Sylvia Robinson, once singer-songwriter turned founder and CEO of Sugar Hill Records, set the musical landscape for many of today’s most recognizable names in hip hop. With millions of album sales under her belt and a handful of Billboard chart-toppers, Sylvia built a diverse – yet controversial – musical legacy. Dubbed “The Queen of Rap” by her peers, she has had a hand in churning out some groundbreaking hits over the span of four decades, including Grandmaster Flash’s record “The Message”. Perhaps most impressive is Sylvia’s musical shape-shifting abilities and business-savvy mindset, as evidenced by her making the leap from songwriter, to record producer, to label CEO, and achieving major milestones in all roles – despite the corners she cut to get there.
Sylvia Robinson’s role in shaping Sugar Hill was unprecedented. “She’s arguably one of the most consequential producers and label owners of all time,” Billboard magazine wrote in 1976. “Her business opened the doors for all the independents that followed, from Def Jam to Top Dawg, and her music pioneered distinct concepts that set the template for hip hop’s entire creative arc. From party rocking, to the DJ as a musician, to social consciousness, Sugar Hill made everything possible for today’s hip-hop stars.”
Sylvia’s career dates back to the ’50s, when she performed under the moniker Little Sylvia. Although she released a handful of R&B singles, she didn’t experience any immediate major breakthroughs.
Despite this, Sylvia was already showing a fierce independence and a sharp business mind when she decided to take guitar lessons as a means of gaining more creative control. “I wanted to learn to play the guitar,” she told Dazed in 2000. “And as soon as I learned to play guitar, I started writing.”
Once she teamed up with Mickey Barker, her guitar teacher at the time, Sylvia got her first taste of success: the duo’s number one hit song “Love Is Strange” in 1957. This collaboration marked the beginning of something of an unfortunate trend in Sylvia’s career; following this hit, and for the majority of her creative pursuits, it seems Sylvia saw the most success when she was working alongside a man. This, conceivably, is a sign of the times and the socio-economic parameters under which she had to operate rather than a reflection of Sylvia’s talents.
The attention Mickey & Sylvia received led to opportunities for the two to step into writing rooms with big artists like Joe Jones and Ike & Tina Turner. Notably, both songs from these sessions – “You Talk Too Much” by Joe Jones, and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” by Ike & Tina Turner – were produced by Sylvia, but she was never credited for either.
“I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that’s me playing guitar”, Sylvia said in a 1981 interview with Black Radio Exclusive. “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” earned Ike & Tina their first Grammy nomination in 1962. Although uncredited and presumptively feeling slighted, it was this evolution from artist to producer that would serve as the building blocks of Sylvia’s biggest milestones in the music industry.
The All Platinum Records CEO, Songwriter & Solo Artist
In 1964, Sylvia married Joseph Robinson. She left Mickey & Sylvia, moved in with Joe, and had three sons in Englewood, New Jersey. A settled life did not quench Sylvia’s musical thirst, however, and the Robinsons co-founded All Platinum Records in 1968. Her credits were now Sylvia Robinson: artist, songwriter, producer, and record label CEO. All Platinum signed a variety of musicians, with noteworthy releases including The Moments’ “Love On a Two-Way Street” and Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame”. Sylvia continued to hone her songwriting skills, writing on many of the All Platinum Records single releases. In 1972, she wrote a song called “Pillow Talk” with the intention to sell it to Al Green.
After he passed on it, Sylvia decided to record and release it herself. “Pillow Talk” reached number one on the R&B charts and number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. All of a sudden, Sylvia found herself with a booming solo career; “Pillow Talk” earned her a gold disc from The Recording Industry Association of America and a nomination at the 1974 Grammy Awards. Sylvia was finally getting some recognition as a solo artist, almost 15 years after her first attempt as Little Sylvia. Unfortunately, her budding solo career did not prevent the downfall of All Platinum Records; Joe had been involved in some shady under-the-table business deals, resulting in the label filing for bankruptcy by the end of the 1970s.
The Sugar Hill Records CEO 2.0 & Entrepreneur
Fortunately for Sylvia, the death of All Platinum Records made way for the birth of Sugar Hill Records. Sylvia had a revelation at a nightclub in 1979 when she saw artist Lovebug Starski rapping over the break of Chic’s “Good Times” – a new style that was not yet being played on commercial radio stations.
Hoping to create something similar, and recognizing a fantastic business opportunity, Sylvia conceived and produced “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, a band she put together specifically to record the song. The track itself featured a talk-rap style, also over the instrumental to “Good Times”. The record started a musical revolution and went on to sell a whopping 14,000,000 copies, turning Sugar Hill records into a multi-million dollar record label.
“Rapper’s Delight” transformed hip hop by catapulting rap into the commercial mainstream market and becoming the blueprint that future artists like Kanye, Jay-Z, and Missy have followed as a career model today. “Sylvia’s epiphany birthed a million musical revelations,” wrote Billboard. Although “Rapper’s Delight” was by far Sylvia’s biggest accomplishment, it’s her musical milestone with the most controversy – Sylvia had put on tape a musical innovation that she had not invented. The publication continued, “perhaps no people were stunned as much as the creators of this rapping style who were across the Hudson River in New York and had never heard of any crew called The Sugarhill Gang”.
Despite the controversy, the massive success of “Rapper’s Delight” kept Sugar Hill Records at the forefront of the hip hop industry at the time. In 1982, Sylvia coaxed and eventually convinced Grandmaster Flash to record “The Message” with Sugar Hill Records; this was Sylvia’s second revolutionary contribution to hip hop culture.
The popularity of the politically-charged song shifted how listeners viewed emcees, since it brought them out of the background and into the spotlight, and inspired an onslaught of other songs of its kind. Throughout the early ’80s, Sylvia continued to write, produce, and release a handful of chart-topping hits. However, 1983 marked a shift in rap and hip hop’s style, which affected Sugar Hill Records’ perceived relevance.
“That year also brought the debut of Run-DMC, whose “Sucker MCs” marked the overthrow of the Sugar Hill sound on the streets,” wrote Billboard. The industry was ready for a change but Sugar Hill wasn’t along for the ride. By the mid-1980s, Sylvia and Joe divorced and Sugar Hill found itself in a losing lawsuit with other record labels, which resulted in the label eventually folding.
The Solo CEO Endeavour & End
Sylvia never quite found the same level of success she experienced during this period again, but it was not for a lack of effort. She founded Bon Ami Records in 1987, her first solo record label endeavour, and continued to release music through the label. The company was later rebranded as Diamond Head Records in 1994.
Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end of Sylvia Robinson’s legendary career. Joe passed away of cancer in 2000 and her studio caught fire in 2002, destroying many of the iconic Sugar Hill masters. Over the course of the last decade of her life, she handed the Sugar Hill torch to her three sons, who inherited her enterprise. Sylvia died of heart failure on September 29, 2011.
Widely praised and highly criticized, Sylvia Robinson carved a career trajectory that went all over the musical map. At times, her business tactics weren’t always deemed ethical and her highest career moment could be also considered outright theft. What Sylvia did have, however, is talent, dedication, and the entrepreneurial mindset to see gold, gaining her access to an important network and eventually finding the means to catapult a musical revolution into the mainstream.
Sylvia’s career triumphs and tribulations parallel the current musical landscape and the struggle many artists face: the lack of a single clear path to success. Her many achievements are made up of small wins spread out over four decades and all in different areas of the music industry. Sylvia is an excellent example of what honing your craft, diversifying your repertoire, and keeping an open mind when defining success can do for a career in the ever-challenging but always creatively-fulfilling music industry.
Written by Maya Malkin
Illustration by Yihong Guo