Wimbish and Mel retained the attorney Wimbish’s partner Le Blanc was using in his own lawsuit against the Robinsons. And like Le Blanc, Wimbish feared the ire of Joe and his associates. “I felt like I was being threatened,” he recalls. “My friend, one of my elders, gave me a pistol. He said: ‘Somebody comes, you just squeeze this.’ ”
Stiff competition, a disintegrating roster and cash-flow problems prompted the Robinsons to cast about for corporate partners. But their reputation preceded them -- at Columbia, an internal memo cast them as “the black mafia.” It was, in fact, the mob to whom they turned to facilitate a pressing-and-distribution deal with MCA in the personage of a wiseguy named Sal Pisello. The catch: They wouldn’t get any money upfront, and their prized Chess Records catalog would be held as collateral against any losses.
By 1986, Sugar Hill was upside down in its deal, and with their masters on the line, Joe and Sylvia sued MCA and Pisello, accusing them of conspiring to strip the company of its assets. A four-year legal fight ensued, and by the time MCA settled -- keeping the Chess masters but relinquishing Sugar Hill’s -- Sylvia and Joe had divorced. Acquaintances and Sylvia herself intimated that the divorce was as much about splitting their business interests and making sure Joe paid her as it was about personal differences. Their ongoing arrangement was a peculiar one.
“At 5:30, 6:00 every night, he would come by,” recalls Leland. “They would go to a restaurant -- The Palm, whatever. Then he would drop her off, go home. Sunday mornings, he got up, brought bagels to the house, lox, cream cheese. He didn’t want the divorce to affect us.”
“Good friends,” in fact, was the name of Sylvia’s first solo venture. She launched Bon Ami Records in 1989 with an album from an East Orange, N.J., rap group called The New Style. It tanked, but the act resurfaced two years later as Naughty by Nature -- proof that Sylvia still had an eye for talent. She rebranded again as Diamond Head Records in 1994, but by then hip-hop had creatively left her behind.
The mid-’90s CD boom proved fruitful -- Sugar Hill sold its back catalog to reissue label Rhino Records in a seven-figure deal. The Robinsons would need the cash: By the late 1990s, Joe had been stricken with cancer; Kerr, despite their difficult history, shuttled him to chemotherapy. After a period of remission and then a relapse, Joe died in 2000. “I loved Joe,” says Kerr. “I was there to see him take his last breath.”
Despite the divorce, this final separation devastated Sylvia. “I think she lost the will to live after he passed,” says Leland. “She wasn’t the same.” Her spirit was further gutted in 2002 when a fire ripped through the studios on West Street in Engelwood, destroying the building and most of Sugar Hill’s masters. In a 2005 “Rapper’s Delight” retrospective in Vanity Fair, she sounded as bitter as any of the artists who had left the label: “I made a lot of people a lot of millions, and I got jerked. I didn’t get nothin’.”