Sylvia Robinson, the singer, songwriter and record producer who formed the Sugar Hill Gang and made the first commercially successful rap recording, died early Thursday morning at a hospital in New Jersey. She was 75.
Ms. Robinson had a notable career as a rhythm and blues singer long before she and her husband, Joe Robinson, formed Sugar Hill Records in 1979 and served as the midwives for a musical genre that came to dominate pop music.
She sang with Mickey Baker as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia in the 1950s and had several hits, including “Love Is Strange,” which was a No. 1 R&B song in 1956. She also had a solo hit, under the name Sylvia, in spring of 1973 with her own composition “Pillow Talk.”
But Ms. Robinson was revered as “the mother of hip-hop” for her decision to record the nascent art form known as rapping, which had developed at clubs and dance parties in New York City in the 1970s. In 1979, the label Ms. Robinson and her husband had founded, All Platinum, was awash in lawsuits and losing money.
Facing financial ruin, Ms. Robinson got an inspiration when she heard people rapping over the instrumental breaks in disco songs at a party in Harlem. Using her son as a talent scout, she found three young rappers from the New York City area – Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee – and persuaded them to record improvised raps as the Sugar Hill Gang over a rhythm track adapted from Chic’s “Good Times.” The record was called “Rapper’s Delight” and reached No. 4 on the R&B charts, proving rap was a viable art form and opening the gates for other hip-hop artists.
Ms. Robinson later signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, recording their seminal 1982 hit, “The Message,” the groundbreaking rap about ghetto life that became one of the most powerful and controversial songs of its time and presaged the gangsta rap movement of later years.