There was a time when hip hop music had no presence on Top 40 radio. Today, that’s hard to imagine with rappers Drake, Cardi B and numerous others in steady rotation. Their songs reach millions of listeners through the airwaves, helping them retain and establish fans thanks to the frequency at which they are heard.
Consider for a moment that you or someone you know are a regular part of a station’s daily audience. And let us assume the reason you listen so often is to hear them play your favorite song by your favorite hip hop artist. How many times do you thank “Mother of Hip Hop,” Sylvia Robinson for that?
There is no punishment involved if you don’t. However, with awareness comes opportunity. It would be cool and incredibly respectful if even briefly we celebrated Robinson for her contribution. You may be in your car with the speakers turned up loud or tucked away with a radio device or headphones on not knowing Robinson has touched your life.
Sylvia Robinson produced “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang, the first hip hop record to reach and achieve success via Top 40 radio. A singer and songwriter from Harlem, she was a notable recording artist in her own right. Known famously and simply as Sylvia, the success of her 1973 classic, “Pillow Talk,” would change hip hop forever.
During the era of Robinson’s breakout hit, Bronx DJ Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, is credited with the creation of hip-hop. His ’73 “Back to School Jam” at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. sparked a social and audible revolution soldiered by the youth and music makers of their community. Using two turntables and a pair of the same record, the innovative Herc would systematically play only the breaks of songs for people to dance to. These voiceless sound stances encouraged the poetically gifted to grab microphones and rhyme over those breaks.
According to legend, Robinson was introduced to rapping while attending a party with her son. Inspired, she recruited local rappers Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee to record a hip hop record for her and her husband’s imprint Sugar Hill Records.
Robinson, controversially, used the baseline from Chic’s smash hit “Good Times” as their Herc-style break loop. With rhymes of their own and some borrowed from battle pioneer Grand Master Caz, aka Casanova Fly, Hank, Gee and Mike followed Robinson’s structured recording directions to create “Rapper’s Delight.” Dubbed the Sugar Hill Gang, their 1979 jam was an immediate success on Top 40 radio and introduced hip hop to casual radio audiences.
Much to Robinson’s “Delight,” the Sugar Hill hit is now a national treasure. It’s listed among Rolling Stone Magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” NPR’s 100 most important songs of the 20th century, and it sits at #2 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs.” In 2011, the United States Library of Congress preserved “Rapper’s Delight” in the National Recording Registry.
From here, Robinson’s historic Sugar got sweeter. Her Records introduced an esteemed list of hip hop pioneers and icons. Among their acts was Funky 4 + 1, the first hip hop group to have a woman rapper, MC Sha-Rock; the first all-woman hip hop group, The Sequence, comprised of Angie B, Cheryl the Pearl, and Blondie; and The Treacherous Three, comprised Kool Moe Dee (“Wild Wild West”), Spoonie G (“Get Off My Tip”)–who was replaced by Special K (“I Got a Man,” “I’m Not Havin’ It”), and LA Sunshine.
Another of Robinson’s acts was the legendary Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: DJ Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Keef Cowboy, The Kidd Creole, Rahiem, and Mr. Ness/Scorpio. Having already made names for themselves regionally, she signed the group to Sugar Hill Records in 1980. In 1982, they released megahit and all-time great social anthem “The Message.” Also listed on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest” list and ranked #5 by VH1, it received preservation by the National Recording Registry in 2002. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Thankfully, Robinson lived long enough to witness this prestigious accolade while claiming her own.
In 2000, Robinson received the Pioneer Award at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Award Gala. The “Mother of Hip Hop” died September 29, 2011 due to congestive heart failure.
Hip hop is alive and well on the radio, and it didn’t get there on its own. So if you’re listening to your favorite rapper perform your favorite hip hop song on a Top 40 station, when it ends turn down your speakers or remove your headphones. Use that moment of silence to be cool and incredibly respectful by simply saying, “Thank you, Sylvia Robinson.”
As part of NMAAM’s month-long celebration of hip hop, we’ve recently launched our Hip Hop Scholars platform to chronicle the genre’s past, present, and future with specially-curated content, playlists, exclusive merchandise, and more.
–Mr. Joe Walker