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Sylvia Robinson, Who Helped Make 'Rapper's Delight,' Has Died

A press photo of Sylvia Robinson from around 1992. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sylvia Robinson, who died Thursday morning in a New Jersey hospital, built the very first rap label. She was 75 years old and reportedly suffered congestive heart failure.

Robinson was not a rapper herself — she was a hit singer. In 1957 she had Billboard-charting single called "Love Is Strange," a duet with ace guitarist Mickey Baker. The song has been used in movies from Dirty Dancing to Mermaids to Casino.

But after "Love Is Strange" the Harlem-born musician moved to New Jersey with her husband to raise their children. Sylvia and Joe Robinson were ambitious. They built a nightclub favored by boxers and Motown stars, and a recording studio where Robinson began writing songs for other artists. Al Green rejected one because he found it too sexy. So Robinson sang "Pillow Talk" herself.

"Pillow Talk" hit Number 1 on Billboard's black singles chart in 1973 and ushered in a wave of music by black woman about sexual self confidence. But legal and financial problems almost bankrupted the couple before Sylvia Robinson attended a birthday party at a club.

"I saw this DJ playing music and saying things to the kids," she said in a VH1 documentary about the history of hip-hop. "They would answer him back, and I say, 'That's a great idea."

At the time, the conventional music industry wisdom was that the live energy of rap was impossible to capture on vinyl. Nevertheless, one hot August night in 1979 Robinson made her son Joey drive her around Englewood, New Jersey, looking for rappers.

He told NPR in 2000 that he took his mother to a pizza place and introduced her to Henry Jackson. "He closed the pizza parlor down," said Joey Robinson about the man who would become Big Bank Hank. "He's got all this dough on him. He weighs about 300 to 400 pounds at the time. And he jumps in the back of my Oldsmobile and starts rapping."

The Robinsons kept driving around, people kept hopping into the car and The Sugarhill Gang was born.

None of the rappers had ever worked together before. In the studio, Sylvia Robinson cued each one by pointing at them, and they recorded "Rapper's Delight" in one uninterrupted 14-minute take. Robinson personally mailed the single to radio stations and badgered them to play it. As Sugar Hill legend has it, tens of thousands of orders soon poured in for the world's first commercial rap single.

"'Rapper's Delight' was a monumental song. It introduced the world to rap and rhyming," says Grandmaster Caz, of the early rap group The Cold Crush Brothers. In 2004 he told NPR that many New York rappers felt the single misrepresented the scene. "They weren't real emcees," he said. "[They were] a group put together to showcase the music going on."

No one could say that about 1982's "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Sylvia Robinson produced the seminal socially-conscious rap song.

Robinson fought with her musicians. She wound up in vitriolic lawsuits with many of them, a magazine that accused her of "jerking" it and other record labels. She sold Sugar Hill in 1994. The original studio burned down eight years later.

But none of the rancor overshadows Robinson's singularity — as a female record producer and the visionary who put rap on the map.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Musician and producer Sylvia Robinson died today. She was 75 years old and reportedly suffered congestive heart failure. Some may remember Robinson as one-half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia. She was also a pioneering producer who played a key role in bringing hip-hop to a general audience.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance of the woman behind Sugar Hill Records.

NEDA ULABY: Sylvia Robinson was not a rapper herself, but in 1957, she became a star for this sultry duet with Mickey Baker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS STRANGE")

SYLVIA AND MICKEY: (Singing) Love, love is strange.

ULABY: But after "Love is Strange" hit the charts, the Harlem-born musician moved to New Jersey with her husband to raise their children. Sylvia and Joe Robinson were ambitious. They built a nightclub favored by boxers and Motown stars and a recording studio where Sylvia Robinson began writing songs for other artists.

Al Green rejected one because he found it too sexy, so Robinson sang it herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PILLOW TALK")

SYLVIA ROBINSON: (Singing) Oh, I don't wanna see you be no fool. What I'm teaching you tonight, boy, you never learn in school.

ULABY: "Pillow Talk" hit number one on Billboard's black singles charts in 1973 and ushered in a wave of music by black women about sexual self-confidence. But legal and financial problems almost bankrupted the couple before Sylvia Robinson attended a birthday party at a club.

ROBINSON: And I saw this DJ playing music and he was saying things to the kids and they would answer him back and I said, oh my God, that's a great idea.

ULABY: That's Robinson in a VH1 documentary about the history of hip-hop. At the time, the conventional music industry wisdom was that the live energy of rap was impossible to trap on vinyl. Nevertheless, one hot August night in 1979, Sylvia Robinson made her son Joey drive her around Englewood, New Jersey, looking for rappers.

He told NPR in 2000, they went to a pizza place and met Henry Jackson, who became Big Bank Hank.

JOEY ROBINSON: He's got all this dough on him. He weighed about 350 to 400 pounds at the time and he jumps in the back of my '98 Oldsmobile and starts rapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

BIG BANK HANK: (Singing) Well, I'm imp the dimp, the ladies' pimp. The women fight for my delight, but I'm the grand master with the three MCs...

ULABY: They kept driving around. People kept hopping into the car and the Sugar Hill Gang was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

BANK HANK: (Singing) Everybody, yo, hotel, motel. What you gonna do today? Say what?

ULABY: None of them had ever worked together before. In the studio, producer Sylvia Robinson cued each one by pointing at them and recorded the single in one uninterrupted 14 minute take. Robinson personally mailed the single to radio stations and badgered them to play it.

As Sugar Hill legend has it, tens of thousands of orders soon poured in for the world's first commercial rap single.

GRANDMASTER CAZ: "Rapper's Delight" was a monumental song. It introduced the world to rap and rhyme and...

ULABY: That's MC Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. But he told NPR in 2004, a lot of New York rappers felt the single misrepresented the scene.

CAZ: They weren't real MCs. They was just guys out of nowhere that, like, a group put together to showcase this new music that was going on.

ULABY: No one could say that about 1982's "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The seminal, socially conscious rap was produced by Sylvia Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

ULABY: Robinson fought with the musicians and wound up in vitriolic lawsuits, but none of the rancor overshadowed Sylvia Robinson's singularity as a female record producer and a visionary who put rap on the map.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

FLASH AND FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far because a man with a tow truck repossessed my car. Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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