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Founder of the Sugar Hill record label Sylvia Robinson died yesterday from heart failure, aged 75. Often referred to as the “mother of hip hop”, she was a pioneering figure in the genre, working as producer on its first commercial hit, The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, and later ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, as well as releasing them both.

Born Syliva Vanderpool in 1936 in New York, Robinson began a singing career in the 1950s, her first hit coming in 1956 as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia with Mickey Baker. Entitled ‘Love Is Strange’, authorship of the song remains in some dispute; based on a guitar riff by Jody Williams, the writing of the lyrics has variously been claimed by Baker, Bo Diddley and Diddley’s then wife Ethel Smith.

In 1964, Sylvia married her husband Joe Robinson and in 1968 they formed their first record label, All Platinum Records. A notable hit from that label was ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ by the Shirley Goodman fronted Shirley & Company, which Robinson also wrote. Another success story was ‘Love Is A Two Way Street’ by The Moments, a band put together by Robinson for All Platinum imprint Stang Records. The Robinson-penned song was a hit on the R&B charts at the time, and has since been sampled for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘New York State Of Mind’. In the early 70s, All Platinum also bought Chess Records after it went bankrupt.

Back as a performer, in 1973 Robinson had a solo hit with ‘Pillow Talk’, which was released by another of her labels Vibration Records. She had originally written the raunchy (particularly for the time) song with Al Green in mind as its performer. However, when he turned it down on moral and religious grounds, she recorded it herself, seeing it go to number three in the Billboard Hot 100 and number fourteen in the UK top 40.

But it was in 1979 that she and Joe founded Sugar Hill Records, which is almost certainly what she will be most remembered for. With financial backing from Roulette Records owner Morris Levy, Robinson launched the label after being inspired by seeing people rapping over instrumental records played by DJs. Recognising the potential of this new art form, both creatively and as a way to revive her then struggling company, she formed the Sugarhill Gang, both the group and the label named after the Sugar Hill area of Harlem in New York.

The Sugarhill Gang’s first single, ‘Rapper’s Delight’, went on to be a huge hit, the first commercial success for the burgeoning rap scene. After a run of other hits, the Robinsons bought Levy out of the label in the early 80s, and went on to be pioneers in early music videos and to release the first cassette single. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was also the first hip hop track to spark a lawsuit for copyright infringement, having used an uncleared sample of ‘Good Times’ by Chic. There were no clear rules for royalty payments on the fairly new practice of sampling at that time. The suit was eventually settled out of court.

The Sugar Hill label’s early success faded a few years later. The label signed a marketing and distribution deal with MCA after the company began to take off, but the Robinsons later sued the company, accusing it of inflating its own profits by failing to report sales. Terms of the deal also meant that they sold the Chess Records catalogue, and that of Checkers Records (which they had also acquired), to MCA, so they couldn’t rely on that income when financial struggles forced them to close Sugar Hill in 1986. The legal battle with MCA continued on until 1991 when it was settled out of court, though the Robinsons received no money from the settlement. In 1995, the Sugar Hill master recordings were purchased by Rhino Records.

Later controversy came in 2008 when some members of The Sugarhill Gang sued the Robinsons over unpaid royalties, claims the couple firmly denied. However, despite these low points, Syliva Robinson will continue to remembered as a woman who rose up and achieved considerable success in a male-dominated industry, and who was certainly a catalyst for what has gone on to be the most successful musical genre worldwide.

She is survived by three sons, plus several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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