While the Fox network’s Empire is a huge hit TV Show, many have compared it to Sugar Hill records. Sugar Hill records made music industry history as the first label to produce a chart-topping hip hop record in 1979. Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang was a crossover smash immediately putting the label on the map. The label went on to make many more hits with groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Joey Robinson Jr. is said to be the one who discovered Sugar Hill Gang member Master Gee rapping in a pizza shop (other accounts state it was actually Sylvia who was in the Pizza shop that day). He told his father Joe Sr. about Master Gee and Master Gee, Wonder Mike And Big Bank Hank were signed to the label as The Sugarhill Gang releasing their first crossover smash hit and the first rap record to be on a label Rappers Delight, which sampled Chic’s previous smash hit from 1978 “Good Times.”
The three sons of the late Sylvia Robinson, the music pioneer who started Sugar Hill records in 1979, have been mired in controversy for several years before and after Sylvia’s death in 2011 concerning the label, royalties, performances and rights. Joseph, Leland and Rondo Robinson were assigned as copyright administrators for the label giving them exclusive rights including the name Sugar Hill Gang. Joey maintained the Sugar Hill Gang’s name which prevented the original group from performing and getting credit in America. They were still able to perform in Europe as a laws were different. In addition Joey Robinson Jr. put together his own version of the Sugar Hill Gang in the states billing himself as Master Gee. This caused an even greater rift between the original group and Sugar Hill records. The Robinson brothers were also fined and placed under house arrest for failing to file federal tax returns for several years. Royalties had not been paid in excess of 1.3 million because of the tax returns not being filed
Rapper’s Delight was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame with even more controversy as Sugar Hill Gang group members are fighting over who originally wrote the song. In a recent movie, “I Want My Name Back” about the Sugar Hill Gang and Sugar Hill Records, members of the Sugar Hill Gang stated Sylvia put her son’s names of some of the records, they didn’t write, as writers enabling them to collect royalties for life.
Yesterday, Joseph Robinson Jr. died, we have not yet confirmed the cause of death. His brother the youngest if the three, Rondo, died in 2014 (read story here). Before his death, Joey sold the rights to the life story of Sylvia considered the “Mother of Hip-Hop” for a biopic about her four decades as a pioneer in the music industry. The movie is said to be a glaring look into the difficulties Sylvia and her husband Joe had to endure to keep control of their publishing and master recordings. Sylvia Robinson was the first black woman to own her own label.