Introduction: In this episode, we delve into the life and legacy of Sylvia Robinson, the music executive and producer who brought hip hop to the masses and changed the music landscape forever. Sylvia was the founder of Sugar Hill Records and was...
Introduction: In this episode, we delve into the life and legacy of Sylvia Robinson, the music executive and producer who brought hip hop to the masses and changed the music landscape forever. Sylvia was the founder of Sugar Hill Records and was responsible for producing some of the biggest hip hop hits of all time.
The Black Is America podcast, a presentation of OWLS Education, was created and is written, researched, and produced by Dominic Lawson.
Executive Producer Kenda Lawson
Alexandria Eddings of Art Life Connections created cover art.
Sources to create this episode include National Public Radio, St. Louis Public Radio, BBC 4, American Masters, Billboard .com, and more. For a complete list, look in the show note of your podcast player or our website www.blackisamericapodcast.com.
Be sure to Like, review, and subscribe to the Black Is America Podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, where ever you like to listen to podcasts. Also, let people know about the podcast,we would appreciate that very much.
For a full transcript of this episode and other resources, go to www.blackisamericapodcast.com. There you can read our blog, leave us a review, or you can leave a voicemail where you can ask a question or let us know what you think about the show that we may play in an episode. You can also hit the donation button if you like what you heard which helps us to create more educational content like this.
Dominic Lawson (00:02):
Hi, my name is Dominic Lawson, and thank you so much for coming back for a new season of the Black Is America Podcast. I hope you're prepared to learn some new things on an entertaining show that we enjoy bringing to you.
But there's a quick programming note. See, originally, we were supposed to kick off the new season with Doris Miller, the American Defender episode. However, we have decided to enter it into a competition, and part of the rules stipulate that we can't make it available to the public just yet. So we will release it later this year, and I assure you, it is worth the wait.
However, we're still going to kick off the season with some hot fire as we share the story of a pioneer in music that we think you'll love. So let me not hold you up. Season two of the Black Is America Podcast with our feature on Sylvia Robinson, the Godmother of Hip-hop, begins now.
Imagine driving across the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge on your way home sometime in September of 1979 in East St. Louis, Illinois. It's payday and you're cruising in your Oldsmobile Cutlass with the windows down because it's a beautiful sunny day. You also have your radio on listening to your favorite station, WESL 1490 AM, which plays all of your favorite soul and R&B music. But as you pull up to the light on MLK Drive and North 9th Street, your favorite DJ comes on as they're about to play a new record that everyone has been talking about. They say it comes from New York. As the light turns green, it comes on, and it sounds familiar. It almost sounds like Chic song Good Times, which is cool because you like Chic. But this is different. And then you hear the vocals.
Speaker 2 (01:55): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (02:06):
As you listen, you're trying to figure out are they talking or are they singing. This is very different, but you like it. You turn it up because now you have a party going on in your car. But little do you know at the time that you are not only witnessing history, but you have become part of a culture that would not only define what is cool around the world, but this new genre will completely change the landscape of music as you know it.
Speaker 2 (02:35): (singing)
Hank (02:35): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (02:44):
We come from innovators, heroes, and royalty. We are our ancestors' greatest hope. We face many challenges, but we mold that adversity into our greatest strength. We are the glue that holds a nation together and allows it to flourish. Welcome to Black Is America, the podcast that highlights little-known
African American figures and stories that make our history come to life. I'm your host, Dominic Lawson.
Episode one, Sylvia Robinson, the Godmother of Hip-hop.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a genre of music I hold dear. I tell people all the time, hip-hop was my first love. I couldn't get enough of the rhymes, the beats, and the culture. I was a subscriber of The Source Magazine here in Memphis, which allowed me to keep up with the latest news, fashion trends, and more. And if I wasn't reading The Source, I was watching Rap City on BET with my guy, either Joe Clair or Big Tigger. And being from Memphis, I was so hyped when I saw Three 6 Mafia on the show. I was like, "Here it is. Big Memphis is finally on the scene." And while on Rap City in 1998, Gangsta Boo, who was part of Three 6 Mafia but also had a new album that just released at the time, here she is talking about what she wanted to accomplish in the rap game.
