Meet Sylvia Robinson, hit songwriter, producer, and ‘the Mother of Hip-Hop’
You’ve likely heard the classic early hip-hop songs “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They are two of the most iconic songs in early hip-hop, helping break the genre from a localized scene to an international phenomenon.
But…do you know the name Sylvia Robinson?
Nicknamed “the Mother of Hip-Hop,” Robinson was the producer behind both of the songs. Oh, and she was also an executive with Sugar Hill Records, the pioneering rap label that released them.
Related: Listen to Respect! Women in Music, our weekend music special airing March 18-20
Earlier in her career, Robinson was an accomplished singer and recording artist.
Born in Harlem in 1935, Robinson (then Sylvia Vanderpool) first performed as Little Sylvia. Then in 1956 she had success with “Love Is Strange,” a duet under the name Mickey & Sylvia with Mickey Baker (her former guitar tutor). The song made the Billboard Top 20 and has since been used in movies such as Dirty Dancing and Casino.
Mickey & Sylvia recorded into the mid-1960s. During that time she also began producing, including “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” for Ike & Tina Turner. “I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that’s me playing guitar,” she said in a 1981 interview with trade magazine Black Radio Exclusive.
In 1966, Sylvia and her husband Joseph Robinson formed an R&B music label, All Platinum Records. The creative force behind the label, Sylvia produced many songs for All Platinum, including one of their biggest singles, “Love on a Two Way Street” by the Moments, which she also cowrote. The song made it to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1972, Robinson recorded the early disco hit “Pillow Talk” under just the name Sylvia (she originally pitched it to Al Green). “Pillow Talk turned into another hit, topping the soul chart and making the Billboard Top 5.
Later in the 1970s, Sylvia Robinson’s impact on music took another amazing turn, when she founded Sugar Hill Records. In 1979 the label released “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which was produced by Sylvia. It became the first commercially successful hip-hop single, selling over 2 million copies, cracking the Top 40, and helping turn a music and dance style from the Bronx into a global cultural force.
But Sylvia’s impact on hip-hop didn’t stop there. In 1982 she and Grandmaster Flash produced one of the most iconic rap singles of the 20th century, “The Message.”
Sugar Hill also released “White Lines” by Melle Mel & the Furious Five, another hit, this time with a music video produced by then-newcomer Spike Lee (see video at the top of this page). The label, however, eventually became embroiled in copyright and financial issues and folded.
Related: Melle Mel interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air
After Sugar Hill’s demise, Sylvia and Joe Robinson divorced. Sylvia formed another label, Bon Ami Records, but the label didn’t produce any hit singles, though they did sign an act under the name the New Style who later changed their name and became Naughty By Nature.
Sylvia Robinson died in 2011, and the impact on the music industry that she leaves behind is monumental.
Soundboard Newsletter – subscribe to get concert presale codes and other goodies every Thursday morning
Listen to the Colorado Sound – on the Front Range at 105.5 and around the world via web, app, or smart speaker
Playlist – see songs, artists, and the times they recently played on the Colorado Sound
Become a Sustaining Member – learn how you can support the Colorado Sound