The playa has returned to his roots. Record promotion is where it all started for me, and that’s what’s up right now. New millennium R&B crooner, Carl Thomas is back with, “Don’t Kiss Me” a stellar mid-tempo ballad with a retro feel to it, and I am working it at radio. The record has started to garner airplay in the northeast already, and readers of this blog can hear early spins on WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, and in New York on WRKS-FM. Carl means business, and so do I.
I began to acquire my skills and feeling to promote records to radio, when I was a young, eager apprentice in the promotion department of Sugar Hill Records; history’s first internationally important rap label. The company was located at 96 West Street in Englewood, New Jersey. Soul City to frequent readers of this blog, long time residents, and true followers of the post 60’s American Black Music industry.
Because Soul City provided a more suburban and upscale experience, it became a mecca for members of the Black Music industry. And the King & Queen of the Black Music scene in Soul City were the late, Joe & Sylvia Robinson-co-founders of the All Platinum group of Soul Music labels, and Hip Hop’s first great label, Sugar Hill Records. In a town that Wilson Pickett, The Isley Brothers, George Benson, the Mizell Brothers, Van McCoy, Clyde Otis, Ed Townsend, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Murphy & John Travolta all called home at one time or another, Joe and Sylvia Robinson held sway over Soul City’s music community.
For the uninitiated, uninformed, the casual follower and the expert alike, it’s occasionally instructive to look back. The roots of hip hop go back to the early ’70s when DJ Kool Herc played a party in the recreation center for his sister in The Boogie Down Bronx. He began the practice of playing the most exciting parts of records that appeared in the middle of them, “the breaks” and rhythmically talking over them. Some of the early adopters of this novel approach to party music were colorfully named MCs; Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee, Treacherous Three, DJ Hollywood, Funky 4 + 1 More, Kurtis Blow, Grand Master Flash and The Furious 5 and others.
Forward thinking club owners, and independent party promoters began to take advantage of the exclusionary admission practices of New York’s mid-town dance music palaces (Studio 54, Xenon), identified a new niche and began to cater to the burgeoning hip hop audience by booking MCs to perform live.
People from Harlem, The Bronx and Soul City flowed through each others neighborhoods freely. Among them were, Joey Robinson, the eldest son of the Robinsons. Legend has it that it was Joey who frequented Harlem World, a hot club that was one of the early spots that catered to the Hip Hop audience, and guided his parents to the new art form that was being performed in the rec centers, parks and clubs of the city. This eventually led to a party being thrown at Harlem World for Sylvia, where she witnessed the excitement being generated by this new thing.
SYLVIA & JOE ROBINSON
You could catch on as a percussionist with the Isleys, a roadie with Benson, or as a gopher with Pickett. But with the Robinsons, you could be a singer, musician, producer, or up and coming exec and not necessarily have had a great deal of previous professional experience. You could have also been the former leader of a classic standup vocal harmony group like Philipe “Soul” Wynne of the Spinners, or Harry Ray of the Moments, and gotten a shot at the charts one more time.
The music business is not just musicians, artists, publishers, retailers, labels and venues. It’s not just programming for radio stations and network TV. When it’s done well, it’s money for restaurants that serve label staff members, receptionists, janitorial employees, florists, cab drivers that pick up and deliver clients, car dealers who lease and sell vehicles to artists, and execs; real estate agents who make their living by catering to the needs of music industry pros, sponsorship money for Little League baseball teams, membership fees for teams in Harlem’s Entertainers Basketball Classic and more. At the heart of all of this economic activity sits hit records and hit record making. And Sylvia Robinson’s ear, studio chops and Joe Robinson’s business moxie, kept it a little hotter for many of us who were satellites in their orbit.
I got to watch Joe operate, and string the promotion, pressing, distribution and sales together. His records were wholesaled through a network of independent distributors, who controlled the sale of records in their various territories. I saw and heard Sylvia practice her craft in the studio, and pour the feeling that she’d acquired as a child star, label head, writer, producer and hit maker for parts of four decades into several sessions.
They were affectionately known by members of their staff, and extended family as Mr. and Mrs. Rob. Joe passed on in 2000 and Sylvia last Thursday morning. They were truly two genius level entrepreneurs in this thing of ours. I will forever be grateful to them for having taken a chance on an untried and untested kid, and showing me what has been my way of life for all of my adult experience. RIP, Sylvia Robinson, you did your thing.