill Records shut down amidst a flurry of lawsuits and ill will in 1986.
Robinson and the label she would forever be associated with leave behind a decidedly mixed legacy. She was unmistakably an innovator and a trendsetter in male-dominated fields but mainstream success came at a steep price. Hip hop was an organic phenomenon emanating from the underground but The Sugar Hill Gang was a prefabricated phenomenon assembled by a savvy businesswoman with a keen sense of what the young people were into.
Robinson’s life and career spanned eras. She was present at the birth of hip hop as a commercial force and lived to see it become a major cultural force not just in New York or the United States but worldwide.