Gangsta Boo (04:16):
Have you heard of the saying, "A closed mouth won't get fed?"
Big Tigger (04:20):
No, but I just did. "A closed mouth won't get fed."
Gangsta Boo (04:24):
"A closed mouth won't get fed," and so I'm saying like, if you don't open your mouth and say what you want, you ain't going to get it. And so what I'm doing is opening my mouth, telling people what I want in the industry and out the whole world. You know what I'm saying? Like getting while the getting is good, getting it while you can. Instead of on some commercial stuff, I'm straight out thugging, ghetto queen with mine. You know what I'm saying? Coming from the hood.
Dominic Lawson (04:51):
Unfortunately, earlier this year, Gangsta Boo, or Lola Mitchell, crossed the ancestral plane. She was a pioneer in the Memphis rap game, paving the way for Memphis stars today, including GloRilla and Jucee Froot. But Gangsta Boo's career highlights something else of note, and that is the representation of women and their undeniable contributions to the culture and business of hip-hop.
Now, before you think I wanted to be a rapper, that couldn't be further from the truth. No, I wanted to be an executive producer and create projects. So while I did love the Biggies and the Tupacs of the world, I was a bigger fan of executive producers, such as Sean Combs, or P. Diddy, or Puff Daddy, or Diddy, or whatever he's calling himself these days, I lose count after a while, or a Dr. Dre, who is instrumental in crafting the West Coast sound of the day. Honestly, I'm secretly living out my executive producer fantasy through podcasting. But growing up, the missing theme was the celebration of women on the soundboards and in the boardrooms. I know they existed, but I didn't have an opportunity to look up to them because it was always just men that I saw in magazines and in the music videos. But this is interesting and ironic because when it comes to the commercialization of hip-hop, there is a strong case that it started with one person, Sylvia Robinson.
Now, we know the hip-hop started in an apartment building over on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx with
my guy Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, along with his sister and two turntables, who were throwing a
back-to-school party on August 11th, 1973. The party lasted until 4:00 AM the next day, undeniably the beginning of a culture that would change the world. But it was underground and wasn't on the same level as, say, disco, soul, R&B, or rock and roll. But all of that changed in 1979 with the release of Rapper's Delight, thanks to Sylvia. But who is she? How does she make hip-hop the global phenomenon that it is today? Well, that story begins not too far from the origin story of hip-hop itself.
Sylvia Robinson, or Sylvia Vanderpool, was born on May 29th, 1935 in Harlem to her parents, Herbert and Ida Vanderpool. She would later attend Washington Irving High School, and it would be fitting that she did because there is clearly something in the water at that school when it comes to notable alumni, creatively speaking, of course. That is because Washington Irving boasts many alumni who have awards in the arts, including Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe from the 2009 movie Precious, and EGOT member and host of The View, Whoopi Goldberg. And if you're wondering what it means to be a EGOT member, that means Whoopi has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and a Tony. It's a very exclusive club, so exclusive that when you think about all of the actors, musicians, and writers who have ever existed, only 17 are on that list, which includes John Legend and Jennifer Hudson.
And I'm sorry if I went on a historical tangent just now, but if you're new to the Black Is America Podcast, just know that's going to happen from time to time. And if you're a longtime listener, hey, you knew what this was. Also, strap in because it's going to happen again pretty soon.
But the point I was ultimately making is that Sylvia was in good company as it relates to her school, and she will pursue her musical ambitions early on, dropping out at 14, beginning a music career with Columbia Records under the stage name Little Sylvia. And under the tutelage of Louisville, Kentucky guitarist, Mickey Baker, Sylvia learns how to play the guitar, and they formed the duo, Mickey & Sylvia. And it doesn't take long for her to find success, massive success, one that still bears fruit to this day.
