Hip-hop, hibbit to the hibbit to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop …
The moment this strange incantation bubbled up through urban airwaves in October 1979, the genie was out of the bottle. This was the vocal lead-in to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a 12-inch single that became a freakish commercial phenomenon within weeks of its release on a then unknown independent label, Sugar Hill Records. Its peak sales of more than 50,000 copies per day would have been impressive under any circumstances, but there was a greater significance to this 15-minute-long monster hit: it was the first full-fledged rap record, and as such the catalyst for what would arguably become the cultural revolution of our times. Rock creationists can debate long and hard about which records heralded the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s; recorded hip-hop began with a stark and solitary statement: “Rapper’s Delight.”
“Sugar Hill Medley”
Original Sugar Hill Rhythm Section
Rapper’s Delight / The Message / White Lines
((( jam )))
— The Original Sugar Hill Rhythm Section
1976 — Wood Brass & Steel
When you “Google” the band Wood Brass & Steel, you’ll find it described as a long-lost “disco group.” Disco group? What is a Disco group? What is Disco? Like any attempt to place a band in one specific (genre) box, calling Wood Brass & Steel a “Disco” band misrepresents the reality of the group of influentialt released one 1976 LP before disappearing. That self-titled album, released on the Turbo label, spawned a pair of minor hits, “Always There,” a Ronnie Laws cover that did well in the U.K., and “Funkanova” (an underground disco classic with jazz leanings that remained a favorite with clubbers decades later). The anchor of the group, bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald, would later become members of the Sugarhill studio band. Other members of Wood Brass & Steel included keyboardist Hubert Powell, reeds player Otha Stokes, trumpet player Randy Bost, guitarist Barton Campbell, and drummer Harold Sargent.
It Started in Connecticut
Harold Sargent — As one of the the drummers on the debut album by funk group the Skull Snaps, his intro beat to the 1973 song “It’s a New Day” would become one of the most sampled in hip-hop. Later, Sargent would actively cede his spot in the highly regarded group Wood, Brass & Steel, which also featured guitarist Skip McDonald and bassist Doug Wimbish, to Keith LeBlanc, essentially solidifying the lineup of the famous Sugarhill Records rhythm section.
The Artists Collective (West Hartford, Connecticut)
On The Other Side Of The George Washington Bridge.
McLean was born in New York City. His father, John Sr., played guitar in Tiny Bradshaw‘s orchestra. After his father’s death in 1939, Jackie’s musical education was continued by his godfather, his record-store-owning stepfather, and several noted teachers. He also received informal tutoring from neighbors Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. During high school McLean played in a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins, and Andy Kirk, Jr. (the saxophonist son of Andy Kirk).
Along with Rollins, McLean played on Miles Davis‘ Dig album, when he was 20 years old. As a young man he also recorded with Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus, George Wallington, and as a member of Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers. McLean joined Blakey after reportedly being punched by Mingus. Fearing for his life, McLean pulled out a knife and contemplated using it against Mingus in self-defense, but later stated that he was grateful that he had not stabbed the bassist.
McLean recorded with dozens of musicians and had a gift for spotting talent. Saxophonist Tina Brooks, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, pianist Larry Willis, trumpeter Bill Hardman, and tubist Ray Draper were among those who benefited from McLean’s support in the 1950s and 1960s. Drummers such as Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, Michael Carvin, and Carl Allen gained important early experience with McLean.
Jackie McLean’s Artists Collective (Hartford, Connecticut)
1976 — Who You Callin’ Disco?
WKRP (In Cincinatti)
The Love Boat (TV)
1977 — Parliament-Funkadelic
Live P-Funk Earth Tour
Saturday Night Fever
Bee Gees (Miami / Criteria / Tom Dowd)
1978 — Definition of Dance
Chic (Nile Rodgers)
Rick James, “Bitch” (Dave Chappelle)
vs. Ron Carter, “Distinguished Gentleman”
Little Annie — “Strange Love”
Songs From The Coal Mine Canary
Max’s Kansas City — The nightclub and restaurant at 213 Park Avenue South in New York City, became a popular gathering spot for musicians, poets, artists and politicians in the 1960s and 1970s. It was opened by Mickey Ruskin (1933–1983) in December 1965 and closed in 1981.
1979 — Original Sugar Hill Rhythm Section
Rapper’s Delight (In The Beginning)
Joe & Sylvia Robinson
In 1980, The New York Times called the Original Sugar Hill Rhythm Section, “The World’s Finest.”
Max’s Kansas City
Fab 5 Freddie
The Sugar Hill House Band is the World’s finest rhythm section.”
LITTLE AXE — The Entertainers (Doo Wop), Wood Brass & Steel, Sugar Hill Records (House Band), ON-U Sound, TACK>>HEAD, African Head Charge, Mark Stewart, Style Scott, Real World Records, Daby Touré .
LIVING COLOUR — Wood Brass & Steel, Rose Royce, Musique, Sugar Hill Records (House Band), Afrika Bambaataa, James Brown, Jan Hammer, Miami Vice, Artists United Against Apartheid, TACK>>HEAD, ON-U Sound, Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Annie Lennox, Seal, Depeche Mode, Michael Hutchence, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Lauryn Hill, Tarja Turunen.
TACK>>HEAD — Wood Brass & Steel, Sugar Hill Records (House Band), ON-U Sound, The Cure, Stone Roses, Bomb The Bass, Sussan Deyhim, Jello Biafra.
Rainy Night In Santa Monica. Sting, to get out of the rain, walks into a club. Vinx is onstage. At the first break, Sting approaches Vinx, and invites him to join the Police on their first World Tour. Also: CHOPS HORNS (SUGAR HILL RECORDS)
Melle Mel (NOT) Grandmaster Flash
A song by The Furious Five, not Grandmaster Flash as usually credited. It was released as a single by Sugar Hill Records on July 1, 1982, and was later featured on the group’s first studio album, The Message.
— An early (first) prominent hip hop song to provide a social commentary. The song’s lyrics describe the stress of inner-city poverty. In the final verses it is described how a child born in the ghetto without perspective in life is lured away into crime, for which he is jailed until he commits suicide in his cell. The song ends with a brief skit in which the band members are arrested for no clear reason
Melle Mel and The Furious Five
“White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” is a rap delivered by Melle Mel, a 12″ single released by Sugar Hill Records in 1983. The song, which warns against the dangers of cocaine, addiction, and drug dealing, is one of Melle Mel’s signature tracks. The bassline is Sugar Hill bassist Doug Wimbish covering “Cavern,” a single by New York City band Liquid Liquid.
