Visible Women

The inspirational true story of Sylvia Robinson, aka ‘The Mother of Hip-Hop’

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Sylvia Robinson who co-founded the first rap record label, heralding a musical revolution

What did she do?

Sylvia Robinson made an indelible mark on the landscape of African-American music when she founded New York City’s famous rap record label, Sugar Hill Records, in 1979.

Born Sylvia Vanterpool in Harlem in 1935, she began singing blues at 14 and signed with Savoy Records at 16. Her labelmates included Mickey Baker, who she teamed up with in the Fifties, recording as Mickey & Sylvia. Their 1956 hit Love Is Strange exploded afresh in the Eighties thanks to Dirty Dancing (it’s the bit where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey mime to each other on the floor). The duo split a few years later when Mickey moved away.

In 1959, she married fellow musician Joe Robinson and they moved to Englewood, New Jersey. There they opened an eight-track recording studio, founding All Platinum Records in 1967. Sylvia discovered artists, co-wrote and produced tracks, including the label’s biggest hit Love On A Two Way Street by The Moments. She restarted a solo career in 1973 with Pillow Talk, a song she wrote for Al Green which he rejected. It reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Mickey & Sylvia in 1956

By the late Seventies there was a new mood in New York and at a party in the culturally rich Sugar Hill area, Robinson heard rapping for the first time. In 2005 she recalled: “A spirit said to me, ‘Put a concept like that on a record and it will be the biggest thing you ever had.’” The spirit proved to be right. Certain that there was a musical revolution happening, Robinson put rappers Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright, Henry ‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson and Guy ‘Master Gee’ O’Brien together – The Sugarhill Gang was born.

Robinson got her house band to recreate the groove from the Chic hit Good Times while the group rapped over the top. The result was Rapper’s Delight, with its iconic intro: ‘I said a hip hop/the hippie the hippie/ to the hip hip hop/and you don’t stop…’ It was the first commercial rap song and a mega hit, selling millions of copies to huge acclaim. 

Following this phenomenal success, Robinson signed more rap artists, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose 1982 single The Message is known as one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. She later signed all-female rap/funk group The Sequence and she continued producing music until her death in 2011.

Why was she a trailblazer?

In the Sixties, Robinson became one of the first ever female music producers as well as one of the first female founders of a record label. Her work at Sugar Hill Records granted her the title ‘The Mother of Hip-Hop’. The rights to her life story have been acquired by the film producer Paula Wagner, who says, “It is not only the story of female empowerment at a time when the world of music was male-dominated, but it’s also a story of the origin of hip-hop and how this woman’s determination, immense talent and savvy business sense fostered an entire musical movement.”

What is her legacy?

The hip-hop genre owes its mainstream proliferation in no small part to Robinson.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.