Sylvia Robinson: Godmother of Hip Hop
On Political Players, Black Revolutionaries, and the Business of Music
The beautiful, shrewd businesswoman and former recording artist Sylvia Robinson is often referred to as “The Godmother” of Hip Hop. True enough, but that was made possible because her husband Joe Robinson had been a big-time gangster before settling down as a music mogul! Although soft spoken with a bright smile, and always stylishly dressed with excellent taste, Joe was the kind of fearless tough guy who gave the impression that he would spit in a cracker sheriff’s face in Mississippi and tell him: “Kiss my rich black ass you cracker mother!” While he was in handcuffs and surrounded by a possee.
Joe was good friends with a close friend of mine, Clarence “Mooke” Jackson, who owned the premier black gangster hangout spot in New York during the 1970’s, “MISS LACY’S,” which was right next door to Carnegie Hall! These were for real gangsters: not play play hip hop gangsters. For them being a gangster was not a life style but a business!
Joe and Mookie were gentlemen gangsters, elegant of style and manners who wished a different and better life for the kids – like the kind described by Drs. St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton in their classic two volume sociological treatise on Chicago “Black Metropolis” – especially the chapter titled “The Upper Shadies,” in which they describe black gangsters who sent their kids to Europe for study.
In his historical masterpiece, When Harlem Was In Vogue, David Leverling Lewis introduced us to an earlier example of the old school Black Gentleman Gangster, Casper Holstien. Lewis, a Professor of History at Ruters University and a two times winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for History, paints a poignant portrait of Holstein – a west Indian immigrant who served as the model for the character Dr. Narssice, in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire. ”
Casper Holstien Circa 1928
Policy King, Philanthropist, Patron of Harlem Renissance Artists
Professor Lewis recounts the fact that Holstien put up the money for the prizes in the high brow Urban League’s annual Harlem literary competitions; held under the direction of the highly educated urbane scholar Dr. Charles Johnson, who published the winners in Opportunity – a nationally distributed magazine he edited – published by the Urban League.
Gus Greenlee of Pittsburg, was another of this fraternity. An elegant dresser and shrewd businessman, Greenlee was one of the most powerful team owners in the Negro Baseball League. He led the ressurrection of the National Negro League in 1933, and his team, the Homestead Greys, was one of the strongest franchises in the league.
Greenlee was a “Policy King;” which means that he ran a successful lottery in the black community based on illegal betting called playing the numbers or “Policy” – the same business that Joe and Casper Holstien had made their fortunes in. Greenlee was a prominent and much admired figure in the black community, and commanded respect from everyone, he had spent a few years in college and was a well spoken Gentlemen. The two black managers of Heavy-Weight Champion, who was at one point the biggest star in the world, were also Policy Kings from Detroit and Chicago.
The classic American memoir “Really The Blues” by the Chi Town Jewish gangster and Al Capone strong arm man Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who became a jazz musician while serving time with black musicians in Illinois’ Joliet prison and got good enough on the clarinet to play with the great Louis Armstrong,we again encounter these black gentlemen gangsters. In Really the Blues Mezz compares the black gangsters he knew, especially in Harlem, with the top white gangsters he associated with – and he knew them all. Mezz describes the black gangsters as being far superior in intellect and style to the whites. He said that in a racially just society they would have been lawyers, doctors and Captains of industry!
Mezz could have been describing Mookie and Joe. Although I only met Sylvia in passing, always looking stunning, I knew Joe fairly well. I met him just as he was completing work on the building that would house the record company. Mookie told me how Joe took a numbers district from the Mafia! The word on the street was that’s how he got the money to start the record company.
Mookie was the founder of the Fair Play Committee, a group of mostly black gangsters who were inspired by the Black Power Movement and RAM. In fact, it was movement activist like the chemist and SNCC organizer George Ware, who also be a key figure in organizing the Black Music Association in the 1970’s, that advised Mookie on how to organize the FPC.