Now, there is some dispute about who wrote what, so I will just say that in collaboration with famed rock and roller Bo Diddley, they created the hit song, Love Is Strange. Now, that song title may not sound familiar, but when you hear it, you are probably going to go, "Oh yeah, that song." Let's see, shall we? This is Mickey & Sylvia performing their song on The Steve Allen Show in 1957.
Steve Allen (09:32):
As I understand the story, Mickey, you did not want to record Love Is Strange and Sylvia talked you into
it. What did you say to him to win the argument?
Sylvia Robinson (09:41):
I said, "Come here, lover boy."
Steve Allen (09:43):
And here it is, Love Is Strange, yeah.
Sylvia Robinson (09:44): (singing)
Mickey & Sylvia (09:44):
Dominic Lawson (10:03):
Love Is Strange went on to number one on the R&B Billboard charts on March 6th, 1957 and number 11 on the Hot 100. And the people who covered this song since then reads like a who's who in music, Buddy Holly, Sonny and Cher, Peaches & Herb, even Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, not to mention the TV shows and movies it's been used on, including those, like my wife, who are fans of the 1987 Academy Award-winning Dirty Dancing. It's even featured on the soundtrack, which is one of the best-selling albums of all time.
But there's something about Sylvia playing the guitar that was interesting to me. I mean, when you see women's musical groups of the '50s and '60s, I'm talking about groups like The Supremes, fancy dresses and choreographed moves come to mind, and Sylvia had all of that, but with a guitar.
But now that I think about it, she wasn't the only Black woman out here shredding it up on the music scene during this era. But to show you what I mean, we need to take a trip across the pond and then catch a train to Manchester, England, because literally, there's a performance about to happen at a train station. And as we pull into the station, it looks like the show has already began. I can hear the music and the crowd enjoying it. It looks like we got here just in time. Oh yes, we have found her all right. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (11:38): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (11:39):
Sister Tharpe is an African American singer and guitarist who sung a mixture of rock, blues, and gospel. Her popularity rose in the '30s and '40s. Her unique style has been influenced by some of the greats of her era and beyond. We're talking Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and today's stars, like India Arie, Eric Clapton, and Tracy Chapman. But like many legacies in Black America, hers has become more appreciated as the years have passed. She was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her performance of Down by the Riverside was selected by the National Recording Registry for the Library of Congress. She has also been the feature of multiple documentaries, from American Masters and BBC Four in the UK. But I think the ending comments from a 2017 NPR piece sums up her legacy quite nicely. "She was a gospel singer at heart who became a celebrity by forging a new path musically. Through her unforgettable voice and gospel swing crossover style, Tharpe influenced a generation of musicians. She was, and is, an unmatched artist."
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (13:22): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (13:23):
Sister Tharpe would have influence on another dynamic duo, but it would be Sylvia Robinson that would
collaborate with them directly, landing them their first Grammy nomination. And speaking of Sylvia, her
and Mickey would go on to create other songs, but nothing as big as Love Is Strange. The two would officially break up but still collaborate. Sylvia at this time is now focusing on her solo career. She also meets and marries Joe Robinson. Joe is a Navy vet that didn't have any problem getting money. He had a numbers racket in Harlem that he flipped into investing into several nightclubs. Sylvia, during her solo career, would expand her music acumen, getting more into writing and producing music for other artists, including for a famous couple of the era.
Tina (14:19): (singing)
Ike (14:19): (singing)
Tina (14:19): (singing)
Ike (14:19): (singing)
Tina (14:29): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (14:29):
In a 1981 interview, Sylvia said that she was heavily involved in the production of the Grammy Award- nominated song by Ike and Tina Turner, It's Going to Work Out Fine. However, she is not giving credit for the production.
