Although Robinson, who was born Sylvia Vanterpool in New York City, had hits of her own as a recording artist — including the infectious "Love is Strange," which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004, and the seductive "Pillow Talk" — she’s best known as the producer of the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight," the first hip-hop hit single.
It was Robinson who put together the Sugarhill Gang, and whose Sugar Hill Records, run with her husband Joe, released the landmark disc. "Rapper’s Delight," which was co-written by Sylvia Robinson, peaked at No. 34, but that chart position doesn’t begin to measure the record’s impact. It was a shot heard ’round the world — the beginning of a revolution that would transform popular music.
Making "Rapper’s Delight" was a gutsy thing for a businesswoman to do. There was little precedent for recorded rap music, and no way to know if the audience that attended hip-hop parties would be interested in buying a single. But a trip to the New York disco Harlem World gave her a glimpse of the future — and convinced her to put her money and muscle behind the new form.
"As I was sitting there, the deejay was playing music and talking over the music, and the kids were going crazy," Robinson told The Star-Ledger in 1997. "All of a sudden, something said to me, ‘Put something like that on a record, and it will be the biggest thing.’ I didn’t even know you called it rap."
Robinson signed three local Jersey emcees and quickly cut "Rapper’s Delight." The tone of the song — like most of the material that Sugar Hill would put out — was upbeat, playful, even giddy. Robinson’s rappers bragged, but did not threaten.
"She was really good on the artistic level," said the Sugarhill Gang’s Michael "Wonder Mike" Wright, "coming up with material and shaping lyrics and melodies into a song, not just a piece of music that’s five minutes long."
After the success of "Rapper’s Delight," the Robinsons built Sugar Hill Records into the premiere hip-hop imprint of the early ’80s. The roster included many of the budding movement’s biggest names: Funky Four Plus One, the Treacherous Three, the West Street Mob.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five put out "The Message" — the first successful rap disc that foregrounded social problems — through Sugar Hill Records. Robinson co-produced the moody recording, which is now recognized as one of the most important in the history of hip-hop.
The success with Sugar Hill Records was the culmination of a long career in the entertainment industry — scouting for acts, searching for new sounds, and daring to set up her own studios and labels. First recording as Little Sylvia in the 1950s, she joined forces with Kentucky singer McHouston Baker, who taught her how to play the guitar. "Love is Strange," the biggest Mickey & Sylvia hit, topped the R&B charts in 1957.
The single shared many of the qualities of her Sugar Hill releases — it was immediate, sexy, raw, built around a catchy riff and vocal performances that radiated personality. The song would be re-recorded by Peaches & Herb, Buck Owens, and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and prominently sampled by rapper B.o.B.
With her husband Joe, whom she married in 1964, she founded All Platinum Records in Englewood in 1968. Five years later, she recorded and released the racy "Pillow Talk," another R&B No. 1, on their Vibration imprint.