Sylvia Robinson, producer of Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ dies at 75

Sylvia Robinson, 75, a singer who performed rhythm-and-blues hits in the 1950s and later found resounding success as a producer who nurtured the birth of a new musical genre — hip-hop — with Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight,” died Sept. 29 at a hospital in Secaucus, N.J. The Associated Press reported that she had congestive heart failure.

Mrs. Robinson’s achievements as a record producer are difficult to overstate, said Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.”

Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was hip-hop’s first recorded single and introduced the emerging art form to the world. The record sold more than 14 million copies.

“She was the first person to tap hip-hop culture and fix it on a record,” Charnas said in an interview. “She made rapping a viable commercial endeavor and created the rap business.”

In the 1950s, Mrs. Robinson sang as half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia. Their smash 1957 single, “Love Is Strange,” sold a million copies and peaked at No. 11 on the pop charts.

But by the late 1970s, Mrs. Robinson was a fading star and struggling to survive. Her fortune changed in June 1979, when she attended a party at an uptown Manhattan club, Harlem World.

There, she watched in awe as a rhyming DJ invigorated the crowd.

“He would say something every now and then like ‘Throw your hands in the air,’ and they’d do it,” Mrs. Robinson told Vanity Fair in a 2005 profile. “If he’d said, ‘Jump in the river,’ they’d have done it.”

Mrs. Robinson said she sensed the music’s selling potential. “A spirit said to me, ‘Put a concept like that on a record and it will be the biggest thing you ever had,’ ” she told Vanity Fair.

At the time, rap was in its infancy. Born in the Bronx and raised on the streets of Harlem, rapping traced its musical roots to the Jamaican tradition of “toasting,” where DJs would embellish their sets with rhymes.

After the nightclub experience, Mrs. Robinson went looking for some wannabe rappers. The first recruit she found was Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, a 380-pound dough-spinner at the Crispy Crust Pizza parlor in Englewood, N.J.

Wearing his flour-dusted apron, Jackson won over Mrs. Robinson during an impromptu audition in the back of her son’s Oldsmobile 98. Afterward, Mrs. Robinson found Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien and “Wonder Mike” Wright.

She signed the three rappers to her Englewood-based label, Sugar Hill Records, named after an area in Harlem, and dubbed the trio the Sugarhill Gang.

The group’s first song, “Rapper’s Delight,” was a 15-minute tongue-tangling marathon recorded in one take.

The opening lines of “Rapper’s Delight” were memorized by millions of fans.

“I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop the rocking till the bang bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogity beat.”

To make “Rapper’s Delight,” Mrs. Robinson appropriated the bouncing bass line of a hit disco song from that summer, Chic’s “Good Times.” The song’s writers, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, successfully sued Sugar Hill to gain an authorship credit.

The song cost Mrs. Robinson $750 to produce and earned millions. After Sugarhill Gang’s success, she lured Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to her label.

Mrs. Robinson produced their hit single, “The Message,” which recounted harrowing tales from the inner-city streets. The record sold a million copies in about a month and is considered one of the first rap songs to reveal hip-hop’s social consciousness.

By the mid-1980s, Mrs. Robinson’s less-than scrupulous financial practices began to affect business, Charnas said. While the label floundered, promising acts such as Run DMC and LL Cool J signed with a competitor, Def Jam Recordings.

In 1995, the Sugar Hill catalogue was sold to Rhino Records.

Sylvia Vanderpool was born March 6, 1936, in Harlem. As a youngster, she had briefly recorded as “Little Sylvia” before enrolling in a nursing program.

In the mid-1950s, she met Joe Robinson, who persuaded her to return to singing. They married and formed a record label, All Platinum Enterprises.

Robinson encouraged his wife to perform with her guitar teacher, McHouston “Mickey” Baker. Mickey and Sylvia broke up in 1962.

Mrs. Robinson and her husband divorced in 1989. He died in 2000. Survivors include three sons.

As a solo act, Mrs. Robinson released “Pillow Talk” in 1973, which reached No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts.

By the late 1970s, All Platinum had run into financial difficulties, which led to the formation of Sugar Hill.

“They brought hip-hop above ground,” Georgetown University professor and cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson said in 2000. “They gave legitimacy to a fledgling art form.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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