hip hop music

April 22, 2004

1979: When the Culture Became a Commodity

Renee Graham in the Boston Globe notes the 25th anniversary of Rapper's Delight. The piece is unusually kind to Sylvia Robinson, who is often portrayed as a shady character. I remember she sued Blaze magazine after they noted her reputation for jerking Sugar Hill artists out of their money (immortalized by Naughty by Nature, who were signed to Sugar Hill briefly, in their line "I'm more feared than a Sugar Hill contract").

Hip + hop = one big bang

..."When 'Rapper's Delight' came out, people were caught off guard," says Ahearn, coauthor of "Yes, Yes Y'all." "People like Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz, who were creative elements of the hip-hop scene in the Bronx, didn't see this coming at all, either because they didn't believe you could make money from it or they didn't have the vision to do something like that."

Music business veteran Sylvia Robinson had the vision. She had her own hits, "Love Is Strange" as half of the 1950s duo Mickey & Sylvia and, in the 1970s, the breathy "Pillow Talk" as a solo artist. With her husband, Joe, she also co-owned All-Platinum Records, a small label in New Jersey. After hearing rappers in New York's late, great club Harlem World, Robinson put together a trio and recorded and released "Rapper's Delight" on her renamed Sugar Hill Records, rap's first important label.

"I think Sylvia Robinson should be given credit for having the will and the insight in making a commercial recording of hip-hop," Ahearn says. "She wasn't someone from the Bronx, she wasn't someone who really knew the players, but I don't think anyone should discredit her for what she did. She was the one who went into a studio and made something that obviously hit the nerve of everybody who listened to it..."

"...It's not like they slickened it up and made something pat and commercial," Ahearn says. "It's ridiculous that anyone would do that in a studio and think anyone would play it - but they did. DJs didn't know what it was or where it came from, but they were definitely swinging with it."

Still, the success of "Rapper's Delight" was not without controversy. Some of its verses were "borrowed," as Fricke put it, from New York rappers Raheim and Grandmaster Caz, who have been largely consigned to hip-hop's shadows. Others were upset that some patched-together crew from New Jersey - not the Bronx or Harlem - was getting the credit for creating hip-hop. As the Sugarhill Gang began touring and appearing on TV, some rap pioneers were left behind.

"They were perceived to be carpetbaggers," Fricke said about the Sugarhill Gang. "One of the things that's striking and depressing about the popular music world is that in just about every genre you go into, the pioneers don't get paid, and there are entrepreneurs who develop the independent record labels that break the music, and those people end up making more money than the artists. It's often the newcomers to the scene who make the money. That's just the way it is - it doesn't make it right, but it's a fact of life..."

There's no doubt Sylvia Robinson changed the course of hip-hop, and its funny to think the path that brought us to sit here having this conversation was paved by an outsider who wormed her way into the culture trying to figure out where the money was.

I wonder how hip-hop would have evolved if she hadn't introduced the formula for packaging it as a mass-produced commercial product, in bite-sized, individually wrapped portions? Would it have remained limited mostly to NY all this time, as a local tradition like Go-Go in DC, or would the world have discovered it sooner or later? Would we have seen the tremendous artistic innovation of the last 20 years if Sylvia hadn't pushed it towards shifting from a strictly live tradition to what is now primarily a studio art, driven by recorded works?

Posted by jsmooth995 at April 22, 2004 10:18 AM

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