When struggling record-label boss Sylvia Robinson walked into a Harlem nightclub in June 1979, she heard the sound of her salvation. A DJ was rapping onstage, controlling the crowd with the call-and-response power of a preacher. “He would say something every now and then like, ‘Throw your hands in the air,’ and they’d do it,” Robinson said in 2005. “If he’d said, ‘Jump in the river,’ they’d have done it.” Sensing the music’s potential, she assembled three local MCs, dubbed them the Sugarhill Gang—after the affluent Harlem neighborhood—and recorded them rhyming over an instrumental disco track. The result was “Rapper’s Delight,” which sold more than 14 million copies and introduced hip-hop to mainstream America.
That wasn’t Robinson’s first taste of success. At the age of 14, she was spotted by a talent scout and was soon singing the blues opposite trumpeter Hot Lips Page. In the 1950s, Robinson performed as half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, and their 1957 single, “Love Is Strange,” peaked at No. 11 on the pop charts. That track “shared many of the qualities” of her later releases, said the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. It was immediate, sexy, and “built around a catchy riff and vocal performances that radiated personality.”
When Robinson’s singing career petered out, she ran the All Platinum Records label with her husband, Joe Robinson, and wrote and produced songs for local soul groups. But her apprenticeship in the ruthless R&B world had made her “a tough customer—too tough for some tastes,” said the London Telegraph. Musicians complained about late payments, and by 1979, threatened with several lawsuits, the Robinsons were close to bankruptcy. Then came “Rapper’s Delight.” Flush with cash, Robinson snapped up talent, including New York’s premier DJ, Grandmaster Flash, and turned her new Sugar Hill label into America’s leading hip-hop imprint.
By the mid-1980s, Robinson’s less-than-scrupulous financial practices were starting to affect business, and Sugar Hill slowly collapsed. But she’d already made an indelible mark on music, and “today hip-hop beats infuse everything down to bubblegum pop for preteens,” said the New York Daily News.