((( song )))
The World Is A Ghetto
Sophisticated In Black, Up In Harlem, A Renaissance …
1973 — “Ohio/Machine Gun”
1959 — Ohio Players
Skip McDonald “Stone Cold Ohio” (Dayton)
((( song )))
>>>> Hip Hop Matters (cont’d)
“Rap.” “Hip-hop” to adepts. A South Bronx music built on live performance, centered in clubs and parties, and, in the beginning, doggedly resistant to the trade winds of mainstream America.
By 1979 hip-hop had, on a local scale, already developed both a loyal audience and a star system, dating back to the mid-70s. “Rapper’s Delight” was thus a tardy arrival on the scene. And it would take a few more years before hip-hop would transform American culture: in 1979 jaded opinion-makers shrugged off the Sugarhill Gang as novelty merchants; the music was generally mocked, maligned, misunderstood. (Rap music—isn’t that an oxymoron?) Though “Rapper’s Delight” sold millions of copies and went to No. 4 on the Billboard R&B charts, it barely grazed the less inclusive pop charts of its day, peaking at just No. 36 in January 1980.
Sitting atop the pop charts in 1979 was Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” a glutinous hymn to one of the great secretarial intoxicants. Black music was hardly in great shape either. Having begun the 1970s with a bang of Afro-conscious funk and mean-streets social conscience, soul music ended the decade with a disco whimper. Against that grim backdrop, “Rapper’s Delight” was a futuristic re-assertion of black pride, combining as it did the culture’s oral traditions with its eternal drive to modernism—even if it was made for $750 by a cobbled-together group akin to the Monkees or ‘NSync and by a producer, Sylvia Robinson, who knew next to nothing about “rap,” “hip-hop,” or whatever they called it.
It could be said that “Rapper’s Delight” owed its success to all the wrong people using all the wrong methods. In the South Bronx, the Sugarhill Gang were regarded as underqualified ambassadors for a movement fully evolved and happily autonomous. “It’s like somebody discovering the lost world of Atlantis and thinking it just got there,” says Grandmaster Caz, one of the legendary D.J.’s of hip-hop’s pre-vinyl history. “It was over there all along, and no one paid it any mind.”
Sylvia Robinson, an intermittently successful performer, songwriter, producer, and label owner, has been a remarkable and recurring presence over four decades of black music. But as the sun came up on 1979, her career appeared to be in terminal decline. All Platinum, the New Jersey-based group of record labels she co-owned with her husband, Joe, was in the process of going belly-up, thanks in part to a litigious falling-out with its distributor, PolyGram. There were creative problems, too: in its mid-70s heyday, All Platinum had had a run of modest, novelty-tinged hits, but, as so often happens in the music industry, the hot streak had cooled all too quickly. Fortunately, Sylvia, at the age of 43, was about to hear a new kind of sound that would ensure her future.
One evening in late June 1979, she found herself attending a party in Manhattan, 30 minutes from her home in Englewood, New Jersey, at an uptown club named Harlem World. Sylvia Robinson is now retired from the music game, but she will never forget the sights and sounds that assailed her senses when she took her seat in the club’s balcony. A D.J. called Lovebug Starski was spinning R&B hits for an appreciative crowd, whom he whipped into a frenzy by embellishing the music with his own rhymes, catchphrases, exhortations. Some called it “rapping.”
“I saw him talking to the kids and saw how they’d answer back,” says Robinson today. She is holding court in the leather booth of an Englewood bar-restaurant, dressed in a Golden Girls orange velour sweat suit, with her hair processed in loose curls. Even as a soft- spoken 69-year-old, Sylvia retains something of the imperious air for which she was once renowned; she doesn’t like answering questions, and she may not have the sharpest recollection of her career’s darker moments, but memories of an upbeat event such as Lovebug Starski’s performance will animate her. “He would say something every now and then, like ‘Throw your hands in the air,’ and they’d do it. If he’d said, ‘Jump in the river,’ they’d have done it.” Inspiration struck. “A spirit said to me, ‘Put a concept like that on a record and it will be the biggest thing you ever had.’”
The music business to which Sylvia Robinson had paid her dues was a pre-corporate culture that bore little resemblance to the multi-national profit center we know today, an industry dominated by a handful of global conglomerates. Forty, 50 years ago, the business was full of fly-by-night labels and shifty operators. Many of the record men who taught Sylvia Robinson her key lessons might as well have used the skull and crossbones as their logo. Still, she learned those lessons well, and in years to come would pass them on to many young pupils.
By the mid-1950s, Sylvia Vanderpool, then in her early 20s, thought she was bringing her music career to a close. Having made a few insignificant novelty records as a teenager under the name Little Sylvia, the Harlem-born singer decided to prepare for a more secure career in nursing. Then, on a Hudson River evening cruise, she met Joe Robinson, a forceful and charismatic navy veteran who persuaded her that music was where the money was at. The couple married shortly thereafter.
Joe Robinson, five years older than Sylvia, always seemed to have an eye for a new business opportunity, and he bought several bars in Harlem. It was Joe, says Sylvia, who suggested that she form a musical partnership with her guitar teacher, McHouston “Mickey” Baker, 11 years her senior. Thus was born the duo Mickey and Sylvia, whose pleasant-faced, sweet-voiced female half—decked out onstage in swishy outfits by showbiz designer Felix DeMasi—was quietly developing into a first-rate musician.
Mickey and Sylvia are best known for the 1957 smash “Love Is Strange.” According to Sylvia, the idea for the song came to her at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater, where she and Baker shared a bill with a number of other popular R&B acts, including Bo Diddley. It was with Mr. Diddley’s blessing, she says, that she refashioned one of his funky bits of stage shtick into a slinky slice of jukebox voodoo that became a million-selling pop hit and a future favorite on movie soundtracks (Dirty Dancing, Casino). Thanks to a combination of music-business shenanigans and youthful deference, the former Little Sylvia ended up sharing songwriting credit with Mickey Baker as well as with Bo Diddley’s wife, Ethel Smith. Other, more modest Mickey and Sylvia hits followed before the duo broke up around 1962. There was another significant line on her résumé: she had not only played guitar on and arranged the monster 1961 hit, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” for Ike and Tina Turner, but also, she says, produced the track, though she received no credit.
Joe and Sylvia Robinson decided to move across the Hudson River, where Sylvia switched her emphasis from music professional to hausfrau and mother of three young sons. She still found time to put in the occasional appearance at Blue Morocco, a stylish Bronx club to which Joe Robinson—who had several other clubs in Manhattan—attracted the black cultural elite of the 1960s, from the Temptations and the Four Tops to Muhammad Ali. According to friends, Joe’s social circle was wide enough to accommodate both Nicky Barnes, a Harlem drug kingpin, and Malcolm X. (Several years after the latter’s 1965 assassination, his widow, Betty Shabazz, allowed Joe to release some of Malcolm’s speeches in album form; according to a source well acquainted with both Robinson and Shabazz, she later complained that Joe ripped her off over royalty payments.)
