Sugarhill Records - The Basics:
- What: Independent rap label Sugarhill Records
- Where: Englewood, New Jersey, USA (Sugarhill Studios)
- Founded by: Sylvia and Joe Robinson (with funding from Morris Levy)
- Founded: 1974
- Closed: 1986
Sugarhill Early Days - Discovering a New Sound:
Sugarhill Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson was no stranger to the music industry in 1974 when Sugarhill was started. She had had success as a performer dating back to her 1950s hit Love Is Strange with the act Syliva and Mickey and had again had chart success in 1973 with Pillow Talk. Robinson, with her husband Joe, also had experience running record labels. They founded All Platinum Records in 1968, and they also ran the labels Stang and Turbo (which released primarily R&B music).
In the early 1970s, the pair became aware of the burgeoning rap movement and set up Sugarhill to focus on this new genre.
Sugarhill Gang and Rapper's Delight:
Though the label was founded in 1974, major success didn't come until 1979, when Sugarhill Records released the single Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang. Rapper's Delight charted at number 36 on the Billboard charts (number two on the R&B charts) and made it all the way to number 3 on the mainstream UK charts. Though some debate the point, Rapper's Delight is usually considered to be the song that "broke" hip hop/rap music and introduced what was up until then a largely underground genre to a mainstream audience. However, despite its impact, Rapper's Delight was not without controversy - more below.
Sugarhill Studios :
Not unlike Motown, most Sugarhill Records releases were recorded in a studio run by the label - Sugarhill Studios. There was an in-house producer/arranger in the form of organist Clifton "Jiggs" Chase and an in-house engineer, Steve Jerome. Likewise, there was an in-house band, including members from bands on the Robinsons' other labels. The studio, based in New Jersey, was not only for recording but was the center of all label operations. It burned down in 2002.
After Rapper's Delight, Sugarhill went from success to success with artists like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and Melle Mel and sold a massive amount of records as an indie label. Eventually, Sugarhill signed a M&D deal with MCA Records. Under the terms of the agreement, MCA was to get 25% of sales after recouping their costs - and their costs were secured by the Robinsons' ownership of Chess Records and Checkers Records catalog (Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry). Amid allegations that MCA was profiting from unreported sales, Sugarhill sued them. The case settled in 1991 and Sugarhill did not receive any money.
The End of an Era:
The MCA deal was the final straw for Sugarhill Records, which had been facing financial difficulties for some time. The label wrapped up operations in 1986. Some blame the MCA deal for the closing of Sugarhill, while others point to shady business practices (more info below).
In 1995, Rhino Records bought the Sugarhill masters and has released several Sugarhill compilations.
Sugarhill Records Artists :
Artists who released records on Sugarhill include:
Learn more about the history of hip hop on this About.com rap music site hip hop timeline.
Sugarhill Records - What's All the Controversy About?:
Sugarhill Records absolutely changed the face of music and released some of the most lauded rap albums ever. But, the label is dogged by charges of corruption, and it's true that artists started abandoning the label in early 1980s and that Sugarhill eventually had to declare bankruptcy. Much of what is said about the label is gossip and innuendo, and it's not easy to separate fact from fiction. These two stories are the ones that get mentioned most often when it comes to label bad practices.
The first involves that first hit single, Rapper's Delight. The song borrows the breakdown from Good Times by disco act Chic. Sugarhill claimed that they had their house band recreate the section, but a lot of people believed that it was directly lifted from the original recording (the song predates sampling technology as we know it today). Of course, these practices were becoming common at the time, and there weren't yet any clear "rules" about sampling/paying for samples, but the claim that the band re-recorded the music was definitely an attempt to avoid paying for the "sample." (Although some say it was an attempt to avoid running the payment through Chic's label and that Sugarhill paid the songwriters directly). Whatever the case with the Rapper's Delight sample, this issue would come up again for Sugarhill in a much more clear cut way in the future.
Another word about Rapper's Delight - The Sugarhill Gang weren't like the neighborhood crews leading the way in rap at the time - they were essentially a group put together by Sylvia Robinson. Some of the lyrics for the song written by Grandmaster Caz, aka Casanova Fly, of The Cold Crush Brothers, who was managed by Sugarhill Gang's Big Bank Hank. Hank starts his verse with "I'm the C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y."
The other story that comes up is the one involving the hit White Lines (Don't Do It). The song lifted a bass line from a song by 99 Records artists Liquid Liquid - there were also some lyrical similarities between the songs. 99's Ed Bahlman tried to get paid for the use of the song, Optimo, and Sugarhill said they hadn't sampled the song but that they had their band recreate it. The case eventually went to court - with Bahlman claiming to have been the subject of a campaign of intimidation. 99 won damages in the court case, but Sugarhill declared bankruptcy and 99 never collected.
Controversy aside, Sugarhill's impact on music can't be denied and they remain one of the most influential labels ever.