Herstory 1: Sylvia Robinson Commercializes Rap Music
How Did Sylvia Create the Rap Industry?
let's talk hip hop evolution.
Rap had been thriving in the streets of South Bronx and within the walls of its nightclubs since the early 1970's.
In 1979, Rapper's Delight took it to another level — the airwaves.
1979: Rap Makes It’s Way to The Radio
The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit wasn't the first rap record ever made, but it was the first time mainstream listeners cared. When Rapper's Delight made Top 40 charts, it popularized hip hop as an art form instead of a passing fad. It also impacted the evolution of hip hop — live parties had always prioritized DJs, then MCs became the focus with rap records.
Fast forward to 2018 and hip hop is surpassing rock as the dominant genre in the US. It's also the fasting growing genre in Canada.
The entire rap game as we know it owes a lot to Sylvia Robinson's persistence and imagination.
Tracks like “Rapper's Delight” and “The Message” shaped hip hop culture & their MCs need no introduction – but what about Sylvia Robinson?
By the time she started working on “Rapper's Delight”, Sylvia was a seasoned musician-turned-record label exec. In 1979, she was the CEO and co-founder of Sugar Hill Records.
Sylvia Robinson was critical to the rise of hip hop because she was one of the few people that saw the business opportunity in hip hop.
DJ Lovebug Starski: Live at Harlem World
Sylvia gets her first taste of rap while she's celebrating at a cousin's birthday at Harlem World Club. She's with her son, who has been introducing her to the underground hip hop scene. Throughout the night, she watched DJ Lovebug Starski rhyme over R&B tracks. Then he starts doing the same thing over Chic's funk song, “Good Times”, and she started to see the business opportunity.
Sylvia focuses her energy on bringing the sounds of underground hip hop to the radio.
She tried to get Lovebug Starski to record a track, but he simply isn't interested. After all, the money was in DJ'ing live parties not recordings. Unable to join forces with her muse, Sylvia decided to take things into her own hands and put a rap group together. Sylvia and her son hold auditions outside a pizzeria and decide to move forward with 3 MCs. They go straight from street auditions to the Sugar Hill Records studio.
“Rapper's Delight” is Created Through Plagiarism?
After Sylvia found her MCs, she needed rhymes.
One of her new MCs, Big Bank Hank, was managing another rap group at the time (Cold Crush Brothers). Hank was involved in the hip hop scene but he wasn't really an MC - Sylvia discovered him while he was rapping Cold Crush Brothers' rhymes.
To get lyrics for their record, Hank went to Cold Crush Brothers' Grandmaster Caz. Some say that Caz literally threw the book at Hank because he thought the idea of recording a rap song was doomed. According to Grandmaster Caz, he gave Hank the lyrics with the understanding that he would receive something in return if the record was a hit.
However this went down, it meant Sugar Hill Gang could go to the recording studio with rhymes for “Rapper's Delight”. Sylvia had Sugarhill Gang rap over the Good Times track that inspired her at Harlem World. The 15-minute long “Rapper's Delight” song was recorded in one take.
When Sylvia took this new track to the radio, she was met with overwhelming discouragement. Radio stations even told her that she didn't need to stoop as low as hip hop – but thanks to her resourcefulness, she managed to get airplay anyway.
“Rapper's Delight” Simultaneously Climbs the Top 40 Charts and Attracts Hate
The hip hop community criticized “Rapper's Delight” for not being true hip hop. Instead of having the usual mix of basic beats and rapping, Rapper's Delight had a busy disco track in the background.
That disco track came with even more problems - Chic heard Rapper's Delight in a nightclub and immediately recognized their work. They ended up suing Sugar Hill Records and got co-writing credits on “Rapper's Delight”.
“The Message”: Sylvia Brings Social Commentary to rap
Following the commercial success of “Rapper's Delight”, Sylvia's indie record label was expanding. They signed higher-profile artists like The Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash.
Sylvia came to her artists one day with a new concept: a rap song that could spread a political message.
The Furious Five was hesitant because they had made a name for themselves in the party scene. They weren't sure how fans would react to a song with a serious message. When Sylvia played her track for them, they didn't like it but decided to record it because they believed in Sylvia. This song was released as The Message and now it's considered one of the greatest rap records of all time by Rolling Stone.
Sylvia Robinson's Lasting Legacy
Today, hip hop is a global force yet it’s music industry was only created in 1979.
“Rapper's Delight” might not have been the underground sound of the 70's, but we needed Sylvia's disco-fused hip hop to get the ball rolling.
Without it, we wouldn't reach the Russel Simmons era of hip hop where the disco was stripped and rappers were rhyming over beats. Plus, her vision for “The Message” and it's commercial success paved the way for a generation of socially conscious rappers. Now, social commentary is a major element to hip hop's identity.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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