Sylvia Robinson, ‘mother of hip-hop’

Sylvia Robinson

Sylvia Robinson (née Vanderpool; May 29, 1935[3][4][5][7] – September 29, 2011) was an American singer, record producer, and record label executive. Robinson had two R&B chart toppers: as half of Mickey & Sylvia with "Love Is Strange" in 1957 and her solo record "Pillow Talk" in 1973. She later became known for her work as founder and CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records.[8] Robinson is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the hip hop genre; "Rapper's Delight" (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang,[9] and "The Message" (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; which caused her to be dubbed "The Mother of Hip–Hop". Robinson received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and being the founder of Sugarhill Records at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000.[10]

Sylvia Robinson
Robinson, 1976.
Background information
Birth nameSylvia Vanderpool
Also known as
  • Little Sylvia
  • Sylvia
  • Sylvia Robbins
  • Shirley Robbins[1]
  • Mother of Hip Hop[2]
Born(1935-05-29)May 29, 1935[3][4][5]
Harlem, New York, U.S.
OriginEnglewood, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedSeptember 29, 2011(2011-09-29) (aged 76)[6]
Secaucus, New Jersey, U.S.
  • Singer
  • record producer
  • record label executive
  • Vocals
  • guitar
Years active1950–2011
Associated acts

Life and career

Early life

Robinson was born as Sylvia Vanderpool[11] on May 29, 1935 in Harlem, New York, United States, to Herbert, an immigrant from the Virgin Islands who worked for General Motors,[12] and Ida Vanterpool.[3][13] Robinson attended Washington Irving High School until dropping out at the age of 14,[14] and began recording music in 1950 for Columbia Records under the alias "Little Sylvia".

Early career

In 1954, she began teaming up with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker, who then taught her how to play guitar. In 1956, the duo now known as Mickey & Sylvia, recorded the Bo Diddley and Jody Williams-penned rock single, "Love Is Strange," which topped the R&B charts and reached number eleven on the Billboard pop charts in early 1957. After several more releases including the modestly successful "There Oughta Be a Law", Mickey & Sylvia split up in 1958 and she later married Joseph Robinson. Sylvia restarted her solo career shortly after her initial split from Baker, first under the name Sylvia Robbins. In 1960, Robinson produced the record "You Talk Too Much" by Joe Jones, but she did not receive credit.

In 1961, Mickey & Sylvia recorded more songs together for various labels including their own. Their label was called Willow Records and was distributed by King Records of Cincinnati. That year, Baker provided vocals and Robinson played guitar on Ike & Tina Turner's hit single, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" which earned Ike & Tina Turner their first Grammy Award nomination. "I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that's me playing guitar," Robinson said in a 1981 interview with Black Radio Exclusive.[15]

In 1964, frustrated with the music business, Baker moved to Paris.

In 1966, the Robinsons moved to New Jersey where they formed a soul music label, All Platinum Records, the following year, with artist Lezli Valentine, formerly of the Jaynetts, bringing the label its first hit with "I Won't Do Anything". In 1968, the duo signed a Washington, D.C. act named The Moments, who immediately found success with "Not on the Outside". Within a couple of years and with a new lineup, the group scored their biggest hit with "Love on a Two-Way Street" (1970), which Sylvia co-wrote and produced with Bert Keyes and (uncredited) lyrics by Lezli Valentine. Other hits on the label and its subsidiaries, including Stang and Vibration, included Shirley & Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame" (1975), The Moments' "Sexy Mama" and "Look at Me (I'm in Love)", Retta Young's "(Sending Out An) S.O.S." (1975), and the Whatnauts/Moments collaboration, "Girls". Robinson co-wrote and produced many of the tracks, although later she was supported by two members of The Moments, Al Goodman and Harry Ray, as well as locally based producers, George Kerr and Nate Edmonds.