Nineteen sixty-eight saw the Robinsons re-entering the music game as co-founders of All Platinum, a company whose name cannily reflected the record-distributor custom of paying independent labels in alphabetical order. Joe Robinson was, by all accounts, a dapper and streetwise individual who was unlikely to be daunted by the wild-frontier aspects of the pre-corporate music industry. He had an unvarnished manner, a pockmarked face, and a rather decent tailor. Those who worked alongside Joe still talk about the man’s “formidable” presence: his mighty six-foot-plus frame, his low, rasping voice, and his spellbinding yarns about the bad old days. Writer Nelson George, upon meeting the Robinsons in 1981, wrote that Sylvia’s “honeyed ways and fake sincerity” made for an interesting polarity with the “straightforward and rough” Joe, who railed volubly against the white music-business establishment.
Many of those who crossed Joe Robinson’s path credit him with a certain dark eminence. For a long time the word in the business was that Joe often carried a firearm. “You couldn’t be an owner of New York clubs without learning to look after yourself,” says Jerry Blavat, a prominent Philadelphia D.J. who befriended the Robinsons in the 50s. There have been suggestions that Joe was involved in the numbers racket during his Harlem days; one record-business contemporary says that Joe was known to be a major player in that arena and was believed to have Mafia ties.
If Joe Robinson was as lawless as his reputation suggests, he was a pretty smooth operator. No criminal record clings to Joe’s name other than a fine for corporate-tax evasion in the 1970s. Still, there was that aura. “I was clearly told that if Joe Robinson came in the room you stopped talking,” says Robert Ford, an R&B columnist for Billboard in the 70s. “Everyone knew that this was not a man to be messed with.”
In the early 1970s, Joe and Sylvia Robinson’s humble New Jersey enterprise was scoring modest hits on the American R&B charts and in Europe as well. All Platinum’s biggest success came with “Pillow Talk,” a song Sylvia had written in 1972 and unsuccessfully pitched to Al Green. A year later Sylvia decided to release her own demo recording of the song. The fidelity was low, but the feeling was right: “Pillow Talk“‘s gently rolling groove is lubricated by swelling strings; the 36-year-old Sylvia Robinson trills tender promises of satin-sheet ecstasies. Over an extended fade-out, the singer, billed simply as Sylvia, mutters the kind of intimacies that today can cost a man up to $2.99 per discreetly billed minute: “Uno momento poquito … Nice Daddy … Oh my God … ” Sylvia’s unplanned comeback was the biggest hit ever for both herself and All Platinum, reaching No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts and thrusting the female libido onto the national agenda.
But soon the hits stopped coming, and the disco wave left All Platinum beached. By decade’s end the company was filing for Chapter 11.
In his despair, Joe Robinson approached an acquaintance from the old days. Back in the mid-50s, Morris “Mo” Levy of the Bronx was the proprietor of the nightclub Birdland, New York’s fabled jazz shrine. He had also founded Roulette Records, where he recorded the likes of Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan as well as many pop acts. But Levy was not just a hipster patron of black music; burly and unburdened by couth, he was also an entrepreneur of high wattage and low scruple. Among other things, Levy had listed himself as writer of many Roulette tunes, most notably Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ giddy 1956 hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Levy’s other key role in music history was as manager of Alan Freed, the seminal rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. But when Freed was crucified in a 1960 payola scandal, Levy slipped away into the shadows.
It was widely known that Levy owed much of his power to some serious connections within the Sicilian business community, and in particular with New York’s Genovese family. (The Sopranos character Hesh is said to be modeled after Levy.) But to the desperate Joe Robinson of 1979, Levy was less a semi-veiled villain than a friendly fellow entrepreneur, a transgenerational survivor in the turbulent music game, a man who’d never had to toe the corporate line.
One Saturday afternoon that spring, Joe Robinson made the two-hour drive from Englewood up to Ghent, New York, where Levy was hosting the wedding of a business associate at his Sunnyview horse farm. Levy’s son, Adam, 16 at the time, later got from his father an account of Joe’s visit to their 1,500-acre spread. “[Joe] wanted to borrow some money from my father,” Adam Levy says, “because he was in financial difficulties. My dad reached into his pocket and gave him, like, $5,000 in cash and said, ‘Take care of what you have to take care of, with your house, your obligations, and come see me Monday and we’ll start a label together. It’ll be fun … ‘”
For her part, Sylvia Robinson says that she was horrified when she heard, soon after Sugar Hill’s founding, that her husband had taken Mo Levy’s investment. She claims she threatened to stop making records unless Joe Robinson bought Levy out. “I didn’t like him,” says Sylvia of Mo Levy. “He’s a devil. I’m being honest.” The Robinsons might ultimately get rid of Levy, but you could be sure that such separation would come at a heavy price.
The new label was without artistic mandate in June 1979, when Sylvia Robinson spotted the novel and untapped hip-hop culture in its natural habitat. Why not make the label’s very first release a rap tune? Between the Robinsons’ studio setup and Levy’s existing infrastructure, the financial risk would be negligible—and this rapping thing might be just the jump start they needed.
So who were these “rappers” anyway? And how did one go about signing them up? Back in 1979, rappers certainly didn’t have agents, bookers, managers—or if they did, such people were not listed in any Yellow Pages. For her part, Sylvia Robinson was not exactly attuned to the Bronx-centered hip-hop subculture, having moved to Jersey a decade and a half earlier. “I didn’t know no Bronx people,” Sylvia admits. “I was basically a country girl at this point.” (Her son Joey junior went to the same high school as Brooke Shields.) Yet Sylvia Robinson still knew a hit when she heard one, and after the Harlem World experience she was keen on catching this rap lightning in a bottle.
Recalls Joey Robinson Jr., “The next day my mother asked me, ‘Do you know anybody?’” Mom looking for a rapper? Joey junior was, he confesses, “not enthused” by the idea. Nonetheless, hip-hop had by now reached a few tendrils into the suburbs, and Joey junior did know “a gentleman called Casper,” the M.C. for a local club collective. “Casper had a tape. He loved the idea [of making a record], and my mother loved his voice,” says Joey. Sylvia confirms her positive reaction: “I thought, I’ve got a hit record!”
To lay the groundwork for the first Sugar Hill Records release, Sylvia Robinson went into her studio in August 1979 to provide a familiar backing track for her rapper, who was accustomed to performing over records. At her behest, the recently signed funk outfit Positive Force laid down a lengthy vamp on Chic’s current summer hit, “Good Times.” Sylvia herself played vibes.
Came the day appointed for Casper’s contribution at Sugar Hill Studios, he failed to show. After two or three days, Joey junior and his mother tracked him down early one Friday evening in front of a McDonald’s on Englewood’s Palisade Avenue. Casper’s father, a radio personality possessed of some insight into the business, had apparently told him that he should give the Robinsons a wide berth.
