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How Sylvia Robinson mastered 'The Message'

Sugar Hill Records co-founder earned her title as the Mother of Hip-Hop""



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Most obituaries eulogizing Thursday's death of 75-year-old Sugar Hill Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson focus on the label's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. And with good reason. It was the first and biggest record released by the label she co-owned with husband Joe Robinson. It was also the first major rap record to electrify the nation and capitalize on an insulated trend still considered a passing fad by the industry at large.

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But the story behind the recording and release of Sugar Hill's other significant single, "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is equally compelling. Mainly because the record, largely considered the greatest rap song of all time, never would've come about if not for Sylvia Robinson's insistence and pressure. Though it wasn't widely known at the time, neither Flash nor four members of the Furious Five had any involvement in the creation of the song — which was kind of a revolutionary concept in the early 1980s, when the DJ was still the cornerstone of hip-hop.

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Instead, the song was written and performed by a Sugar Hill studio musician named Ed "Duke Bootee" Fletcher and lone Furious Five member MC Melle Mel. In the video, Furious Five member Rahiem lip-synchs Duke Bootee's lyrics. Duke Bootee and Robinson are credited as producers of "The Message," a song so groundbreaking at the time because it was the first rap single to trade party-toasting for a political message. It's also perfectly illustrates how the power the DJ held in live performance would be usurped by the producer in recordings as the genre was commodified.

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When I got the chance to interview Grandmaster Flash about it four years ago while he was promoting the release of his autobiography, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash," he talked about how the success of "The Message" was the beginning of the end for Flash and the Furious Five, and also about how relentlessly Robinson stayed on them to do the song despite their hesitance:

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Now, the record “The Message,” was a gift and a curse. Of course, whenever you heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it was always five MCs on the record, and that’s the way we came up, it’s the way we got our respect, it’s the way we got our crowds and our people because you’d see one DJ and hear one DJ, and you would see and hear five MCs, whether it was on a tape or whether it was on a record. And when that project was on the slate to be done — ‘The Message,’ I’m talking about — she would ask us for a period of time about doing a record having to do with the real life things that happen in the ’hood. And we kind of ducked it for a minute.




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