Friday, September 30, 2011

Say what? Sylvia Robinson in perspective

Back in April 2004, I published a fake interview with the band known as the Seldom Scene. The point of the fake interview was to illustrate the possible confusion between Sugar Hill Records and Sugar Hill Records. In the fake interview, I asked a number of questions of these bluegrass recording artists:

Have you ever eaten chicken at the record label?

Did it taste like wood?

Did you ever stay in motels/hotels with Big Bank Hank?

As people of a certain age would know, there is a difference between bluegrass and early rap. One of the Sugar Hill Records (the one NOT associated with Lawrence Welk) had an in-house rap band called the Sugarhill Gang, who made it big with "Rapper's Delight." The record was produced by Sylvia Robinson, who passed away on September 29.

But she was not universally admired:

In addition to being remembered as an artist, songwriter and producer, Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson was an entrepreneur and hustler who ruffled some feathers during her career as a record label executive. Was Sylvia Robinson a crook? If you were an underpaid artist on Sugar Hill Records, you’ll probably feel she had shady business practices.

For example, see item 9 in this list of 10 things about Robinson:

9. Sylvia understood that publishing was where the big, long dollars were in the music business. A shrewd businesswoman whose practices were not always equitable, she earned a reputation for underpaying and micromanaging that, according to Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback, had “Grandmaster Flash split from the rest of his crew over creative differences and lack of payment.”

More of the story can be found at this biography of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel:

Name of the artist here should actually be "Grandmaster & Melle Mel". This unique wording was the result of an ugly legal suit between Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler). When Flash was essentially pushed out of his own group - especially in the fact that he was a non-player on the breakthrough Grandmaster Flash & Furious 5 track "The Message" - Melle Mel (with the encouragement of Sugarhill Records label head Sylvia Robinson) decided that he would take Flash's place in the band - and essentially take his name as well. During this time, the definitive singles "The Message II" and "New York, New York" were released under the name of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, even though Flash had nothing to do with these releases.
The net result of the lawsuit forced Sugar Hill and Melle Mel to cease the theft of Flash's name - which resulted in the White Lines singles all being pressed with the name "Grandmaster & Melle Mel", with Melle Mel's name in larger type than "Grandmaster".

However, Sugar Hill Records can't be blamed - or maybe they can be - for what happened next:

White Lines eventually proved to be Sugar Hill's downfall, as the famous bassline and much of other components of the song were stolen from the sub-underground (but now much more justifiably well known) track "Cavern" by Liquid Liquid, which resulted in another lawsuit - of which Sugarhill would never recover from.

And this happened AFTER the whole "Good Times" thingie.

But on the other hand - there's always an other hand - what would the music of the 1980s and today had been like if Sylvia Robinson had merely retired after Mickey & Sylvia's fame went away? Without the crossover success of "Rapper's Delight," it's quite possible that Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys would be completely unknown to us today.
blog comments powered by Disqus