Unfortunately, in the music business, a male-dominated industry, specifically during this era, there are countless examples of women working in the industry who may have had the title of secretary per se but acted more like AR reps, writers, producers, and more only to not get the proper due they deserve. This happened to Sylvia on more than one occasion. She clearly had a talent for writing and creating hit songs and an eye for finding talent. And I guess Auntie Sylvia had enough with the BS and, along with her husband, took matters into her own hands.
So in 1968, Sylvia created All Platinum Records in Englewood, New Jersey. But just to show you how savvy of a record exec she was, look no further than the name of the label itself, All Platinum. That is because Sylvia knew that vendors paid traditionally in alphabetical order. So in naming it All Platinum, Auntie wanted to ensure that she was one of the first people to get her coins.
Now, while Joe handled the business side of the label, Sylvia was free to create a roster of solid acts, such as The Moments, The Whatnauts, and create soul hits like the Shirley & Company record, Shame, Shame, Shame. But the label's biggest hit would come from the label head herself. In March of 1973, in a song she originally wrote for soul legend and Memphis native Al Green, Pillow Talk became the label's biggest hit.
Sylvia Robinson (16:29):
Dominic Lawson (16:40):
It spent two weeks at number one on the best selling soul charts and peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was also nominated for a Grammy in 1974. Soul music had a nice hold on the radio airwaves. You had Motown in Detroit, Stax here in my hometown of Memphis, and, along with Sylvia and Joe Robinson at All Platinum, they were having success in New Jersey.
However, a new sound was forming across the Hudson, in the Bronx, and that sound was moving throughout New York City, to the basements, living rooms, rec centers, and parks of the five boroughs. And if you found yourself at a block party at the time, you can hear the familiar sound of your favorite soul or R&B songs, but the songs were being played by DJs and there were different lyrics being provided by a person called an MC. The job of the MC was to speak rhythmically over the music, making observations, telling stories, expressing their opinions. And when you looked over to the side, you will see people on broken-down cardboard boxes doing what you called break dancing and people spray painting or tagging a wall with some of the coolest art you'll ever see. And these four things, DJing, emceeing, break dancing, and graffiti art, would make for the four pillars of a culture known as hip-hop.
And from that culture, some people will start to make a name for themselves. There's DJ Kool Herc, who I mentioned earlier, and often regarded as the father of the music, but there's also Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and others. But this music wasn't all about partying and having a good time. New York City in the 1970s was going through a transition, with great social and economic change. And so hip-hop was a way for these young Black innovators to express themselves, channeling some of the same tenets of the great civil rights leaders from just a generation ago. It was Chris Rock who put it best. It is Black America who decides what is cool, and the rest of the world follows. But what these teenagers and young adults created on the streets of New York would change American society forever.
So as hip-hop is coming more into his own as a culture, not many people outside of New York knew about it. That's due in large part because you couldn't hear it on the radio. DJs and MCs were actually weary of being recorded for fearing of people stealing rhymes or their sound. Also, some of the musical sessions would go on for two, three, maybe even four hours, not exactly radio-friendly when you think about the average song being played around that time was between two and a half to three minutes. So how would the sound make it out of the five boroughs? Where is the origin story of when the phenomenon that began in the streets of New York will turn into a global force it is today? This is where Auntie Sylvia comes in.
See, in 1979, All Platinum Records was not doing so well. They weren't churning out the hits as they were before in years past, and they were accumulating debt. In addition to artists leaving the label, Joe's under-the-table business dealings led to an investigation and a conviction of tax evasion. And all of this led to All Platinum filing for bankruptcy. But one night, Sylvia is invited by her niece to come to a party at Harlem World, a nightclub on the corner of Lennox Ave. and 116th. And it was there that Auntie saw something. She loved the call and response dynamic by the DJ who was rapping over the break of the hit song Good Times by Chic. Sylvia looks at her son who was there with her and says, "This would make a
great record." She also says, "This is going to get us out of bankruptcy." As we have proven throughout the course of this episode, Sylvia has always had an eye for talent, but what she pulls off next would make her a musical legend.
