R&B singer turned legendary producer with "Rapper's Delight"

Sylvia Robinson is remembered today by hip-hop fans as a pioneer of the genre. How did the R&B singer-songwriter once known for her duo Mickey & Sylvia become the "mother of hip-hop?"

As the story goes, Sylvia Robinson was out at a club in Harlem one night in 1979. The record label she and her husband owned, Sugar Hill Records, was struggling – they were hoping they could avoid bankruptcy. And they were always open to new sounds that might revitalize the music scene – and their business.

Robinson heard the DJ talking rhythmically over the music, and the crowd loved it. She had never heard it before, though it was a common enough sound in the inner city. For a couple of years, MCs like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow had been putting on live shows that intertwined DJing and rapping in a stream-of-consciousness groove that could last for hours. These raps were becoming a fixture of the club scene, but they hadn't yet been committed to vinyl.

Robinson decided it was time to bring this music out of the clubs and onto the radio. Within days, she had assembled a group of amateur rappers – none of whom had met each other before – into the Sugarhill Gang. She brought them into her studio, recorded their raps over a disco beat in a single 15-minute take, and history's first rap record was born.

"Rapper's Delight" made it to #36 on the U.S. pop charts – maybe not the most impressive number, but the song has endured more than most that languish at Billboard's lower levels. Its opening lines are instantly recognizable, and it ushered in a musical style that, more than three decades later, dominates the charts and heavily influences pop culture. Sylvia Robinson clearly has a legacy in the music world as the mother of hip-hop, but that wasn't her only role. Before she brought "Rapper's Delight" to the world, Robinson was a singer herself with another iconic song to her credit.

When Robinson was just 20 years old in 1956, she and guitarist Mickey Baker recorded the Bo Diddley-penned song "Love is Strange." The quirky, sexy song climbed to #1 on Billboard's R&B singles chart and peaked at #11 on the Hot 100. Over the years, a few covers from artists as diverse as Peaches & Herb and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton kept the song in the nation's consciousness. But it was a playfully steamy scene in the 1987 smash movie Dirty Dancing that made the song a favorite for new generations. Ask any woman younger than 50 or so – she might not know the name of the song, but she knows word-for-word what comes after "Sylvia! Yes, Mickey…"

Some years after the success of "Love is Strange," Robinson tried her hand as a songwriter. She first offered her provocative "Pillow Talk" to Al Green, but he turned it down – it didn't fit with his image as a religious man. So Robinson recorded it herself in 1973, performing simply as Sylvia. The single brought her once again to #1 on the R&B chart, and it was one of the earliest of a burgeoning subgenre: unabashedly sexy disco songs by women who let their experience and appetite show. From Donna Summer to Patti LaBelle to Chaka Khan, the women who sang disco after Sylvia Robinson followed the trail she blazed with "Pillow Talk."

 

Sylvia Robinson didn't have a back catalog full of hits, but she didn't need one to make history. These three songs – despite the years in between each one – were more than enough to secure her an indisputable place in music history.