RIP Sylvia Robinson 1936-2011

Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill records, died today. By way of tribute, here’s an edited extract from my chapter about The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five describing how she strongarmed the group into recording the song that changed hip hop.

With hindsight, ‘The Message’ was inevitable. It was the record that critics, especially white ones, had been waiting for, placing hip-hop in the socially conscious bloodline of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron. This offspring of the Bronx slums wasn’t just the most exciting party music in the world; it finally had something to say. But almost nobody saw it coming, not even the group whose name was printed at the centre of the record. With the exception of Melle Mel, the Furious Five couldn’t stand it; they thought it was a crazy idea. Hip-hop was dance music. Who wanted to hear about broken glass and roaches on a Saturday night? If they wanted reality, they could look out the window. They were drowning in reality. They didn’t need to hear it pumping from the radio.

Sylvia Robinson thought differently. That was her gift. She was a music industry veteran who had scored her first hit in 1957 as half of R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia. In the 1960s she founded with her husband Joe a studio and label called All Platinum. A decade later it spawned Sugar Hill Records, based in Englewood, New Jersey. But in 1979 hip-hop was a local scene, dominated by DJs rather than rappers, and content to remain so. When Robinson tried to sign Flash, the city’s most celebrated DJ, he rebuffed her. Release hip-hop records? What was the point?

OK, then, thought the forty-three-year-old Robinson. If she couldn’t sign a hot rap group, then she’d make her own. One afternoon that summer Joe heard a would-be rap impresario called Hank ‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson rapping along to a tape during his day job at a local pizza parlour, and invited him to audition for Sugar Hill. With the addition of two buddies, Guy ‘Master Gee’ O’Brien and Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright, the Sugarhill Gang was born, a group as manufactured as any boy band. The Robinsons shoved them into the studio with three session musicians and the bass line from Chic’s ‘Good Times’. They emerged with a record which would go on to sell eight million copies.

The first time Sylvia Robinson came calling, Flash turned her away. The second time, he knew better. ‘I was like, “Nobody’s going to want to buy a record they already know with people talking on it,”’ says Flash. ‘So when I heard “Rapper’s Delight” it was just so haunting. It was like, “Oh shit. I could have been the first.”’

The Five signed first to the Enjoy label run by Bobby Robinson (no relation), where they released ‘Superrappin’’, and then to Sugar Hill. In 1981 they put out ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’, a turntable tour de force combining Chic, Queen, Blondie, the Sugarhill Gang and Harlem rapper Spoonie Gee. Here, the DJ was the star once more, but it was to be the last time.

‘The Message’ was the brainchild of Sugar Hill’s house percussionist, Edwin ‘Duke Bootee’ Fletcher. One night Fletcher was at the Sugar Hill studio in Englewood, absent-mindedly beating out a rhythm on a plastic water bottle. The other musicians joined in, creating a kind of African rhythm. Robinson liked it, but it languished for over a year. ‘When we first came to this company we heard it and we used to joke about it,’ Mel told High Times.

When James ‘Jiggs’ Chase, Sugar Hill’s chief arranger and Robinson’s right-hand man, later asked Fletcher to write some lyrics, out came the line: ‘It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.’ Smoking some weed, he wrote the whole thing one night in his mother’s basement. ‘Every so often a nigga might ride by and you’d hear a bottle get broken. So I said “broken glass everywhere”. [Chase] told me to keep goin’ and I did.’

Inspired by the synth-heavy sound of Zapp and the Tom Tom Club, Fletcher junked the original percussion and wrote a more commercial backing track, incorporating elements of dub, elec- tro and R&B. Robinson loved it and decided it would be the Furious Five’s next single. The Furious Five, however, did not. Hedging his bets, Fletcher had produced another, more straight- forward dance track. The titles say it all: Robinson wanted ‘The Message’ while the Five wanted ‘Dumb Love’. ‘Nobody actually liked the song,’ says Melle Mel. ‘It was something totally different from what everybody was doing at the time so nobody thought much of it.’

‘There was nothing in rap like that before except for maybe the Last Poets, and they were more philosophers,’ Kidd Creole told Melody Maker. ‘And they were too anti-social for a lot of people,’ added Cowboy. As Flash told High Times: ‘Like you listening to music, let’s say throughout the week you’re nine-to- five, you had a hard week’s work, you’re tired, you want to go out and party. Why would a person want to hear this? . . . The risk factor was so high, either it was going to be a big thing or it was gonna miss.’ Fletcher remembers the Furious Five getting so annoyed with the track that they stormed out of the studio and called a car to pick them up.