So Sylvia, her 17-year-old son, and his school friend Warren Moore climbed into Joey’s blue-green Oldsmobile 98 and pondered the setback. What happened next has become hip-hop’s equivalent of the discovery of Lana Turner at Schwab’s drugstore.
Joey Robinson Jr.: “Warren said, ‘I know this guy that works in the pizza parlor and he’s always rappin’.” So Joey swung the Olds round and parked across the street in front of the establishment in question, Crispy Crust Pizza (which still serves to this day). Warren went in and summoned his would-be rap contender, a bulky chap named Henry “Hank” Jackson, who abandoned his pizza duties and threw his 380-pound frame into the back of Joey’s car, dirty apron and all.
“Joey said, ‘Watch the springs,’” says Sylvia. “There was flour everywhere.”
Jackson was familiar with the rap scene through working as a bouncer at clubs such as Sparkle and Disco Fever in his native Bronx. He was also managing the Cold Crush Brothers, a popular club attraction whose tapes he’d rap along to at work. Hank had taken the pizza job only to pay off a $2,000 parental loan which had financed a sound-system upgrade for Cold Crush.
Introductions made, Jackson obliged the lady known locally as “Mrs. Rob” by rattling off some rhymes to a track she played on the car’s cassette deck. Hank may have been a manager, but, hey, he could do this—and why bring up the Cold Crush Brothers to confuse the issue?
Sylvia approved of Jackson. Next thing she knew, another of her son’s friends, name of Mark Green, approached the car. Green pointed to Jackson and said, “He’s all right, but my man’s vicious.” Green then waved his man over. Mr. Guy O’Brien, part of Jersey’s One on One crew, jumped into the Oldsmobile. Sure enough, he uncorked some great verbals. Sylvia thought, “Why not?”
Preposterous as it may sound, yet one more rapper offered his services at this curbside audition, a colleague of the now forgotten Casper’s named Mike Wright. With the Olds already full, this six-foot-six-inch hopeful—who had started rapping just one month earlier—rejoined the party chez Robinson, where his style on the mike initially failed to impress. Citing his asthma, he asked for and was allowed a retake. He nailed it. “I felt chills come all over my body,” says Sylvia. “I said, ‘The three of you are married.’” Each man signed a Sugar Hill contract, getting an advance that Robinson puts at around $1,500 per head. (This figure is greeted with mocking skepticism by several people familiar with the Sugar Hill modus—the label would never, they say, have handed over such a princely sum.)
The hastily hitched trio were told to show up the next Monday at the Robinsons’ studio. There could hardly be a less likely setting for the launch of a ferocious new urban art form: Sugar Hill Studios was far removed from even Englewood’s bright lights, sitting opposite a small public park with a modest kiddies’ playground. But it was here that Sylvia’s new charges were transformed into Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee, and given the cross-promotional name the Sugarhill Gang.
As befits any history-making pop breakthrough, from Elvis Presley’s inaugural sessions at Sun Records to the Ramones’ first LP, the recording of “Rapper’s Delight” was over in an evanescent blur. Better yet, there was a moment of panic in the control room as it all went down. “While Hank is rapping and I’m at the board, the phone rings,” says Sylvia Robinson. “It’s his boss from the pizza parlor, and he says, ‘If he isn’t here in 15 minutes he’s fired.’ You think I was gonna stop?” (Joe Robinson’s subsequent intercession helped Hank retain his dough-boy gig.)
Producing the session, Sylvia didn’t miss a beat as she pointed in turn to each of her three rappers, spontaneously cuing their verbal trade-offs. Somehow the three strangers, who hadn’t rehearsed together, jelled. According to Joey Robinson Jr., there was magic in the air. “When Wonder Mike said the line ‘America, we love you,’ we knew then and there that it was a special record—a miracle record.”
“Rapper’s Delight” went down in one take, plus a few minutes to patch up a couple of Mike’s lines. Great. Everyone was feeling good about this brand-new track. This 15-minute track.
According to Sylvia Robinson, she never even considered editing “Rapper’s Delight” down to a more digestible length, despite the obvious arguments. These began at the Robinsons’ home. “My husband said, ‘We can’t put out a record that long,’” says Sylvia. “I said, ‘What do you mean?! We’re independent people. I don’t care how long it is—we’re gonna put every word in it. We don’t have to go according to what the industry says.’” Sylvia maintains that her confidence in the disc was unwavering. “All the record needed was one play,” she says. “Once it had one play it was broken. That’s the kind of record it was.”
But where on earth was that one play going to come from? Even if programmers could handle the bizarre idea of performers’ talking instead of singing, they were faced with a record whose length would push four other singles from the playlist. Sylvia remembers “begging” a programmer at the city’s struggling WABC station for play, to no effect. Other New York stations were similarly resistant. It wasn’t until Jim Gates, a jock at WESL, in St. Louis, decided to pick up on “Rapper’s Delight” that Sylvia’s prophecy was proved right.
“An order for 5,000 records came in off a few plays,” says Sylvia. “It started getting played all over [the country]. We couldn’t press it fast enough—you had to order it and wait weeks for the next shipment.” Her memory of pressing more than 50,000 copies a day—enough to outperform even “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”—is borne out by J. B. Moore, then an ad-sales staffer at Billboard, who remembers how one Queens-based wholesaler mentioned that he alone was shipping 25,000 copies of “Rapper’s Delight” per day.
Only the fact that the Sugarhill Gang’s debut single was selling mainly through black mom-and-pop stores prevented it from registering higher on the industry charts. “That record kept little stores alive,” says Moore, who reckons that “Rapper’s Delight”—a 12-inch single that sold for $2.25 (as against 60 cents for a 7-inch single)—is probably, with adjustments for inflation, the highest-grossing single of all time. Cashbox would make the record No. 4 for the year 1980.
“Rapper’s Delight,” says Joey Robinson Jr., was becoming “an amazement situation.” He ditched college plans and joined the family business full-time.
With “Rapper’s Delight” simultaneously taking off in Europe, Sugar Hill splurged on a promo video for overseas markets. (Two years before the debut of MTV, American audiences were largely unfamiliar with this nascent marketing tool.) The clip reflected the record in all its incongruous glory: the three Sugarhill Gang members, filmed in action at an Englewood club, look as if they haven’t seen one another since their single recording session together. Master Gee, an eager little beaver in cardigan and turtleneck, is dwarfed by laconic giant Wonder Mike, wearing a beige V-neck sweater and gold chain. Neither one can compete with the supercharged Big Bank Hank: fresh from the pizza counter, with a sun hat jammed on his dome and a tiny T-shirt sheathing his extra-large girth, the sweetly sibilant ex-bouncer sells this number as if his life depended on it. Not even the hired crowd of disco-dancing extras can diminish the palpable energy that crackles around Sylvia Robinson’s ill-matched trailblazers.
