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8th Wonder

September 30, 2011

A serious loss in the music world this week with the passing of Sylvia Robinson, who not only recorded “Love Is Strange” (as Mickey & Sylvia) and the awesome song “Pillow Talk” (as herself) but, far more significantly, co-founded Sugar Hill Records with her husband, and things were never the same.

The Robinsons formed the All Platinum record company in 1968, and Sylvia became one of the few female record producers at the time. She wrote and produced hits such as Love On a Two-Way Street (1970) for the Moments and Shame, Shame, Shame (1975) for Shirley and Company. The company’s biggest hit was Pillow Talk, written and performed by Sylvia. After the song had been turned down as too risque by the soul star Al Green, Sylvia recorded the disco track in 1973. Her sighs and gasps anticipated by two years the full-scale eroticism of Donna Summer’s global hit Love to Love You Baby. Pillow Talk reached No 3 in the US and No 14 in the UK in 1973.

In 1979 the company was thrown a lifeline. Sylvia was alerted by her teenage son Joey to the new sounds developing in the Bronx. “All of a sudden, a voice said to me, if you put a concept like that on wax you’ll be out of all that trouble you’re in,” she said. Accounts differ as to where this eureka moment occurred. One is that she attended a party where three young men were rapping though a microphone. Another is that she heard one of the trio rapping in a pizza shop where he worked. A third is that her son brought a schoolfriend home to rap for her. Whichever is the case, Sylvia took the three youths (known as Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee) into the studio, naming them the Sugarhill Gang.

The resulting track, Rapper’s Delight, was soon selling 50,000 copies a day. It became a top 40 hit in the US and reached No 3 in the UK. The single launched the Robinsons’ Sugar Hill Records label and Sylvia became a leading figure in the rapid proliferation of hip-hop music worldwide. In addition to supervising the studio recordings, Sylvia wrote lyrics and found existing records whose rhythms could be adapted to support the vocalising of her young hip-hop stars. Occasionally, this caused copyright problems. While early pressings of Rapper’s Delight were credited to Sylvia and the Gang, later versions listed Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, upon whose Good Times the backing track of Rapper’s Delight had been based.

This lady was a true pioneer and made some of the most significant music in my lifetime. “8th Wonder” was the very first hip hop record I ever purchased (as well as one of the rare things that Robert Christgau got woefully wrong), and I still have that 12″ piece of vinyl. May she rest in peace.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 3:48 pm

    I had no idea she was the founder of Sugarhill records! Christgau’s review is hilarious, I bet he beats himself up over that from time to time. R.I.P. Sylvia.

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