In 1979, an upstart trio called The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” a disco-sampling party anthem with what would be the most recited opening line in rap history. It’s the most important song ever released in the genre, credited as the first big track to introduce hip-hop culture to the masses. “Rapper’s Delight” wouldn’t have happened without Sylvia Robinson, a singer, record producer and label owner who once saw an interplay between the DJ and the crowd and decided to cut a rap track.
As the story goes, her son, Joey, brought three of his friends to his mother’s studio to write and record the song, and Robinson told the band to play the instrumental of Chic’s “Good Times” as the musical backdrop. The song was put out as a 15-minute extended cut. Black radio played it right away; pop radio soon did the same. “Rapper’s Delight” blew up well beyond everyone’s expectations. Three years later, Robinson was the catalyst for another groundbreaking rap song: “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, an acerbic track about the struggles of poor Black communities. It was equally important for different reasons: Compared with the celebratory nature of other rap cuts, “The Message” was the first to break down civic plight in an unflinching way.
Yet before she was Hip-Hop’s Godmother, she was a capable singer-songwriter with at least four good albums to her credit: 1973’s Pillow Talk; 1975’s Sweet Stuff; 1976’s Sylvia; and 1977’s Lay It On Me. The genesis of her producer career dates back to 1960, when, as a 25-year-old upstart, she compiled the song “You Talk Too Much” by New Orleans vocalist Joe Jones but didn’t get credit for it. She was also one-half of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia and scored the hit “Love Is Strange” (featured 30 years later in the cult classic film Dirty Dancing).
Robinson was equally revolutionary in the early ‘70s. In a time where male singers were lauded for making sensuous — if not downright nasty — strains of soul, musicians like Robinson, Betty Davis and Millie Jackson proclaimed their sexuality. Men were celebrated for being raunchy; when women did it, it was somehow too much or not ladylike. These women were breaking down barriers, proving they could be artful and erotic just like the guys.
Last year, the reissue label WeWantSounds re-released Sweet Stuff on vinyl. Though I hadn’t heard of the album, I purchased it because the imprint tends to do a fine job excavating the past. The music impressed me as soon as the opening song took shape. The production was immaculate and the groove was palpable. I was taken by how great the arrangements sounded tumbling from the speakers, the way the drums hit hard without overtaking the acoustic guitars and electric bass. Then I realized just how influential the album has been to certain rapper-producers, and that I’ve heard these songs resurface in sampled form at least twice (I won’t mention the tracks because sample snitching isn’t cool).
Sweet Stuff sounds remarkably retro and current at the same time. Some of my favorite new musicians lean into analog sounds to give their projects the warmth of yesteryear’s work. To me, the record draws a direct line to modern soul, and could work just as well now as it did in 1975. Like Pillow Talk, it didn’t skimp on sexuality; her whispers and sighs crafted the sort of wistfulness and romance that was commonplace in that era of soul music.
“Private Performance” harbored a late-night disco mood that worked equally well in the bedroom and the dance floor. On “Sho Nuff Boogie,” Robinson’s voice echoes through the track; the results are hypnotic — the perfect backdrop for, ugh, whatever you’re doing to this song. Conversely, “Alfredo” was more direct. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. “Dim the lights and lock the door, and make me yours.” In the end, Sweet Stuff was an exercise of quiet rebellion for which Robinson should be applauded. While she should be upheld for helping build rap music, we shouldn’t forget her own art in the process.