By the time Sylvia Robinson made her journey of discovery to Harlem World, hip-hop had for several years been the central pillar of a vital and largely unmediated culture that also encompassed the urban arts of break dancing and graffiti writing. Although the dearth of recorded evidence renders contentious many landmarks in early hip-hop history, serious attempts to trace the form’s lineage invariably nominate one man as the genre’s paterfamilias: DJ Kool Herc, a Bronx youth who arrived from Jamaica in 1967 as Clive Campbell, 12-year-old music enthusiast. Herc says he began spinning records in the early 70s after abandoning the graffitic arts for fear of his disciplinarian Catholic father.
Inspired by the mobile reggae sound systems that rattled his native isle with their thunderous bass frequencies, DJ Kool Herc—a strapping lad nicknamed for his athletic prowess—set to D.J.-ing at Bronx parties, initially in the basement rec room of his own apartment building, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. (Fellow residents included the Dean brothers, now proprietors of the powerhouse rap label Ruff Ryders.) Herc acquired cult status for his ability to find the kind of unfashionable funk obscurities whose heavy rhythm breaks would incite a section of the audience to furious bouts of stylized dancing. These individuals came to be known as break-boys, or B-boys. In the early 80s the scene would be associated with tracksuits, Kangol hats, and floor spinning, but the originals preferred smart yet casual knitwear and upright, angular dances.
At some point in 1974 or ‘75, having already laid down the aesthetic foundations of hip-hop, Herc brought a key formal innovation to D.J.-ing. At the Heavelo, the West Bronx nightspot where he enjoyed weekly residency, Herc introduced the “merry-go-round.” The idea was simple: put two copies of the same record on parallel turntables and, by cross-fading skillfully between them, sustain those all-important rhythm breaks until the crowd couldn’t take it anymore. At his father’s pragmatic suggestion, Herc began soaking the labels off his records—other D.J.’s might steal his new technique, but at least they couldn’t copy his set.
Over in the East Bronx another D.J. star was on the rise. Former gang member Afrika Bambaataa (whose real name, often incorrectly reported as Kevin Donovan, remains a mystery to this day) had surrounded himself with a troupe called the Zulu Nation. By the mid-70s, Bambaataa was goading B-boys with eclectic fits of rhythmic inspiration: funk, Afro-beat, pop. Danceable rock tracks were a specialty, even if Billy Squier was the name on the label. “Anything goes” went the ethos—anything except the worn-out groove of disco. “Dances in the black and Latino communities change every three months,” Bambaataa explains. The music industry, he says, “was trying to keep the Hustle going three, four, five years.” Hip-hop demanded commitment. Sweat. This was a different kind of party, and it was advertised in the Bronx through homemade flyers handed out at McDonald’s and school playgrounds.
After Herc and Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash was the third great force in the development of hip-hop. By day he was an intense Bronx kid called Joseph Saddler, an electronics student who built his own D.J. gear from scratch; by night he was a funk-pumping turntable genius whose name is an homage to a Bruce Lee movie character.
It is here that certain landmarks in early hip-hop become as elusive as the ticklish question of who first used the term “hip-hop” in a party chant. Flash’s original partner, Mean Gene (Gene Livingston), had a younger brother named Theodore, a precocious talent who practiced relentlessly on Gene’s turntables. The self-styled Grandwizard Theodore, now 42, is thought by many to be the father of “scratching,” the now commonplace technique of audibly rotating a disc back and forth while another track plays. Grandmaster Flash, as intense as ever, claims scratching as his own invention. “I created the art form,” Flash says.
The single step that transformed hip-hop into a semblance of its current form was the advent of M.C.’s, the live-wire spielers who rivaled and ultimately superseded D.J.’s as the genre’s main attraction. Ever since Kool Herc began spicing up his sets with vocal interjections inspired by Jamaican “toasting,” D.J.’s had cajoled audiences with bouts of boisterous rhyming. In the mid-70s some D.J.’s employed specialized M.C.’s to expand the vocal component of hip-hop. Party chants grew into nursery rhymes and superhero tales; these grew into the complex and keenly observed urban folktales we now know as rap.
It is impossible to pinpoint the precise moment in hip-hop history when M.C. gained ascendancy over D.J. Grandmaster Flash cites the late Keith Cowboy, an M.C. in his Furious Five troupe, as the very first full-fledged rapper. Other M.C.’s, says Flash, “weren’t talking to the beat of music.… [Cowboy] was able to talk to the beat of this new kind of arrangement that was never seen before.” Others name Kool Herc sideman Coke La Roc as the M.C. who set the standard and inspired others to follow in his footsteps.
As hip-hop’s performance element grew, local entrepreneurs such as Richard Tee (owner of the Bronx’s T-Connection club) and the legendary Tape Master began to sell crudely labeled cassettes of live rap performances. Grandmaster Flash instructed his security to destroy any taping equipment found at his shows, but most had a laissez-faire attitude toward their profession. “I did it for fun,” avers Kool Herc. Any earnings, he says, were spent on more records and equipment. “Nobody came in and said, ‘You could take this to a global level—or a citywide level.’” Grandmaster Caz, a member of the Cold Crush Brothers (the crew that Big Bank Hank Jackson managed), says, “We were entertaining, but didn’t realize we were entertainers.”
Even on those occasions when local indie labels expressed interest in rap, the response was not always welcoming. Grandmaster Flash recalls how small-timers occasionally approached him at club dates with offers to put his act on vinyl. “I said, ‘Nobody will buy it. Nobody would want to buy a record when they can come to a party and see it.’” Afrika Bambaataa had a different reason for shying away from the public gaze: “We thought that [records] would be the demise of our parties.”
Not that the Bronx afforded “Rapper’s Delight” any great respect when the record strongly suggested that hip-hop might have mass appeal. As far as the pioneers of hip-hop were concerned, these Sugarhill suckers were nothing but yokels from the wrong side of the Hudson. “We said, ‘Who the hell is this, coming out with our stuff on records?’” recalls Afrika Bambaataa. Adds a rueful Grandmaster Flash, “There was so many more rhymers that were deeper … So much deeper … “
Flash now admits that he made a “huge error” in waiting so long to record. Whenever the key players of hip-hop’s “old school” look back on the pregnant moment when the Sugar Hill label blazed a trail for rap, there remains among them that nagging sense that it all went down the wrong way.
Haphazard though “Rapper’s Delight” may have been, there was to the record at least one element of cold calculation, and this is what will forever besmirch the name Sugarhill Gang in hip-hop lore.
