Sylvia Robinson, who had a hit as a singer-songwriter with the sexually charged “Pillow Talk” but was later known as one of hip-hop’s early founders as the record label owner that put out “Rapper’s Delight,” rap’s first mainstream success, died Thursday, according to publicist Greg Walker. She was 76.
Robinson, born Sylvia Vanterpool, died of congestive heart failure at the New Jersey Institute of Neuroscience in Seacaucus, N.J.
Along with her late husband, Joe, Robinson was the owner of Sugar Hill Records. In 1979, it released the song that would become widely known as rap’s first hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” by The Sugarhill Gang.
The song was released as hip-hop was just beginning to emerge as a genre; for the most part, it was a budding phenomenon bubbling on New York City streets. Robinson recognized the potential of the music and wanted her struggling label to capitalize on it.
“She saw where a DJ was talking and the crowd was responding to what he was saying, and this was the first time she ever saw this before,” her son Joey said in a 2000 interview with NPR. “And she sad Joey, wouldn’t this be a great idea to make a rap record?”
It turned out she was right. After gathering three rappers (Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank) to record the 15-minute song, the party groove became a sensation. The condensed version was considered the first rap song to get radio play and reached the top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
The Sugar Hill Gang faded into rap history, not recording other songs that would match its original flourish. But Sugar Hill Records would continue to play a part on the early years of hip-hop with a roster that included Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Robinson’s roots in the record industry were deep. She was a blues singer in the 1950s, recording for Columbia and Savoy Records on songs like “Chocolate Candy Blues.” Later, she was part of the duo “Mickey & Sylvia.”
But she had perhaps her biggest hit as a solo artist with “Pillow Talk,” a seductive song released in 1973. Robinson was also a producer and songwriter for others.
She is survived by three sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.