Sweet highs of a rap empire

Robinson family's tax woes mark a sad end to the hip hop legacy of Sugar Hill Records label, writes Stephanie Akin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:05pm

The spot on West Street in Englewood, New Jersey, where hip hop history was made is marked by a “for sale” sign. A chain-link fence blocks the entrance to what is now an empty lot, and a few cars are parked inside.

That’s all that is left of the Sugar Hill recording studio, where the song that introduced rap music to a mainstream audience was recorded in 1979, sweeping Englewood – and the enigmatic members of the Robinson family who ran the company – into the centre of a burgeoning music craze with the now-iconic riff, “hip hop and ya don’t stop”.

For a time, anyone who wanted to make a name in rap music came to Englewood to get noticed – not the clubs of Harlem, Brooklyn or the Bronx – and the Robinsons, with their collection of expensive sports cars, legendary parties and up-to-the-minute wardrobe, brought a taste of the superstar lifestyle to their quiet, suburban city.

The founding members of the record label – Sylvia, the former teen star with the sultry voice and the ear for a hit, and her husband, Joseph, the onetime Harlem nightclub owner with the often-whispered but never confirmed mob ties – are dead now. The building where they recorded most of their music – including the 1979 Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang – was destroyed in an electrical fire in 2002.

But the family is back in the news. Sylvia and Joe’s three sons pleaded guilty recently for failing to pay a combined US$1.3 million in taxes. Joseph Jnr and Leland were sentenced to three years of probation last month, and Rhondo is awaiting sentencing.

The family’s detractors, many of whom have complained for decades that the Robinsons shortchanged their artists, say they are not surprised by the brothers’ misfortunes and they’re far from the first recording artists who’ve underpaid the IRS. But Joe Robinson Jnr, known as Joey, the eldest brother, who played the most direct role of the three in his parents’ business, brushed off the family’s recent ill fortunes as typical troubles for anyone who reaches a certain status in the business.

Recording artists always complain about their labels, he says, and a long line of industry professionals have been penalised for failing to pay taxes, such as Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige.

The family company is producing new music, but the ascendancy of the Sugar Hill Records label, and its glory days in Englewood, happened long ago.

When Sylvia and Joe Robinson decided to move to Englewood from Harlem in the early 1960s, the city was already well known as a magnet for artists fleeing the high crime of New York, not least because of its progressive attitude towards African Americans.

But his parents were just looking for a good place to raise a family, Joe Jnr said. “They loved the area, from being raised in New York. Coming across the George Washington Bridge and seeing the trees and the grass and the whole nine yards.”

The Robinsons, with their collection of expensive sports cars, legendary parties and up-to-the-minute wardrobe, brought a taste of the superstar lifestyle to their quiet, suburban city

Sylvia, whose publicity photos emphasised her voluptuous figure and cocoa skin, was already a minor celebrity. She started her recording career while still a student at Washington Irving High School and topped the charts in the late 1950s with her guitar teacher McHouston Baker, in the duo Mickey & Sylvia.

Her biggest career coups, however, happened in Englewood. It was there that she recorded her hit 1973 solo single, Pillow Talk, a steamy, whispered number that Al Green declined to record because it was too racy. As a producer, she got writing credits for The Moments’ 1968 hit, Love on a Two-Way Street, recorded on the family’s All Platinum label. The opening bars, with their unmistakable piano chords in B-flat, were sampled in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, according to published reports.

But by the late 1970s, All Platinum was foundering. Although the label was spared in a major federal inquiry of the then-common practice of making under-the-table payments to radio stations in exchange for airplay, the investigation found that Joe Snr had concealed about US$30,000 in corporate profits. He pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

Fresh from that scandal and looking to recoup losses in legal fees from a two-year court battle with Phonogram Records over distribution rights, Joe – who always carried a pistol tucked in the small of his back under his jacket – made a desperate deal with a man Sylvia later called “a devil” in an interview with a Vanity Fair reporter.

Morris “Mo” Levy, a reputed mob associate, music financier and acquaintance from Joe’s days running clubs in Harlem, gave him US$5,000 to pay his debts. Of that, US$300 was used to start what became Sugar Hill Records. It was a pithy sum, but in Levy’s world, an investment of any size was expected to yield large returns.

Sylvia spent Levy’s cash on the track that would earn her renown as the mother of hip hop – the seminal Rapper’s Delight, which to this day is often cited as one of the best songs of all time. The whole production cost US$750. The story has become a legend in the industry: after Sylvia heard a deejay rapping at a New York club, she asked Joe Jnr, who was a student at Dwight-Englewood School, to help her find some rappers.

The mother-and-son team then drove around Englewood in her Buick recruiting Joe Jnr’s friends. They plucked Henry Jackson (later known as Big Bank Hank) from his job at Crispy Crust Pizza on Palisade Avenue. He rhymed for Sylvia in an apron still covered in dough. Guy O’Brien, who lived in Teaneck (and who would take the name Master Gee) and Mike Wright of Englewood (the future Wonder Mike) happened to walk by, and they were soon in the band, too.

The song they recorded at Sylvia’s record studio, with the trademark opening riff, “Now what you hear is not a test. I’m rappin’ to the beat”, would go on to sell more than eight million copies and become the first multiplatinum-selling rap single.

Englewood was carried along in the excitement. Neighbours recalled the flashy cars always parked in the Robinsons’ driveway and the famous people who could be glimpsed visiting the studios.

Sylvia threw sought-after parties, where she showed off her flair for cooking with West Indian spices, several city residents said. “Almost the whole town, even the mayor, would come and pay tribute to her,” says George Garrison, a school board member.

Sugar Hill Records followed Rapper’s Delight with more hits, including Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s 1982 recording The Message, considered the first rap song to make a social statement about life in poor, urban neighbourhoods. But the flush times faded quickly.

The family bought out Levy within a year for US$1.5 million. But his involvement in the business continued to haunt them. It came up in 1986, when the label was the subject of a federal investigation for allegedly making a deal with another reputed mobster, Salvatore Pisello, to help them get the major label MCA to distribute their music, according to published reports.

Sugar Hill responded with a US$240 million suit accusing MCA of conspiring with Pisello to push Sugar Hill into bankruptcy and get its hands on its valuable back catalogue at a reduced price.

Other legal tangles followed, including copyright disputes with Grandmaster Flash and, later, the Sugarhill Gang.

The Robinsons sold their interest in Sugar Hill Records in 1995 to Rhino Records, which released several anthologies. The Robinsons retained publishing rights to their songs – allowing them to collect payments when their songs are sampled by other musicians – and kept their studio on West Street until the fire.

But the Robinsons had long since lost their ability to reel in new talent, partly because they had developed a reputation for withholding payment to their artists, says Dan Charnas, author of the critically acclaimed history of the hip hop business, The Big Payback. “Their greed drove people to the competition,” he says.

In court, Judge Mark Falk cited Joe Jnr and Leland’s extensive charity work as a reason they avoided the 18-month to two-year prison terms recommended by sentencing guidelines. The brothers must each perform 400 hours of community service and serve three months of home confinement. Falk also imposed fines of US$8,000 on Leland Robinson and US$16,000 on his older brother.

But in Englewood, respect for the Robinson family’s legacy is still strong. “They put Englewood on the map,” Garrison says. “To have a family that was so influential in the music industry, that was so approachable and touchable, it meant a lot. It brought a lot of pride to Englewood.”