That’s how I met Mookie, as a result of movement activity. After some of the leaders of the Revolutionary Action Movement began reading the writings of Dr. Franz Fanon, the French West Indian Psychaitrist who became the central theoritician of the great Algerian Revolution, and then saw the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” where the revolutionaries in the Algerian FLN recruited the Casbar gangsters into the movement, black ghetto gangsters all began to look like potential Malcolm X’s to us.
Thus, we made an effort to convert and recruit gangsters into the movement. We used to call Mookie and his associates “Political Players” because they wanted to do things that would advance eonomic development in the Black Community. Hence they could relate to our Black Power message and was influenced by it. We thought of them as “Economic Nationalist.” Mookie also knew Malcolm X well when he was in the streets, first in Detroit and later in Harlem; he used to say with a chuckle: “It’s a damn good thing he became a political leader cause Malcolm couldn’t hustle his way across the George Washington Bridge!”
When the revolutionary activist H. “Rap” Brown – who along with Stokely Carmichael aka “Kwame Touré, founded the original Black Panther Party in Loundes County Alabama, the Oakland Black Panthers were an offshoot that came along later – and coined the “Black Power” slogan – was running from the FBI as a fugitive on their Top Ten Most Wanted List, remaining at large for years: It was Mookie and his associates that hid him from the G-Men! Although he had virtually no formal education, coming from racist apartheid Alabama and growing up dirt poor: Mookie was one of the smartest people I ever met! And I have lectured at Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris!
Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown
The True Founders of the Black Panther Party
Mookie and I became dear friends until he died a natural death at 85! If you read my fictional story “Lush Life” in the seminal anthology “Brotherman,” which includes 66 black male writers – everybody who was anybody – compiled and edited by Dr. Harris, Senior Editor of the Black Scholar, and the prolific writer and venerable Public intellectual Herb Boyd, who also knew Mookie from Detroit – the black gangsters sitting around the table planning how to break into the record business are based on Mookie and his associates. The character “Boogie Woogie” is based on Mookie and “Beautiful Cody Jones” is based on Joe Robinson.
Joe and Sylvia Robinson
They Put Rap on Records
Me and Mookie were thick as thieves. I taught Mookie’s son Michael, and his main enforcer “Tabby” – a former member of the US Marine Corps and a world class boxer who was an inter-service Champion and the most feared “gorilla” in the Apple – to ride horses! I was there on the scene, that’s how I know Fair Play were the ones who got independent black music labels like All Platinum Records, the original company founded by Joe and Sylvia in 1968, played on the air. They also were responsible for getting Bob Law, the great nationally broadcast talk show host, on the radio.
Back in the Day
Tabby’s facination with horses aparked a friendship between us
Joe Robinson and his beautiful brilliant wife Sylvia – who had a big hit when I was in high school during the 1950’s titled “Love is Strange” with a male partner under the stage name “Mickey and Sylvia” – would record the first Rap record ever – “Rappers Delight.” The artists were a local group in Inglewood New Jersey called “The Sugar Hill Gang.”
Joe and Sylvia first heard rap music on a visit to Harlem World as Mookie’s guest, as he was a part owner of the club, which “Puffy” talks about as one of the incubators of Rap. On the night of Joe and Sylvia’s visit DJ Hollywood and Curtis Blow were controlling the mikes. They immediately recognized the commercial value of this new black vernacular art form and began taking steps to record it.
I had failed to recognize the commercial value of Rap Music on an earlier visit to the club after Logan Westbrooks, Director of Special Markets for the CBS Records Group, had hooked me up with CBS staff producer Hank Crosby, who had been recruited from the Mo-Town stable. I was trying to interest him in a demo recorded by Jade, the touring Band for Philadelphia International recording artist Jean Carn – who was distributed by CBS Records and marketed by Logan Westrooks’s department. I was the leader and manager of Jade, and it was at the height of the disco craze, so we were aiming for that market. But Disco music was becoming stale; with everybody beginning to sound alike.
