Sylvia Robinson

Englewood's Sylvia Robinson|also recorded 'Love Is Strange'

Sylvia Robinson of Englewood, a music executive who lit the fuse that ignited the popularity of hip-hop, died Thursday morning at Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in Secaucus. She was 76.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her publicist, Greg Walker.

Mrs. Robinson and her husband, Joseph Robinson Sr., founded Sugar Hill Records in Englewood in the 1970s. It was Mrs. Robinson  half of the 1950s rhythm-and-blues duo Mickey & Sylvia  who became intrigued by the rapping she heard in June 1979 at a party at a Manhattan club.

In a Vanity Fair interview six years ago she recalled how the DJ tossed in his own catchphrases and rhymes while spinning R&B tunes. The crowd went wild.

"I saw him talking to the kids and saw how they'd answer back," she said.

Back in Englewood, she discovered three young men who called themselves Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee, and tasked them with improvising over a rhythm track.

Mrs. Robinson christened them the Sugar Hill Gang. Their 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" topped out at No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 34 on the Billboard pop charts and is regarded as the first commercially viable rap single.

More successes for the Robinsons' label would follow, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," a brutal take on ghetto life. The 1982 single was lauded for its social awareness.

A family friend, Daecq Bennett, an Englewood-based recording executive and a son of singer Tony Bennett, said Thursday that Mrs. Robinson and her husband, who died in 2000, "were pretty much responsible for a whole aspect of the current music industry."

"I don't think there are too many in the music industry who can claim that," Bennett added.

Mrs. Robinson's nickname  "the mother of hip-hop"  reflected her influence.

Sylvia Vanterpoolcq was born in New York City and made her recording debut while attending Washington Irving High School. The sultry-voiced singer, initially billed as Little Sylvia, teamed with her guitar teacher, McHouston Baker, as Mickey & Sylvia. Their 1957 single "Love Is Strange" reached the top of the R&B charts.

Billed as Sylvia, Mrs. Robinson had another R&B chart-topper, "Pillow Talk," as a solo artist in 1973.

Mrs. Robinson and her husband originally operated their label as All Platinum Records. The label closed in 1986, and the West Street building housing the studio where the Sugar Hill Gang recorded the groundbreaking "Rapper's Delight" was destroyed by fire in 2002.

Mrs. Robinson is survived by her sons, Joey and Leland of Tenafly and Rhondo cq of Englewood; two sisters, a brother, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The funeral will be Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Community Baptist Church, Englewood, with burial in George Washington Memorial Park, Paramus. Arrangements are by Volk Leber Funeral Home, Teaneck.

E-mail: levin@northjersey.com
Published in The Record on Sept. 30, 2011