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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