Logan Westbrooks: HITMAKER!
Chillin in his CBS Office with a Wall Covered With Gold and Platnam
Me and the Great Songtress Jean Carn circa 1977
On the terrace of my Manhattan Apartment before performing at Linclon Center
Crosby was looking for the next big thing, and he told me he thought the rhythm section was very funky, and that I was “A clever lyricist.” But he wasn’t interested in that record, which was titled “Just Keep on Dancing!” Crosby told me “If you write a few more stanzas to the song, then get one of those DJ’s in the clubs to recite them over just the rhythm section, I would be interested in hearing that.”
This was the mid 1970’s and the rap scene was well underway in the South Bronx – the true birthplace of Hip hop poets where newly minted MC’s like Grand Master Caz and Cool Herc, were already spittin def rhymes to the Bongo Band’s break beats,’ which were later incorperated into the first Rap record.- and Rap was also beginning to make some noise in Harlem, but I had never heard of it. And despite the fact that future music mogul Russell Simmons was beginning to promote hip hop concerts around town, I didn’t know what tha fuck Hank Crosby was talking about!
But when I mentioned it to Mookie he said “Oh he talking bout them rappers…sheet, we got tha best DJ’s in town doing that rap stuff up at the club! Although Mookie was a Jazz fan, who dug Charlie Parker so much he once took Bird’s alto-saxophone back from a heroin dealer at gun point so Bird could make a gig. Bird, who was badly strung out, had pawned his horn for dope and owed the dealer money, so he was keeping the horn as collateral.
But Mookie wanted to hear Bird wail at Minton’s Playhouse, the birth place of that extremely complex modern jazz genre called Bebop, so he strong armed his ax from the dealer. Yet, despite his bias for jazz, Mookie, posessed an impressive gift for gab and might have become a rapper had he grown up in a Hip hop cultural milieu, could hear that something was happening with this “Rap thing,” by just watching the way it grooved the crowds in Harlem World. So he told me: “Come on by and check em out; if you like em I’ll git em to do yo record and it won’t cost ya nothin…I’ll take care of it.”
Billboard for Forthcoming Movie on “Mookie” Jackson
Founder Of The Fair Play Committee
I went up to Harlem World, checked them out, and couldn’t believe that THIS was what Crosby was so excited about. I told Mookie, “Man this shit ain’t goin nowhere. We been reciting them kind of rhymes on street corners for years…why would anybody pay to hear that?” Just like that I missed the chance to make history and a lot of money because I had a closed mind. The next big thing in popular music was staring me in the face and I slept on it, jussed played pass it. I didn’t understand at the time that what the rappers were doing was a different art form from the kind of rhyming we had been doing.
We were reciting of verses from folk sagas like “The Signifying Monkey,” “Shine on the Titanic” and The Dirty Dozens – verse that had been fashioned on the smithy of black folk culture. These risque rhymes and been handed down for generations and many black underground bards had contributed to their authorship. But what the Rappers were doing, I would later realize, is real artifice; the same kind of thing that poets do.
The major difference is that Rappers must flow over a preordained beat that is dance friendly; poets have absolute freedom over the rhythm of there verse, which is in the word itself and can become quite complex…it all depends upon the caliber of the poet! Me and my writing partner Shelman Johnson, pianist and music director of the band, were trying to write clever elegant songs like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed – who wrote songs like “Betcha By Golly wow!”
Joe and Sylvia were not so precious in their taste. While I was trying to be “an artist” first, believing the business side would take care of itself if we wrote good strong songs, Joe and Sylvia were business people who left the art to the artists but had good ears for a hit sound! Plus, they had a complete record company, they not only had a studio but a record pressing plant. All they needed was distribution and especially air play. That was what killed independent record companies: They couldn’t get their records on the air, and they couldn’t collect all their money from Independent Distributors: The Fair Play Committee solved both problems!
