Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Sylvia Robinson

30th September 2011

Co-founder of All Platinum and Sugarhill Records and one half of Mickey & Sylvia.

This portrait of Sylvia Robinson was written by Kevin Pearce in 2006 and originally published in the Fifty Thousand Reasons collection on the Tangents blog.


Nik Cohn’s written the best pop books ever. I Am The Greatest, Says Johnny Angelo, Awopbopaloobop, Today There Are No Gentlemen, and so on. That’s not news. What did surprise people though was his 2005 book, Triksta, on life and death and New Orleans rap. It was an unexpected treat, and it worked ridiculously well.

There’s a lovely bit in Triksta where Cohn describes hearing the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ for the first time on a cool, bright morning in 1979 – “I thought it was inspired ­ the freshest thing I’d heard in years ­ and started rocking to that ‘Good Times’ beat in front of the Planter’s Peanut shop.” His girlfriend is appalled, and by the end of the day is no longer his girl, but Nik’s got a new love.

Now in many ways the person to blame for all this is Sylvia Robinson. There’s a lot of stories out there about this, but the best one explains how sometime in 1979 at a family birthday party at a Bronx disco Sylvia witnessed the kids rocking to DJs chatting over records, and decided there might be something in this. She put together her own rap group, called them the Sugarhill Gang, put together a label Sugarhill with her husband, got a single called ‘Rapper’s Delight’ recorded, stuck it out on a 12”, and it sold like hot cakes. Rap and hip hop never looked back.

Sylvia Robinson is one of the great pop figures. She would still be one of the great pop figures if the only thing she’d been involved in was the ‘Love Is Strange’ hit for Mickey & Sylvia back in the r’n’r ‘50s. What a song! One of the great moments of cinema history is Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen on the run in Badlands, dancing away to ‘Love Is Strange’. The guitar wheedles and needles, and the singers vamp it up, with Sylvia coolly coquettish. And like Barry Gifford wrote about the film Badlands, “it meanders but it’s meaningful as hell”.

After a string of great pop-light Bo Diddley-esque hits as part of Mickey & Sylvia, we’d next see Sylvia again in the late ‘60s when with her husband Joe Robinson she started the All Platinum group of labels, releasing a fantastic flurry of soul/disco records for years to come. There were hugely successful and highly influential compilations of All Platinum singles, that contained absolute classics like ‘Hypertension’ by Calender, ‘I Dig Your Act’ by the Whatnauts, Brother to Brother’s cover of ‘In The Bottle’, and the phenomenal deep soul of Linda Jones’ ‘Your Precious Love’.
Many of the All Platinum hits were written by Sylvia. Maybe her finest moment as a writer was the contagious ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ by Shirley & Company (and incidentally Shirley too was an r’n’r survivor being the Shirley of ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ fame). But her closest association was with the close harmony soul group, the Moments, for whom Shirley wrote many gems before their fantastic populist-disco hits like ‘Girls’, ‘Jack In The Box’, and ‘Dolly My Love’. Sylvia herself would score a string of hits with what can best be described in the words of one of these as Soul ‘Je T’Aime’s.

So Sugarhill took off in a way that could not have been expected. Hip hop scholars will no doubt explain how what Sylvia put out initially on Sugarhill was not exactly cutting edge, was indeed shamelessly stolen, and that they did not go about their business in an upright and admirable way, but the fact remains she had the vision to get on and do something. And there’s no disputing the fact that the great Sugarhill releases stand the test of time, and indeed have grown more charming, in the same way the rawest of rockabilly or garage punk records have.

The most famous of the early rap releases are probably those of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the holy trinity of ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster on the Wheels of Steel’, ‘The Message’, and ‘White Lines’. ‘The Message’ still has the power to shock. As Nik Cohn rightly writes: “For rap, all roads lead back to this. In the course of its three minutes and ten seconds, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, with Melle Mel on the mic, mapped out the hip hop universe. Everything that’s come since can be measured against the vistas it opened up, the promises it implied. More than party music, here was a world. ‘The Message’ was lived, every grimy, suffering bar of it”. This, after all, was what punk was supposed to be.

But Sugarhill was about more than rap, and the early days of hip hop. Sylvia maintained her connections with soul traditions, and the label issued many sides that could have been on All Platinum too. These included recordings by the great soul singer Candi Staton, in one of the several stages of a great career that has broached deep country soul, glorious disco, straight gospel, through her regular reappearances in the charts with the magical ‘You’ve Got The Love’, to her renaissance with Honest Jons in 2006.
Another soul singer who also found her voice at Sugarhill was Angie Stone, then a member of the femme-rap trio Sequence. Sugarhill also provided a temporary home for Washington go-go outfit Trouble Funk, and took advantage of hip hop’s diversion into electro experimentation, courtesy of her son’s involvement in the West Street Mob.

Should anyone be brave enough to look down on the populism of Sugarhill they should be reminded that the label’s house band would continue to send ripples through the most adventurous outreaches of music for years to come. The musicians on many a Sugarhill release included Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbush, and Skip McDonald, who would go on to work most importantly with Adrian Sherwood as part of Tackhead, and on many of the On-U Sounds recordings. The three would also play together as the Mafia, backing Mark Stewart on his post-Pop Group recordings.

Mark Stewart still talks excitedly how he was lucky enough to spend time in New York as the ‘70s became the ‘80s, rubbing shoulders with No Wavers like DNA and James Chance and the Contortions, and the hip hop pioneers like the Sugarhill crew and Afrika Bambaataa, and the areas where these cultures collided as captured in the Jean Michel Basquiat film Downtown 81. You could cite Grandmaster Flash’s ungracious but highly effective appropriation of Liquid Liquid’s ‘Cavern’ for the (ahem) phenomenal ‘White Lines’, but that may lead into discussion of the more unpleasant business practices of Sugarhill, and indeed the legal dispute over the use of the ‘Cavern’ rhythm led to the demise of the great New York underground 99 label.

There at the end of Downtown 81 there is ‘Beat Bop’ by Rammelzee vs K Rob, a taste of the future, described in the liner notes to the Depth Charge compilation Beat Classic by David Toop as a “unique immersion into a cyberian echozone of 808 beatbox, latin percussion, slow funk bass and guitar, soaring droning violin and Rammelzee’s streaming unconscious word cutting, swooping in and out of reverb, in and out of perfect nonsense and street reality”. Within a short space of time Sugarhill was overtaken in the hip hop stakes, and Sylvia decided the fun was gone. But the echoes resonate still.

Sylvia Robinson, March 6, 1936 – September 29, 2011

Kevin Pearce’s writing can be found at Your Heart Out