Mel, though, came back. He was canny enough to know that he should show willing. Taking a page from Berry Gordy’s playbook, Robinson kept Sugar Hill’s engine running by stoking the fires of rivalry, and she didn’t much care who appeared on a record, provided it was a hit. ‘A track might be cut already and different groups tried to put their rhymes to it,’ said Duke Bootee, ‘and she would let whoever she was hot on have the track. Sometimes the rappers would bring a track in and lose it because somebody else put a better rhyme to it.’

‘She owned the company,’ Mel says flatly. ‘If that was the song that was going to come out I wanted to be on that song. It wasn’t like she had to convince me. It was just logical.’

Between Robinson’s divide-and-rule diplomacy and the strong subject matter, Flash had a bad feeling about this song. ‘“The Message” wasn’t one of my favourites,’ he says. ‘What she wanted out of us was totally opposite of what we were. We were into DJing, talking about women, the party thing. Sylvia had this feeling that America was ready to hear social commentary lyrics and we were the only ones in the company that could pull it off. We dodged it for a year or two and then she cornered us.’

To the DJ, this sounded like commercial poison. He could picture people fleeing from the dancefloor, asking what went wrong with the great Grandmaster Flash. ‘I remember one person scared the daylights out of me,’ he admitted a year later. ‘He said, “Flash, I’ve always been your devoted fan, I love you, but I don’t like that record.” I just stayed in the house, but Mrs Robinson said, “Flash, this is gonna be a big thing.” You gotta respect the woman for her intuition.’

In the struggle between Flash and Sylvia Robinson, history has proven the Sugar Hill boss right: America was hungry for a record like this, and for a new direction in hip-hop. But Flash wasn’t exactly wrong to resist it. In the minds of some critics, the success of ‘The Message’ created a moral hierarchy in hip- hop, elevating the politicised rappers to a higher plane than the thugs and the hedonists. But that doesn’t make it a truer repre- sentation of hip-hop’s soul. The instinct to forget one’s troubles may not be as noble as the urge to transcend them, but it is just as valid, just as potent, just as fundamental. ‘The Message’ was not the end of the debate: it was the beginning.

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“The angriest pacifist in the world”: talking politics with Michael Stipe

Yesterday I wrote an obituary for R.E.M. for the Guardian website and went back to the transcript of an interview I conducted with Michael Stipe to promote the R.E.M. Live DVD in 2007. Given that I hadn’t yet started work on 33 Revolutions Per Minute I was surprised how much we talked about politics, and impressed by how thoughtful his answers were. Only a few quotes made it into the Guardian piece and, subsequently, the book, so I thought now was a good time to post that portion of the interview in full.

DL: On the DVD you actually say that some of the songs are songs of protest. Most people shy away from that term these days.

MS: We released Final Straw on our website in the days before my country invaded Iraq. I’d never as a lyricist shied away from our personal activism or the things that work their way into the lyrics, whether I want them to be there or not. The most important thing in doing what I do as a lyricist is I think is not to be too conscious about where you’re going with material, but allow a more unconscious voice to do that that, to make those choices. And then my job is to edit out the crap, y’know. We live in really disturbing times, and I think anyone in any time in written history could say that. But we’re here right now. And I come from a really fucked up place right now. I love my country so much and I love what it represents. I don’t love where it is right now. And so that finds its way into the material.

DL: You seem personally depressed about the state of America right now

MS: I’m like a cynical optimist and the angriest pacifist in the world. I feel like we will rise above this, but sometimes it seems very bleak and the re-election of the current administration and the kind of whittling away at the one document that really holds us together as a country, that represents what America represents to the rest of the world, is something that just seems to have been forgotten and washed away in what is a huge cloud of media spin.

DL: After the 2004 election result how did you feel about the value of the Vote for Change tour?

MS: Obviously it was incredibly depressing that the current administration were brought back into office by whatever means that happened. The Vote for Change tour and the energy around it went on and mushroomed into a bunch of other… I feel like it was really great thing for the people who were involved with it. I don’t think we were preaching to the converted. I see now with the building up to the next national election, I see the result — basically personal activism, recognizing that the individual does have a voice in a democracy and brought together as a large group you can shift public opinion or spotlight things that you think are important.

DL: is it more potent performing those songs in America rather than Europe? When you played Final Straw at Hyde Park in 2005 there weren’t many Bush backers in the audience.

MS: Making that announcement here versus the US was a very different thing. Basically, by making that announcement here, I’m just calling for massive applause. In the US, I was calling for something to fucking throw something at my head. That’s not to say we have a right-wing audience, but our audience runs the gamut and I’m glad that they do. I want to be inclusive in the work that we do.

DL: Political activism for any artist is a rocky path. There are risks.