So Joe Jr. goes and gets three of his friends, three inexperienced rappers from New Jersey, Henry Jackson, Guy O'Brien, and Michael Wright. You would ultimately come to know them as Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, and Wonder Mike. They meet with Sylvia on a Friday, and on the following Monday, they record. The three MCs will write their rhymes while Sylvia gets the label's house band to play the instrumental of Good Times. And in one take, the song Rapper's Delight by the newly formed Sugarhill Gang was created.
It's 15 minutes long, not exactly the two and a half to three minutes piece we talked about earlier, but nowhere near three hours either. But now, the real work begins. It's time to get it on radio. But no one in New York wants to play it. I'm sure their logic was, "What is this? If I wanted to play something that sounded like Chic's massive hit, Good Times, I would just play that." It's kind of ironic when you think about it, isn't it? The birthplace of hip-hop did not want to play its very first record on its radio station. Not exactly a fairytale beginning to global domination, is it?
So she sends the record all over the country, I imagine, to all of the major cities, but it ends up at the doorsteps of WESL in East St. Louis, Illinois and ultimately in the hands of program director, Gentleman Jim Gates. He would ultimately be inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame. I have to imagine some of the reason he's inducted because of what he does with this record next. He listens to it, and he likes it, and he wants to play it on air. But what did he hear in that record that DJs in New York and around the country didn't get? Well, I'll let him tell you himself. Here is Jim Gates from his St. Louis Public Radio interview.
Jim Gates (23:04):
They're rapping over... This is Chic's music. That made it passable because Chic had sold about 10 million
records already. I say, "I like that. I'm going to play that now."
Dominic Lawson (23:14):
He goes over to the studio and hands it to Edie Anderson or Edie Bee, a DJ at the station at the time, to
play. And let's just say she wasn't thrilled about it either.
Edie Anderson (23:25):
The last hour of my show was always the special hour. It was an hour of something, and usually, it was ladies back to back, Aretha and Gladys. And so when he came to me and asked me to play this song, that's what was going on. I was in my last hour. I'm the girl that was trying to sneak jazz into R&B, and all of a sudden, I got to play rap with my R&B.
Jim Gates (23:53):
I go, "Listen, you got to play this." "I don't want to." I said, "You're going to play this. I'm going to be in
my office listening." She was almost crying.
Edie Anderson (24:02):
When I put it on, it was like a hippity-hoppity-hoppity. I'm like, "What is this?" Lo and behold, when I put it on the turntable, people just started calling up. "What is that?"
Dominic Lawson (24:16):
The phones at WESL rang off the hook. For the kids listening to this podcast, this is the equivalent of going viral before social media. From there, Rapper's Delight was an instant hit. From coast to coast, people loved it. I mean, it's hard not to like. It's just a fun record, and I think if hip-hop was going to work commercially, you needed something fun and light. Rapper's Delight would peak at 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, number four on the Hot Soul singles, number one in Canada, number one on the Dutch Top 40, and number three on the UK charts. The song was so popular, Sylvia was asked to cut it down from 15 minutes to seven so that way, it can be played on pop stations as well.
The song was served as the anchor single on Sugarhill Gang's debut album. And Sylvia would change the name of the label from All Platinum to Sugar Hill Records, just like the name of the group and the neighborhood in Harlem, and Sugar Hill Records would become a multimillion dollar success. She would also sign multiple acts that were successful, the Treacherous Three, Funky Four Plus One, and others. Sylvia even produced some of the music videos for her artists with a young director at the time, Spike Lee. But one group would be exceptionally important, not just for Sugar Hill Records, but for the evolution of hip-hop.
Speaker 2 (25:50): (singing)
Hank (25:50): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (25:58):
With all of the success Sylvia had with the Sugar Hill Gang and Sugar Hill Records, not everyone was happy about it. The originators of the art form didn't understand how come it took three inexperienced MCs not from the birthplace of where it started to create its first commercialized success. And some thought the success of Rapper's Delight took away from the important issues that those who created the art form spoke about, drugs, poverty, and police brutality. But the savvy record exec, Auntie Sylvia knew that for the importance and for the evolution of hip-hop, she not only had to put out fun and great music, but she also had to get out what was going on in the streets, signing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to create the hit song, The Message.