There was a dramatic event that convinced black DJ’s, who decided what records they wanted to put on the air, to play the products from independent black labels. Back in the day, before the rise of dictatorial Program Directors who alone decide the play list for the entire station, the “Personality Jocks,” who were larger than life characters, controlled playlist because their audiences were loyal to them.They had dramatic and grandiose radio monikers like: “Georgie Woods, The Guy with the Goods;” “Chatty Hattie;” “Daddyo Daley;” “Sir Lancelot;” “Jocko” “Johnny Shaw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law” et al.
In any instances this made them bigger than the station – especially if they were in a competitive market with more than one station. These Jocks were represented by a professional organization known as NAFTRA – The National Association of Radio and Television Announcers – and it as at their annual convention held in Miami that their policy toward small independent black labels dramatically changed.
It was the smoldering Dog Days of August in1968, and the city of Miami had experienced a “race riot” just before the convention came to town. Knowing this Mookie saw a unique opportunity. Armed with what sociologists called He traveled down to Miami with 15 associates from the Fair Play Committee, all dressed like Wall street investment bankers, and went straight to the sheriff’s office. Mookie was one of the most charming and persuasive men the God’s ever blew breath in, and he really turned it on with this southern cracker Sheriff.
A master bunko artist, Mookie understood the two basic elements of the con: Make your mark think he is smarter than you, and convince they are going to get something for nothing. In fact, Mookie once told me: “You can’t con an honest person, because in order to get conned you have to have larceny I your heart.”
In this case the situation was perfect, and Mookie played that Peckerwood Sheriff like Bird played the alto-sax. He told the sheriff that they were a private security team that came down to police the convention so that there wouldn’t be any more violent racial outbreaks, which was a real possibility with of of the wild show business Negroes coming to town. And he convinced the Sheriff that if he deputized them they would assure him that there would be no incidents!
By the time Mookie was finished with his rap the Sheriff was convinced that he was getting the deal of the century and deputized these New York Gangsters. Once they got their badges the Fair Play Committee went over to the convention and systematically terrorized the key players. They hung some of them out of hotel windows by their feet – in fact, I believe that scene in the movie The five Heartbeats was taken from that incident.
Logan Westbrooks and his wife Jerry were there, although he was a salesman with Mercury Records at the time; he had had yet to become the head of black music markeing at CBS Records. “I went down to the convention because it was an important event for anybody trying to sell black records,” says Logan. However when he got there he found out that he was not properly registered,”I was trapped outside and could only attend events open to the public. But I had a suite in the hotel where the conference was going on and knew all of the big players. So although I wasn’t in the room when a lot of stuff went down, I heard about what was going on from my contacts”
Suddenly these Jocks began to play independent black labels. As for the independent distributors, who rumor had it were all Jewish and Italian gangsters, they paid what they wanted when they wanted. But that also changed after one of the biggest distributors got thrown out of a four story window into a fireman’s net, held by some stragglers who they paid handsomely to catch the flying body. The dude had a heart attack, and everybody else got the message. Thus when Joe and Sylvia released ‘Rappers Delight,’ they got it played on the radio, no problem, and the got their money from the distributors. And the rest made history.
This record literally came out of nowhere, since the Sugarhill Gang was from New Jersey, and the real artists, the creaters of this new and uniqe genre of Afro-American popular music, had never even heard of them until they dug the record on the radio. And to make matters worse it was a smash! Russell Simmons, who would emerge as the premiere Hip Hop producer and impersario, says he was distraigh when he heard the recoed because “I thought there was only going to be one Rap Record made.”
However Russel would go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars from producing Rap records on his Def Jam label. And in time, all Hip Hop artists and entreprenuers that got rich from rap recognized that the release of “Rapper’s Delight” initiated the growth of the billion dollar Hip Hop industry. And thus Sylvia Robinson, who produced Rapper’s Delight, well derserves the honorific “God Mother of Hip Hop.”
Click on Link to hear the original Recording of Rappers Delight
The Record that Started it All!!
Watch the Sugarhill Gang Perform Rappers Delight