MS: I think I’ve gone too far in the past. In the 1980s, I was made to be something that I wasn’t. I became dangerously close to being the poster boy of a generation for various social and political ideologies and I hung away from that. It is who I am and it is who we are. Not a poster boy, but someone who’s concerned and someone who… it’s a very rocky and dangerous path cos you’re easily shot down if you come out too strong, or if you’re too scattershot or if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

DL: Do you compare notes with Thom Yorke or Bono?

MS: Yeah, you figure out the best possible way to present yourself because there is the idea that a pop star has no right to voice their opinion. And y’know I just always kinda blandly announce that I was a person before I was a pop star and I’m due my opinion as much as anyone.

DL: Did you realise in the late 80s that you weren’t the Bono-type personality who could feel comfortable dealing directly with politicians and your activism could not go that route?

MS: It did go that route, in ways that were successful and we did do some kind of amazing thing in a period of about three years. The one that comes to mind is a thing we did in Washington. We brought together the four largest environmental organisations in the US and brought them to one table, at which point we realised that these four organisations had never sat at the same table together, they’d never communicated. That might say more about charitable organisations.

DL: I notice you told one interviewer that they could get your thoughts on Bush and Iraq from listening to I Wanted To Be Wrong from Around the Sun but it struck me as much more ambiguous than Final Straw.

MS: Final Straw is pretty obviously a post 9/11 song. That was as much about being in New York on September 11 2001 and experiencing that first-hand. That song was a part of my healing… I hate that term, it wasn’t really healing, it was dealing with it. Then [I Wanted to Be Wrong] was just complete shock at how that had been turned upside down and turned into two wars. I wanted to be wrong. It’s pretty obvious; it’s all there. It’s a guy — and it’s not necessarily me — but it’s a guy who’s just looking at something that he loves a great deal, and in complete shock at how wrong it could possibly have gone. There’s a reference to Lennon in that song, about rattling your jewelry, that I really love… It’s for me very much about something that my country has never really dealt with, which is that we, by escaping and forming our own thing several hundred years ago, tried to distance ourselves from the class system and in doing so, set up our own class system but without the vocabulary to be able to easily move through it. As is often the case in my country, it falls along racial divides, we’ve all heard this story before, but in times like this, and under an administration like this, you find the very very worst coming out in people. You throw huge lobs of fearmongering in there and you have a pretty dire situation. So I was just looking around and thinking, How can it have come to this? We represent something so much bigger and better than this.

DL: Are you savouring the schadenfreude of seeing the Bush administration unravel since Hurricane Katrina?

MS: It’s a day late and a dollar short, or several billion dollars short, if you ask me.

DL: You can’t help but think, if only it had happened two years earlier.

MS: Try 22 years earlier.

I was going to avoid writing anything about 9/11 but I just read this piece by former MTV and BBC music strategist Chris Price about the problem of finding suitable music to play on a day when ears are sensitive to every lyric and liable to take offence:

Out went anything too jiggy, too banging, too edgy or too poppy, which didn’t leave much to play with – this was Radio 1 after all. Next, lyrics: Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve – out. Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl – out. U2’s Elevation – out. Within fifteen minutes of going to air, [Chris] Moyles had played every song in what remained of his first hour…. Musically we needed a kind of intermediary stage, one that would gently lift the national mood rather than yank the listener out of the doldrums and demand they feel fine again. We needed uplifting, anthemic guitar songs with shiny production and contemplative but hopeful lyrics that would bridge a gap between chill out and jiggy. We needed Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic. The days following September 11th 2001 may be the only time I have said this, but thank God for Coldplay.

As well as informing me that the In the Nursery Remix of Sabres of Paradise’s Haunted Dancehall was Radio 1’s go-to disaster music, Price’s piece reminded me of two things. Unlike him I didn’t attend the Mercury Prize ceremony but I was at the venue earlier in the day, waiting to interview Super Furry Animals, when I heard the news from a weirdly cheerful hotel doorman who, at that point, thought it was just a sorry indictment of American piloting skills. The interview finally took place two hours later, after the band and I had both dragged ourselves away from the TV to talk halfheartedly about pop music. It felt pointless and embarrassing to all of us and I have never felt more irrelevant as a journalist.

It was a know-your-place moment for a music critic. No on-the-ground reporting or opinion columns for me. Instead I wrote about the music that was played a lot over the following days (Bittersweet Symphony, One, Zero 7) and the songs that weren’t (Atomic Kitten’s Eternal Flame being an odd one), believing that was better than nothing. (If I remember rightly, a section on Clear Channel’s controversial “blacklist” in the US was cut for reasons of space.)

A few months later I wrote about hip hop’s curious response to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, and I guess that was the first step towards the book — a way of addressing politics through writing about music. Whether or not I have succeeded, I will never again feel quite as irrelevant as I did asking Super Furry Animals about their new album less than an hour after the towers fell.