Solo career

In 1972, Robinson sent a demo of a song she had written called "Pillow Talk" to Al Green. When Green passed on it due to his religious beliefs,[16] Robinson decided to record it herself, returning to her own musical career. Billed simply as Sylvia, the record became a major hit, reaching number-one on the R&B chart and crossing over to reach the US Billboard Hot 100 (#3), while also reaching #14 on the UK Singles Chart in the summer of 1973. She was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973, and earned a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 1974 Grammy Awards.[16] "Pillow Talk"'s subtly orgasmic gasps and moans predated those of the 1975 Donna Summer song "Love to Love You Baby".[17] Reviewing Robinson's 1973 debut LP (also titled Pillow Talk), Robert Christgau wrote in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981) that it is "Let's Get It On without production values. Call it underdeveloped if you want; I'll mention that it's unaffected. Including the best peace lyric heard lately, entitled 'Had Any Lately?'"[18]

Robinson recorded four solo albums on the Vibration subsidiary[19] and had other R&B hits including "Sweet Stuff" and "Pussy Cat". "Pillow Talk"[20] was a soulful medium dance number.

Sugar Hill Records

In the 1970s, the Robinsons founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem, an affluent African-American neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid-1900s.[21][22] The song "Rapper's Delight" (1979), performed by The Sugar Hill Gang, brought rap into the public music arena by attaining one of the first commercially successful hip hop songs[23] and revolutionized the music industry by introducing rap, scratch, and breakdance. Later acts signed to Sugar Hill Records included all-female rap/funk group The Sequence, featuring a teenage Angie Stone (recording as "Angie B"), who had a million-selling hit in early 1980 with "Funk U Up".

In 1982 Sylvia Robinson with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, produced the record "The Message", which was performed by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. Although Grandmaster Flash and the Furious five were important to the success of this record it is essential to recognize the contribution that Sylvia Robinson made in producing this historic track.[24] The record discussed life in the ghetto and at the time it was produced became one of the most influential and impacting tracks.[24] On December 5, 2012, Rolling Stone selected "The Message" as one of the "50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time". In order for Rolling Stone to compose this list, the business asked 33 different artists and experts from every genre of music including Busta Rhymes, Boots Riley, The coup, Mike Diamond, from the Beastie Boys and Talib Kweli just to name a few.[25] Once the votes were in Rolling Stone crunched the numbers, "The Message" was placed in the number 1 spot on the list.[25] Grandmaster Flash stated himself " And when that project was on the slate to be done-The message; I'm talking about-she would ask us for a period of time about doing a record having to do with the real life things that happen in the 'hood. And we kind of ducked it for a minute."[26] Without Sylvia Robinson's insistence and pressure there would be no "The Message" neither Grandmaster Flash nor the other four members of the Furious Five had any type of involvement in creating the actual record they just performed it. This was the first record of its kind, where the DJ who was the cornerstone of Hip hop at the time (1980s) was not involved in creating a track that they performed.[26]

Sugar Hill Records folded in 1985, due to changes in the music industry, the competition of other hip-hop labels, such as Profile and Def Jam and also financial pressures. Robinson, who had by now divorced Joe Robinson, continued her efforts as a music executive, forming Bon Ami Records in 1987. The label was noted for signing the act The New Style, who later left and found success as Naughty by Nature.

Personal life

Robinson was married to businessman Joseph Robinson Sr. (1932–2000)[27] from May 1959 until his death in 2000. Together they had three children, sons Joseph "Joey" Robinson Jr. (1962–2015),[28][29] Leland Robinson (b. 1965 or 1966) and Rhondo "Scutchie" Robinson (1970–2014).[30][31] Robinson owned a bar in Harlem, New York named "Joey's Place" after her husband in the 1960s.[32] Robinson also owned another New York bar and nightclub named the Blue Morocco during the mid–1960s.[33]


Robinson died on the morning of September 29, 2011, at the age of 76, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey due to congestive heart failure.[13][34]