After Hank Jackson dazzled Sylvia Robinson in the backseat of her son’s now famous Oldsmobile, he went in his own mind from bouncer and manager of the Cold Crush Brothers to potential superstar. Slight problem: he might be able to mimic rapping, but he could not write rhymes. So it was that freshly anointed Big Bank Hank effected what many view as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll swindles. He approached Cold Crush member Grandmaster Caz and asked if he might borrow his lyric book for a studio date in Jersey. Caz, to his ultimate regret, was happy to oblige. “I didn’t lend much credence to the thing at all,” says Caz. “I’m thinking, If somebody wants to use you, it can’t be that serious anyway.… They’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow as far as hip-hop or rhyming is concerned.
“We took what we did very seriously back then, and you couldn’t just call yourself an M.C. or a D.J.—you had to be it,” Caz continues. “You had to prove yourself—or somebody was gonna call you out.”
As he handed over his lyrics, Grandmaster Caz believed that Hank would surely hook the Cold Crush Brothers up with this new label. When Caz heard “Rapper’s Delight” a few months later, he couldn’t believe his ears. It wasn’t just that Hank was on the radio; it was the lyrics he was reciting: “I’m the C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A … ” Any true hip-hop fan knew that that was one of Caz’s rhymes! He had only abbreviated his name from Casanova to Caz at the muscular insistence of the Casanova Crew, Grandmaster Flash’s notoriously brusque security detail.
“I’m imp the dimp / The ladies’ pimp / Women fight for my delight,” boasted Hank. “That was Raheim’s line!” says Caz, referring to a fellow Cold Crush member. There was a riff about Lois Lane and Superman—Caz says he wrote that too. “The story that he told at the end? ‘Since I was six years old I knew never let an M.C. steal my rhyme’? He’s stealing a line about stealing a rhyme!,” Caz marvels. For his part, Big Bank Hank denies the accusation of plagiarism, declaring his innocence with wide eyes and knitted brow. He maintains that he and Caz were writing partners who freely swapped ideas. This notion is not supported by any one of the many prominent hip-hop figures interviewed for this story.
So familiar were Caz’s trademark couplets that he found himself explaining constantly to neighborhood well-wishers that, no, that was not him on the radio, and, no, he was not raking in serious coin off this record. Litigation did not seem a viable option. “I was an 18-year-old proud kid,” says Caz. “I got 110 rhymes, I don’t need that. And I didn’t know about lawyers, or that I could do anything about that—I just took it as a loss.”
When last interviewed, Caz was making his living supervising grade-school swimmers at the Harlem Y.M.C.A. “Over the years it became monstrous,” he says of the genre his words helped to shape. “But at the beginning I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ I didn’t realize the magnitude of it … ”
Just to heighten the aura of skulduggery that surrounded “Rapper’s Delight,” there was the small matter of the Chic hit that propelled the Sugarhill Gang toward fame and fortune. Sugar Hill’s house band had studiously reproduced Chic’s “Good Times” on the record, yet initial pressings credited only Sylvia Robinson and the Sugarhill Gang with authorship. As the maiden recording of a virgin genre, “Rapper’s Delight” was looking distinctly sullied.
Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote “Good Times” with his partner, the late Bernard Edwards, remembers the first time he heard “Rapper’s Delight,” at the Midtown discotheque Leviticus in September 1979. Rodgers was familiar with the burgeoning art of M.C.-ing, but like most people thought of it only as a live form. “When I heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ I thought the D.J. was doing it live.… Then I looked around and saw no D.J.—he was standing right in front of me.”
Rodgers and Edwards promptly set their lawyer Marty Itzler on Sugar Hill’s trail. The Robinsons appeared unmoved. “They just wanted to brazen it out, see what happened,” says Adam Levy. His father, however, “told them to give Chic a good deal, and do it quickly.” So happy were the two writers with Mo Levy’s intervention that they soon after presented him with a gold Rolex. The writing credit that appeared on subsequent copies of “Rapper’s Delight” (and which steamrolled the issue of lyrical authorship): Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers.
There was no deluge after “Rapper’s Delight”—just sporadic proof of the music’s commercial potential. In late 1979, Harlem M.C. Kurtis Blow scored the first of several rap hits on Mercury Records with the novelty song “Christmas Rappin’.” A year and a half later, crossover punk act Blondie scored a Top 10 hit with “Rapture,” a rap-based single released by Chrysalis—for most white audiences their first taste of hip-hop, however denatured. But most major record companies avoided rap, ceding ground to any black indie with half an ear to the street.
One early adopter was Enjoy Records, whose early-80s roster reads today like an old-school Hall of Fame: Spoonie Gee, Doug E. Fresh, the Treacherous Three (with Kool Moe Dee), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But Enjoy was a modest label equipped with only East Coast distribution. Sugar Hill, on the other hand, was shipping huge numbers of “Rapper’s Delight” into stores nationwide by dint of Mo Levy’s connection with a large independent distribution network. Several Enjoy acts switched their fealty to the powerful New Jersey outfit, which also offered a higher caliber of production. “We were trying to compete with chart artists like Cameo and Parliament,” says Joey junior. “Enjoy had the kind of raw sound that wouldn’t come into vogue until much, much later.”
After “Rapper’s Delight,” all Sugar Hill tracks featured a house band of well-drilled pros who had played on All Platinum’s records. Rappers were also taught performance skills by R&B veterans. With this Motown-like philosophy, Sugar Hill became the black imprint of the early 80s. Just as no other indie had the Robinsons’ distribution muscle, no other indie could match the musicality that Sylvia and her staff brought to the new form.
In 1980, Sugar Hill released a Sugarhill Gang cash-in album that fell somewhat short of “Rapper’s Delight” in terms of energy, though it featured slick arrangements and Big Bank Hank raps that everyone agrees he wrote himself. (One of the label’s own musicians derided the record as “a pile of garbage.”) But the Robinsons kept Sugar Hill at rap’s forefront by releasing a 1980 slate of 10 12-inch singles that included future hip-hop classics from Spoonie Gee and Funky 4 + 1, both acts having defected from Enjoy. The color of hip-hop was aquamarine—the tint that graced Sugar Hill’s by now ubiquitous record sleeves.
When yet another former Enjoy act, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, made the pilgrimage to Englewood in 1981, Sugar Hill appeared unassailable. Flash and his flamboyantly dressed, tightly rehearsed crew recorded five gold singles at Sugar Hill, thrusting hip-hop forward in quantum leaps. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981) was a dense and dazzling sound collage that has been described as the sole recorded embodiment of original hip-hop. “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (1982 and ‘83, respectively) delivered jolting hits of social realism over funk-Moderne grooves.
