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NCFOM - Sugar Hill Records- The Hit Factory That Robbed Everyone Blind

The passing of Joseph Robinson Jnr at the age of 53, due to illness this week, marks another unfortunate chapter in the legacy of Sugar Hill Records. Since his younger brother Rhondo’s death in February, as well as his parents Sylvia and Joe passing in 2011 and 2001 respectively, middle sibling Leland is now the last surviving member of the original dynasty. At it’s peak in the early ‘80s, the Sugar Hill Records hit-factory had the potential to be hip-hop’s answer to Motown, until a combination of greed, stubbornness and shady business practices became its undoing.

Sylvia Robinson already had hit records under her belt when she started All Platinum Records in 1967 with with her husband Joe. After some early hits, the company was struggling by the late ‘70s, and were preparing to file for bankruptcy. An increasingly desperate Joe Robinson approached Roulette Records owner, and alleged mob associate, Morris Levy to ‘loan’ him $5000 to cover legal fees and partner on a new label. Sylvia had recently discovered hip-hop music following a trip to New York club Harlem World with Joey Jnr, where her niece Deborah was throwing her a party for her 43rd birthday (according to Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback). After witnessing the effect that Lovebug Starski had on the crowd, Sylvia knew she had to move quickly and went about trying to capture that lightning in a bottle.

Starski turned down the offer to make a record for Sugar Hill, but it wasn’t long before a trip to Englewood’s Crispy Crust Pizza introduced Sylvia to Big Bank Hank, who auditioned for her and her eldest son in the backseat of the car by repeating memorised Cold Crush Brothers routines (who he was helping to manage at the time). When Wonder Mike and Master Gee also showed up to try out for the chance to record, Sylvia decided that the three of them sounded good together and dubbed the group the Sugarhill Gang, bundling them into her old studio to record over a tape of Positive Force replaying Chic’s ‘Good Times.’ The result was ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ the worldwide smash which introduced a generation to the idea of rapping in 1979.

These three unknowns were suddenly the most famous rappers on the planet, which was understandably a major point of contention for the MC and DJ crews who had been perfecting their craft in the parks and clubs for years. There was also the issue with Big Bank Hank deciding to use Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes verbatim after borrowing his notebook for some pointers and neglecting to let the rest of the crew know. With the huge success of the Sugarhill Gang single, suddenly other rap crews such as Treacherous Three and the Furious Five wanted to release records. Within a matter of months, the best of them were quickly poached to join the growing Sugar Hill roster.

Sylvia had a strong R&B background, and she applied that experience to making rap records. This meant researching what the hottest break of the week was and having it replayed and re-arranged by her new house band (guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, drummer Keith LeBlanc, percussionist Ed ‘Duke Bootee’ Fletcher and arranger Clifton ‘Jiggs’ Chase). She would then assign a track to the MCs she thought it would suit, record it and send a cassette of it to Mr Magic to play on his Friday night Rap Attack show. If the song was well-received, the orders would start flying in and they’d press up the singles. While this was a great business model for the fast-moving musical climate of the time, it also meant that everyone was expendable. Sylvia treated the house band and the rappers as session musicians, which meant that she ultimately considered the records to be her brainchild and credited herself as the co-writer, which was sometimes shared with the MCs, her son Joey and arranger Clifton ‘Jiggs’ Chase.

While the house band were at least paid a weekly salary, the MCs were often handed a mere pittance, having to rely on touring to get by. Add to that the ‘off the books’ approach to accounting, and none of the artists even knew how many copies of their singles had sold. If anybody began to question the situation, the Robinsons would resort to divide and conquer tactics, as seen with the split between Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The Sugarhill Gang had a few more hits, but money woes meant that by 1984 Wonder Mike had decided to walk away, followed by Master Gee the following year. At this point Joey Robinson Jnr took the Master Gee name for himself and continued to perform as the Gang with Big Bank Hank and various replacements for Wonder Mike, miming their parts on stage.

When the two original members began touring again a decade later, they faced legal opposition from Joey Jnr, who claimed that they had no right to use either the group name nor their MC handles, since they were both owned by his mother Sylvia. The duo unsuccessfully attempted to win back the rights to their names and were forced to bill themselves as ‘Original Sugarhill Gang’ or ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ Meanwhile, Joey Jnr also launched lawsuits against the Beastie Boys, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes for sampling Sugarhill Gang records.

Big Bank Hank sadly died in 2014 and with Joey Jnr’s passing it seems that the whole unfortunate saga may have finally come to a close, albeit through the most unfortunate of circumstances. It was reported in 2013 that Joey Robinson Jnr and his two brothers had been convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to house arrest and three years probation, indicating that Sylvia had indeed groomed her heir in her own image. As former Sugar Hill band drummer Keith LeBlanc observed to me recently, “Those kids inherited a huge catalog! They could have easily just said, ‘Okay, our parents were wrong but we’re gonna do the right thing now and sort everyone out that was on the rap label.’ But they didn’t do that. It’s too bad they didn’t see the light somewhere along the line.”

Keep up with Robbie’s weekly ‘No Country for Old (Rap) Men’ here.