Sylvia Robinson, who died early today of congestive heart failure at the age of 75, is best known for producing the first commercially successful rap recording: the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight." But this pioneer, widely regarded as the "mother of hip-hop," also broke ground in the male-dominated music industry as a groundbreaking female songwriter/producer and label executive.
"Hip-hop, unlike R&B, began with a sense of black equity," says Dan Charnas, author of the 2010 book "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop." "And Sylvia is the reason why. She not only produced 'Rapper's Delight,' she created and owned the Sugar Hill label with her husband Joe. She was the mother of the hip-hop business and a pioneer."
"Sylvia Robinson was a huge inspiration," female rap icon MC Lyte told Billboard.biz. "Here was a woman who had launched her own label and was calling the shots! She literally changed the way many looked at the game and certainly created a path for many women to become a part of the music business in executive positions."
Robinson started out in the business as a singer. Born Sylvia Vanderpool on March 6, 1936 in New York City, she first enjoyed chart success as one-half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, which scored a No. 1 R&B hit in 1956 with "Love Is Strange." With husband Joe Robinson, she established All Platinum Records in 1968 and groomed R&B hits in the '70s by Donnie Elbert (a cover of the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go") and Shirley Goodman (Shirley & Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame"). Robinson also co-wrote "Love on a Two-Way Street," recorded by the Moments, a trio she formed for All Platinum subsidiary Stang Records. Spending five weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1970, the radio perennial has since been sampled on the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys blockbuster "Empire State of Mind," which logged five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009.
Three years later, Robinson moaned her way to No. 1 as a solo artist with the sexy "Pillow Talk" on Vibration Records, also owned by the Robinsons. Al Green has originally been asked to record the song, but he turned it down.
"Talk" peaked at No. 1 R&B and No. 3 pop.
However, it was in 1979 that Robinson began forging her indelible mark on an emerging art form that began taking shape at clubs and dance parties in New York. Inspired after listening to people rap over instrumental breaks, Robinson formed the Sugarhill Gang. Comprised Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, Guy "Master Gee" O'Brien and Henry "Big Bank Hank" Jackson, the trio rapped over a rhythm track that sampled Chic's 1979 R&B/pop hit "Good Times." It was the first commercial hit for the burgeoning rap revolution and for Robinson and her husband's post-All Platinum label Sugar Hill Records, named after Harlem, NY's Sugar Hill neighborhood.
Robinson later signed seminal rap act Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to Sugar Hill. The group struck top five (No. 4) status on the R&B charts with the socially conscious "The Message," featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee in 1982. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
"'Ms. Rob doin' the job' was a rhyme boast on recordings from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five," Public Enemy frontman Chuck D recalled to Billboard.biz. "Sylvia's artistic talent and public notoriety have been mimicked without due credit for the past 30 years in the recorded art form she birthed. She was a black woman who pushed the button and turned the key to crank up a billion-dollar industry."
Courting success as well as controversy -- including concerns over business practices and a decades-long legal battle with the Sugarhill Gang -- Sylvia and her late husband Joe sold the Chess Records catalog they'd purchased in the '70s to MCA Records. Their son Joey was a member of the dance trio West Street Mob, which notched a top 20 R&B single in 1981 with "Let's Dance (Make Your Body Move)."
Funeral arrangements for Robinson are still pending.