N.J. hip-hop pioneer joins Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How she changed music forever.


November 06, 2022

The late Sugar Hill Records founder, Sylvia Robinson, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Non-Performers category for the 2022 class. She joins a class which includes Allen Grubman and Jimmy Iovine. Inductees in the Performers category include Eminem, Carly Simon, Dolly Parton, Duran Duran, Pat Benatar, Lionel Ritchie, and Eurythmics. Unfortunately, A Tribe Called Quest didn't make it in on their first time on the ballot.

Sylvia Robinson is rightfully regarded as the the Godmother of the rap recording industry. She founded Sugar Hill Records in 1979 with her husband, the late Joe Robinson; but she was an iconic figure in R&B music long before many of the pioneers of rap music were even born.

At just 12 years old, Robinson recorded for Savoy records as "Lil Sylvia," and in 1956, she scored a major hit as one half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia with "Love Is Strange" which peaked at #1 on Billboard magazine's most played R&B singles chart. In 2004 "Love Is Strange" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for its influence as a rock & roll single.

I'm very pleased that my mother is being recognized, it's a great day and its been a long time coming..."

- Leland Robinson - Son of Syivia Robinson

Always a clever business woman, Robinson owned and operated nearly a dozen soul and R&B record labels in the 1970s, including All Platinum, Stang, Turbo, Vibration, and Astroscope. These labels were the homes to artists such as the Moments (later Ray, Goodman and Brown), The Whatnauts, and the Rimshots.

In 1973, Sylvia wrote a song for Al Green called "Pillow Talk" that he found too risqué and against his religious beliefs, so he turned it down. Robinson subsequently recorded the song and it hit #1 R&B and #3 on Billboard's Hot 100. In 1979, Sylvia Robinson's labels were suffering and she needed something new to add to her repertoire quickly. At her niece's birthday at the Harlem World Entertainment Complex she witnessed the late Luvbug Starski rapping and manning the turntables simultaneously — as was his trademark. She was so impressed with this new form of "talking music" that she researched it and recruited many, of its practitioners including Starski, but it was her Englewood, New Jersey neighbors Wonder Mike, Master Gee and Big Bank Hank, whom she signed — christening them "The Sugar Hill Gang."

Sugar Hill was an affluent section of Harlem which she felt a closeness to, and she named her new label Sugar Hill Records. In a conversation with Robinson's last living son, Leland, earlier today (May 4), he revealed:

Nobody thought that making and distributing rap records would work. Her peers in the business actually said to her, 'You don't have to stoop that low.' Nobody believed that anyone would buy records with people talking over old music. Now look."

- Leland Robinson

"Rappers Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang was the first commercially successful rap record, bringing the music to those outside of the boroughs who had never heard it, and eventually to the world. Sugar Hill Records would have a monopoly over recorded Rap from 1979 through 1983.

With the help of her son, the late Joey Robinson Jr., she sought out and signed Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, The Crash Crew, Spoonie Gee, The Treacherous Three, and Busy Bee. The first female rap act and the first rap act from the south, The Sequence (which featured a young Angie Stone), were signed directly by Robinson.

Robinson was one of the first Black women outside of Berry Gordy's sister, Anna, to own and operate her own record label, and she was one of rap music's early producers. In a recent conversation about "The Message" with Grandmaster Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, Mel talked about Robinson's legacy.

"Regardless of what anyone says about her, she was one of the best female producers," he said. "And one of the best producers period. She called it with 'Rappers Delight' and 'The Message,' when no one believed in either song. She knew."

"The Message" turns 40 years old this year, and was written by the late Edward Fletcher aka Duke Bootee. No one, including Fletcher himself, expected the song to be well-received. "The song came out to 7 minutes and 11 seconds, and Sylvia was heavy into numerology," Mel recalled. "She said '7:11 is perfect', and she said that it would do well. She called it."

Master Gee of The Sugar Hill Gang echoes Mel's assessment of Sylvia as a visionary. "When we auditioned for her, she said that it was three of us, and three was a special number," Gee explained. "She said that there were three members of The Moments, and they were her biggest R&B group. She told us that we would be huge."

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony takes place in Los Angeles on November 5.

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