In popular culture


In 2014, producer Paula Wagner acquired the film rights to Robinson's life story from her son, Joey Robinson, an executive at Sugar Hill Records.[38] Joey (who died in July 2015)[28] was scheduled to executive produce and serve as a consultant on the project, along with rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel, while music executive Robert Kraft was to co-produce the film along with Stephanie Allain.[39][40] In October 2015, Warner Bros. announced that it would be the studio producing the film, and that Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez, two of the writers on Empire, were writing the script.[39] In October 2018, it was announced that Wagner and Warner Bros. were still moving forward with the film, Spellman and Rodriguez had been joined by Tracy Oliver in completing the script, Justin Simien had been attached as the director, and that Oliver would join Robinson's son Leland as executive producers.[41]



  • 1973: Pillow Talk (Vibration VI-126) (US #3)
  • 1975: Sweet Stuff (Vibration VI-127)
  • 1976: Sylvia (Vibration VI-129)
  • 1977: Lay It On Me (Vibration VI-131)
  • 1996: Pillow Talk: The Sensuous Sounds of Sylvia (Rhino R2-71987) (CD compilation)


Little Sylvia

  • 1951: "Little Boy" / "How Long Must I Be Blue" (Savoy 816)
  • 1952: "I Went To Your Wedding" / "Drive Daddy Drive" (Jubilee 5093)
  • 1952: "A Million Tears" / "Don't Blame My Heart" (Jubilee 5100)
  • 1953: "The Ring" / "Blue Heaven" (Jubilee 5113)
  • 1954: "Fine Love" / "Speedy Life" (Cat 102)

Sylvia Robbins

  • 1960: "Frankie and Johnny" / "Come Home" (Jubilee 5386)
  • 1964: "Don't Let Your Eyes Get Bigger Than Your Heart" / "From The Beginning" (Sue 805)
  • 1964: "Our Love" / "I Can't Tell You" (Sue 106)


  • 1968: "I Can't Help It" / "It's A Good Life" (All Platinum 2303)

Charted singles

Year Title Chart positions
1973 "Pillow Talk" (Vibration 521) 3 1 59
"Have You Had Any Lately?" (Vibration 524) 102
"Didn't I" (Vibration 524) 70 21
"Soul Je T'Aime" (with Ralfi Pagan) (Vibration 525) 99 39
1974 "Alfredo" (Vibration 527) 62
"Private Performance" (Vibration 528) 62
"Sho Nuff Boogie" (with The Moments) (All Platinum 2350) 80 46
"Sweet Stuff" (Vibration 529) 103 16
"Easy Evil" (Vibration 530) 68
1976 "L.A. Sunshine" (Vibration 567) 54
1977 "Lay It on Me" (Vibration 570) 65
1978 "Automatic Lover" (Vibration 576) 43
1982 "It's Good to Be the Queen" (Sugar Hill 781) 53