“The Message” would sell a million copies in something like a month. Even so, according to Sugar Hill’s house drummer, Keith LeBlanc, the gold and platinum discs hanging on the walls of the label’s offices were unofficial and not ratified by the music industry’s governing body, the R.I.A.A. “Joe didn’t want to pay them any money,” says LeBlanc. “He would say, ‘I don’t need anyone to tell me I’ve got a double platinum record—all I need to do is count the money.’”
In the rap community, meanwhile, there still lurked a suspicion of the powerhouse Sugar Hill label that went beyond the alleged theft of Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics. DJ Kool Herc, for one, was singularly unimpressed by the seemingly meager rewards that Sugar Hill acts were accruing from their labors. “We didn’t see the wealth on ‘em,” Herc says. “You got to show some of it! They were suckering them!” Rumors swirled about the label’s ad hoc way with royalty disbursements. “No one was making any money,” says Grandmaster Caz. Sugar Hill’s female partner, who denies all accusations of financial improprieties, acquired the nickname “Sylvia Rob-a-nigger.”
There was also the question of her allegedly rough-and-ready approach to artist relations. Says Afrika Bambaataa, “I was hearing stories.… Sugar Hill could be like, ‘We gonna make Flash hot now. If Flash gets too uppity it’s gonna be the Sugarhill Gang. If the Sugarhill Gang gets too uppity we gonna give it to Spoonie Gee … ‘”
“When Flash crashed his car they took it away from him!” insists Grandmaster Caz, whose story—though Joey junior says the label never leased cars for anyone—is seconded by Flash himself: “Yeah, Sylvia would lease the cars for everyone, and she would take them away if you didn’t follow instructions.… It wasn’t a business relationship. It was more personal than that. If you got the lady Sylvia mad—if you got the Queen mad—you would definitely be in lots of trouble.”
“The label was run like a home for wayward adolescents,” says a former associate of Spoonie Gee’s. The Robinsons’ reputation for toughness was such that Spoonie significantly enhanced his already solid street credibility when he managed to get out of his Sugar Hill contract.
Another artist who clashed with Joe and Sylvia Robinson was their house bass player, Doug Wimbish, who had composed and recorded, with Sugar Hill rapper Melle Mel, a track called “Vice” that appeared on the Miami Vice soundtrack album, a four-million-selling hit in 1985. When the record came out, the credited writer was Sylvia Robinson’s son Leland.
“She gave it to him as a graduation present or some shit like that,” says Wimbish, who had, up to that point, always maintained a friendly relationship with the Robinsons. Mindful of the rumors that Joe Robinson kept two pearl-handled revolvers in his desk drawer, Wimbish got himself a lawyer, and a gun. “I was terrified when it was going down. Word was out that Joe was gonna do me.” Fortunately, Sugar Hill was going through cash-flow problems at that time, and their desperate need for Miami Vice royalties led to a financial compromise with Wimbish.
One individual who was not phased by Sugar Hill’s improvisational approach to business ethics was Morris Levy. Adam Levy remembers that, as the label flourished, his father bemoaned the Robinsons’ “uncontrollable” spending. Then again, with Sugar Hill turning Mo’s minimal investment into a seemingly unstoppable profit gusher, no one was going to get too uptight about fiscal probity. Adam Levy recalls one telling incident involving his father and Joe Robinson: “They were in the Roulette offices, going through the latest Sugar Hill accounts statement, line by line. Joe pointed to one line and asked my father, ‘What’s this $300,000?’ My dad said, ‘Joe, that’s for all the records you took out the back door when I wasn’t looking.’ Quick as a flash, Joe says, ‘It wasn’t that much … ‘”
Neither partner took umbrage at this type of roughhouse accountancy, maintains Adam Levy. “They grooved on each other like that, Joe and my father. It was like a joke to them—there was no malice behind it.”
In 1983, even as it was riding high on its commercial dominance of a vibrant new musical form, Sugar Hill was rocked by a paradigm shift as dramatic as hip-hop itself, at least in terms of industry practice. One by one, three of the leading independent record labels—Chrysalis, Motown, and Arista—partnered up in distribution deals with the major labels. The implication for the Robinsons was that the cash flows of Sugar Hill’s independent distributors would be severely diminished by the loss of these three moneymakers, and that Sugar Hill might feel the squeeze. “We got nervous,” admits Joey Robinson Jr.
Joe Robinson flew out to Los Angeles in November 1983 hoping to strike a distribution deal with Capitol Records. Yet for all Sugar Hill’s primacy in the hip-hop market, no deal was offered. Perhaps Capitol had caught wind of an internal CBS Records memo on Sugar Hill that called the Robinsons’ operation the “Black Mafia” and derided their financial practices. Not surprisingly, CBS also passed on a deal.
One friend of Joe and Sylvia’s at the time was the Reverend Al Sharpton, who insists that the Robinsons’ bad reputation was undeserved. “I think one of the unfairnesses they had to sustain was that they were always accused of dealing with dubious characters,” says Sharpton. “In the music industry in the ’60s and ’70s, everybody you dealt with was considered a dubious character. It only became a scandal if blacks had to deal with them.”
In this, his darkest hour, Joe Robinson found the answer to his prayers at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. Lunching there, Robinson chanced upon an old New York acquaintance, a friend of Mo Levy’s: Sal Pisello, a doleful hulk who stood six feet three inches tall, was blind in one eye, and had a taste for Bijan suiting. He also had zero experience in the music game, though he may have been possessed of a complementary skill set: federal prosecutors would later allege he had ties to New York’s Gambino crime family. Pisello told Joe that he had connections at MCA (the media company that is now known as Vivendi Universal and that was then suspected of having its own Mob ties) and could get Sugar Hill a good deal there.
So it was that, as described in William Knoedelseder’s 1993 MCA exposé, Stiffed, Pisello brokered a seven-figure pressing-and-distribution deal between Sugar Hill and MCA Records. The hastily cut deal was made for reasons hastily cut deals usually are: in 1983, MCA Records was struggling and looking for quick fixes, and a brash new management team ignored the niceties of a background check before handing Joe and Sylvia Robinson a check for $2.2 million.
If corks popped in the Robinsons’ Englewood household the day the MCA deal was signed, Mo Levy was gladder still. The nominal songwriter and suspected Mafia front man sold his Sugar Hill stake back to the Robinsons for $1.5 million—which signified a profit of almost … $1.5 million.
Born as it was of murky circumstances, Sugar Hill’s relationship with MCA went on to outstrip any cautionary tale about the fate that can befall an indie label (particularly a black-owned label) that takes corporate coin. Soon after the deal was consummated, the New Jersey arrivistes found themselves hog-tied by corporate accounting that somehow put them in MCA’s debt and felt like the sleekest of rip-offs. “The whole thing was a terrible mistake,” reflects Joey Robinson Jr.
