There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Sylvia Robinson, but you most certainly are aware of the art form she helped deliver to the world: rap. Sadly, Robinson has died at the age of 75.
As legend goes, Robinson, a musician, producer and owner of a small record label at the time, was in a Harlem club one night in the late 70s and heard a DJ named Lovebug Starski conversing, or rapping, with the crowd in rhymes to the beat of the music he was playing. It was then that she took note of the potential for something magical and assembled some young, unknown rappers in a studio a few nights later — the guys who would later go on to become known as The Sugarhill Gang, According to a 2000 NPR story, they recorded “Rapper’s Delight” that night.
The story goes that Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee met Sylvia Robinson on a Friday and recorded “Rapper’s Delight” the following Monday in just one take.
The “Rapper’s Delight” 12-inch was released in September 1979. It was 15 minutes long, and yet black radio started playing it — so much so that Sugarhill Gang recorded a seven-minute version for pop stations and introduced the black neighborhood sound of the 1970s to white listeners.
“When it came out, nothing was the same afterwards,” writer Harry Allen says. “It made everything else possible. I was speaking to my good friend Chuck D, of Public Enemy, and when he first heard that there were going to be rap records, his thing was, ‘How are you going to put three hours on a record?’ Because that’s the way MCs used to rhyme. They’d just rhyme and rhyme and rhyme for hours.”
“‘Rapper’s Delight’ was kind of like the thing that said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ And then everyone else said, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It kind of made it palpable. And by making it palpable, it made hip-hop as a commercial medium possible.”
“Rapper’s Delight” went on to sell over 8 million records. Robinson later signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and was the producer of their breakout song, “The Message,” in 1982. Robinson suffered from congestive heart failure in recent months and passed yesterday at a hospital in New Jersey. She was a true pioneer in every since of the word.
Chuck D’s words are sad, but largely true. To think that she was the driving force behind getting it all started…
And “The Message”…
What an influential life. R.I.P. Miss Sylvia, and thank you for your contributions while you were here.