Melle Mel (26:47): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (27:01):
It would have large-scale success, just like Rapper's Delight, and be considered one of the greatest songs of all time across any genre by Time Magazine. In addition to that, it has been credited by many to be a key point in hip-hop history. Until then, hip-hop was all about the DJ. But with The Message highlighting
Melle Mel, acting as a news reporter with his lyricism, he was able to show the hardships of what was
going on in the Black community, not just in New York, but across the country. (27:34):
So as you can see, Sylvia certainly put her stamp on what we know and love today is hip-hop. However, Sugar Hill Records would fall on hard times. For starters, came competition. Now that Sylvia had provided proof of concept that hip-hop was commercially viable, other labels and acts came into the game. Many of the founding hip-hop pioneers were starting to go commercial, not to mention new players in the game, including the likes of LL Cool J, Run-DMC and their hit, Sucker M.C.'s, and then white America got in on the craze, because you knew they would, with the Beastie Boys, not to mention their label ran by Russell Simmons, known as Def Jam. But in addition to the competition, there were financial and legal problems. And just like before, talent was leaving Sugar Hill Records, which would fold in 1986. Along with it, Sylvia and Joe would divorce.
Now, in '89, Sylvia created a new label, Bon Ami, with a new group from New Jersey called The New Style. But that label would tank, but not necessarily the group. In a sign that, once again, Auntie Sylvia had an eye for talent, that group would resurface about two years later, but under a new name. You know them today as Naughty by Nature. She would make one more attempt to create a new label, but no success.
Sylvia would pass away due to heart failure, September 29th, 2011, 32 years to the month that she changed the music landscape forever. She was 76 years old. In 2022, she would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame due to her contribution of bringing hip-hop to the masses. And that makes sense to me. When you look at the resume, you cannot deny her impact on hip-hop and the legacy that has continued to pave the way for many, especially women. Missy Elliott made history in 2019 as the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And there are more women execs at major labels now than ever before, not to mention what we are seeing in the rap game right now, which could arguably be a golden era in the world of women MCs, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, GloRilla, and Latto. And speaking of Latto, she recently sat down and gave commentary on what's happening right now.
Because it's been Nicki for so long, so they made us feel like it could only be one at a time. And now, we are rewriting that story and it's a little different. It's uneasy. It makes the industry feel like, "It's coming. They done figured it out now."
Dominic Lawson (30:24):
And as more Black women continue to shape and craft the evolution of hip-hop, they owe the opening chapter of that story to Sylvia Robinson, whose insight proved correct time and time again, making her a master at her craft. It proves, as Muhammad Ali would say, "Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them, a desire, a dream, and a vision." And that is why Sylvia Robinson is the Godmother of Hip-hop.
The Black Is America Podcast, a presentation of OWLS Education, was created and is written,
researched, and produced by me, Dominic Lawson. Executive producer, Kenda Lawson. Cover art was
created by Alexandria Eddings of Art Life Connections. Sources to create this episode include National Public Radio, St. Louis Public Radio, BBC Four, American Masters, Billboard.com, and more. For a complete list, look in the show notes of your podcast player or our website, www.blackisamericapodcast.com. Be sure to like, review, and subscribe to Black Is America on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Also, let people know what you think about the podcast. We would appreciate that very much.
For a full transcript of this episode and other resources, go to www.blackisamericapodcast.com. There, you can read our blog, leave us a review, or you can leave a voicemail where you can ask a question or let us know what you think about the show that we may play in a later episode. You can also hit the donation button if you like what you heard, which helps us to create more educational content like this.
Finally, thank you for listening to the Black Is America Podcast, where our history comes to life. Until