It didn’t help that Sylvia Robinson’s ear for hit records was letting her down badly. Even when Sugar Hill had been riding high, there was the nagging sense that the label was somewhat lacking in cultural awareness. Records such as “Check It Out,” by Wayne & Charlie (the Rapping Dummy), betrayed Sylvia’s enduring taste for tacky novelty. More telling was the label’s rejection of a spec video made for Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s 1983 hit “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” by a film student named Spike Lee and starring a young Laurence Fishburne. “White Lines” was probably Sugar Hill’s last great record.
Sugar Hill tried to persevere with its established roster and trusted methods, but a new hip-hop generation was on the rise, mutating the form in ways unexpected and bold. While Joe Robinson himself was declaring rap a “fad” in 1985, the new Def Jam label was signing acts such as Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J, the last artist a teenage Lothario out of Queens whose debut LP, Radio, became one of hip-hop’s first million-selling albums. Before signing with Def Jam, Cool J had sent nine demo tapes to Sugar Hill, all of which went unacknowledged.
There remains the question of whether the Robinsons, by associating so closely with a man of Morris Levy’s stripe, were complicit in their own downfall. The answer seemed pretty clear in March 1985, when the hard-up Sugar Hill was forced to hand over the valuable oldies catalogues of the Chess and Checker labels—acquired years before at a bargain price—to MCA as one condition of a corporate lifeline that included $1.7 million in debt forgiveness and $1.3 million in cash. “When you’re relying on one person to pay you, you’re at their mercy,” says Joey Robinson Jr., who believes that MCA had intended to asset-strip Sugar Hill from day one. If that is the case, the big company did everything right, making the Robinsons’ alleged “little robberies” (Afrika Bambaataa’s words) look like loose-change muggings. Less perturbed was Mo Levy, who with Sal Pisello’s reported assistance, received $1 million for his share of Chess and Checker, as against the $300,000 originally earmarked for him in Sugar Hill’s contract with MCA.
In November 1985, Sugar Hill brought an $80 million lawsuit against MCA, naming former savior Sal Pisello as part of a conspiracy to defraud the Robinsons’ label. Against all apparent logic, however, Joe Robinson kept Morris Levy’s name out of the suit against MCA. Not once did Joe blame his old pal for the label’s slow and painful demise. There was a small piece of testimony in a subsequent legal proceeding that hinted at the balance of power between Joe and Mo. On one occasion at Sugar Hill’s offices, it was said, an associate of Levy’s had called Joe Robinson a “nigger” to his face, without rebuke.
MCA countersued, accusing Sugar Hill of grave contractual breaches. Joe knew that this time he was fighting way above his weight division. Frustrated beyond all endurance, hard man Joe began to shake uncontrollably in public places, weep in front of journalists; always he railed against MCA. “They’re the biggest thieves in the world,” he said in one court deposition. “They stole $4 million from me.” The case dragged on and on. The lawyer bills kept coming.
To the bitter end Joe maintained that it had been Levy’s pal Pisello who brought Sugar Hill low, denuding him and Sylvia of their license to print money. It was Pisello who’d served them up to the corporate sharks at MCA. (For their part, Sylvia and Joey junior decline to discuss these matters.) Yet on the witness stand in 1988 during the first of Pisello’s two trials for tax evasion, Robinson somehow failed to access the emories that had so enraged him. Not that his reticence helped Pisello, who was twice convicted, receiving separate sentences of two and four years. Levy had his own brush with justice: among the bits of non-Robinson business he and Pisello had cooked up was a byzantine scam involving several million discounted MCA albums; after this particular rip-off came undone in 1988, Mo pulled down a 10-year racketeering sentence. He died of cancer in 1991, at his home, while awaiting appeal. The only entity in this little web to emerge unscathed was MCA: a federal investigation of the company’s alleged Mob ties came to naught—scuttled, some say, by political interests in Washington.
In 1990 the Robinsons finally gave up their battle and settled with MCA. No money changed hands, but the family at least walked away with the rights to their Sugar Hill catalogue. In 1995 these were sold for a seven-figure sum—after strenuous due diligence—to L.A.’s Rhino Records, the pre-eminent pop-memory clearinghouse, which to this day sells Sugar Hill product in healthy quantities.
Joe and Sylvia Robinson were divorced in 1989, but to everyone’s surprise they stayed together as a couple, even through Joe’s long battle with cancer, which ended with his death in November 2000. When the original Sugar Hill studio burned down after an electrical fire in October 2002, the urn containing Joe’s ashes was recovered, but most of the Robinsons’ master tapes had been destroyed.
The family retains publishing rights on the catalogue it sold to Rhino, so Sylvia and Joey still collect on Sugar Hill songs through sales and radio play. And they enjoy a well-regulated windfall every time a Snoop Dogg or a Diddy samples some Sugar Hill shard in genuflection to old-school credibility. Having learned about copyright the hard way in the 50s and 60s, Sylvia also made sure that her name was among those credited on many Sugar Hill classics, if not, alas, on “Rapper’s Delight.”
But these publishing royalties do not quite compensate, in Sylvia’s mind, for the lack of recompense she received from her pre–Sugar Hill career as a writer/producer/performer. During our interviews, Sylvia’s son Joey junior has stayed in close attendance, interrupting his mother when any potentially controversial topic is raised. When Joey leaves the room, she takes the opportunity to get something off her chest. “I made a lot of people a lot of millions,” says Sylvia. “And I got jerked. I didn’t get nothing. I never got one cent of royalties from any of this. If you’re working with your husband, he thinks you’re working for him.” Asked if she divorced Joe to dissolve their business relationship, Sylvia nods discreetly.
Still, few of hip-hop’s progenitors can claim a pension fund that compares to Sylvia Robinson’s, though Grandmaster Flash commands a hefty fee whenever he spins at high-profile New York clubs or on TV shows such as HBO’s retired Chris Rock Show. Grandwizard Theodore conjures up decent cash in between old-school revival shows by playing Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, or pumping out techno for college kids. Grandmaster Caz, too, converts his legend into gelt, although not as often as he’d like. Kool Herc is respected above all others, especially when he performs in Europe and Japan, although it does chafe him that no CD compilation bears his name—to Herc’s chagrin, many of his signature sides appeared on a Rhino compilation series fronted by relative latecomer Kurtis Blow.
As for the form these men helped create, the beat goes on, louder than ever. And you can be sure that most of the rappers you hear on soundtracks, ads, and sports shows are getting, as they used to say, paid in full. Thanks to all the hard lessons learned when 80s rap was governed by 50s rules, hip-hop has risen from public-park jams to a millionaire’s playground. And so it is that every modern rap star knows that a smooth-talking, hard-assed lawyer is a commodity every bit as necessary as anything by Burberry, Bentley, Cristal, or Gucci.
Steven Daly is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. He is co-author (with V.F.’s David Kamp) of The Rock Snob’s Dictionary (Broadway Books).
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