  1. ^ "Broke Up $3,500 Song To Start Anew". Google Books. JET Magazine/Johnson Publishing Company. October 8, 1959. Retrieved January 2, 2017.
  2. ^ "Sylvia Robinson – 'Mother of Hip-Hop' Dead at 75". Retrieved October 12, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Bob L. Eagle, Eric S. LeBlanc (2017). Blues: A Regional Experience. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9780313344244. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  4. ^ a b "Leland Robinson Sr". Instagram. May 29, 2017. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "Leland Robinson Sr. (@ lelandrobinson.nj)". Instagram. May 29, 2017. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  6. ^ "Instagram post by Leland Robinson • Dec 26, 2016 at 12:02am UTC". Instagram. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
  7. ^ "Darnell Robinson (@thedarnellroy)". Instagram. May 29, 2016. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  8. ^ III, Harris M. Lentz (May 3, 2012). Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2011. McFarland. ISBN 9780786469949. Retrieved October 26, 2017 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ "'Rapper's Delight'". National Public Radio. December 29, 2000. Retrieved December 20, 2010. The story goes that Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee met Sylvia Robinson on a Friday and recorded "Rapper's Delight" the following Monday in just one take.
  10. ^ Company, Johnson Publishing (October 16, 2000). "Jet". Johnson Publishing Company. Retrieved October 26, 2017 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ "Sylvia Robinson". Cashbox Magazine News. Archived from the original on October 4, 2011. Retrieved October 6, 2011.
  12. ^ "Sylvia Robinson". Biography. Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  13. ^ a b James C. McKinley Jr. (September 30, 2011). "Sylvia Robinson, Pioneering Producer of Hip-Hop, Is Dead at 75". The New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2011.
  14. ^ "Names You Should Know: Sylvia Robinson". Archived from the original on September 28, 2015. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  15. ^ Charnas, Davis (October 17, 2019). "The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop's First Godmother: Sugar Hill Records' Sylvia Robinson". Billboard.
  16. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 338. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  17. ^ Laing, Dave (September 30, 2011). "Sylvia Robinson obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved March 14, 2019.
  18. ^ Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: S". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 13, 2019 – via
  19. ^ Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 7th edition by Joel Whitburn; ISBN 0-8230-7690-3 (pg. 619)
  20. ^ "Pillow Talk - Sylvia Robinson - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
  21. ^ "Harlem – New York City Neighborhood – NYC". Retrieved September 30, 2011.
  22. ^ "Harlem, Hamilton Heights, El Barrio, New York City". Retrieved September 30, 2011.
  23. ^ Jr, James C. McKinley (September 30, 2011). "Sylvia Robinson, Pioneering Producer of Hip-Hop, Dies at 75". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 28, 2019.
  24. ^ a b "Sylvia Robinson (1936-2011) •". June 22, 2016.
  25. ^ a b "50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time". December 5, 2012.
  26. ^ a b "How Sylvia Robinson mastered 'The Message'".
  27. ^ "Find A Grave - Joseph R. Robinson - 1923-2000". Retrieved April 23, 2019.
  28. ^ a b Christopher R. (July 14, 2015). "Joseph Robinson Jr., Sugar Hill Records Exec, Dead at 53: Son of Sugar Hill founders Joe and Sylvia Robinson played pivotal, yet contentious, role in Sugar Hill Gang's career". Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  29. ^ Billboard staff (July 14, 2015). "Sugar Hill Records Exec Joseph Robinson Dies of Cancer". Billboard. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  30. ^ Jerry DeMarco (February 26, 2014). "Rhondo 'Scutchie' Robinson, youngest of Sugar Hill heirs, dies at 43". Daily Voice. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  31. ^ "Find A Grave - Rhondo Robinson (1970–2014)". Retrieved April 23, 2019.
  32. ^ "New York Beat". Google Books. JET Magazine/Johnson Publishing Company. November 3, 1960. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  33. ^ "New York Beat". Google Books. JET Magazine/Johnson Publishing Company. April 20, 1967. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  34. ^ Tracy Scott (September 29, 2011). "Sylvia Robinson, mother of Hip Hop, dead". Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved September 29, 2011. Sylvia Vanterpool Robinson, 75, often credited as the Mother of Hip-Hop, died today at 6:28 a.m. EST from congestive heart failure.
  35. ^ Cummings, Jozen (March 8, 2015). "Was 'Empire' inspired by these real hip-hop stars? | New York Post". Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  36. ^ "Sylvia Robinson: Pioneering Record Producer, Ushered in Era of Rap | Kate Kelly". March 18, 2015. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  37. ^ "Update Our Culture, Not Just Copyright Laws". March 17, 2015. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  38. ^ "Paula Wagner Developing Sylvia Robinson Biopic". The Hollywood Reporter. August 19, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
  39. ^ a b Rose, Lacey (October 21, 2015). "'Empire' Writers to Pen Movie About the "Mother of Hip-Hop" (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
  40. ^ "Sugar Hill Record's Co-Founder Sylvia Robinson Biopic in the Works". News One. August 24, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
  41. ^ McNary, Dave (October 24, 2018). "Justin Simien Directing Sylvia Robinson Biopic". Variety. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  42. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 303. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.

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