Robinson goes way back. She started out as a young teenager,
recording for Atlantic under the name Little Sylvia, scoring
a multi-million seller, 'Love Is Strange' (Groove) in 1956 on
a duet as Mickey and Sylvia. In 1974, as Sylvia, she had a disco
hit with 'Pillow Talk' (Vibration), a record that paved the way
for the simulated sex of early Donna Summer.
In '75 Sylvia and her husband Joe Robinson took the profits from
'Pillow Talk' and set up All-Platinum records in headquarters in
Englewood, New Jersey. All-Platinum had Shirley and Co. ('Shame,
Shame, Shame), The Moments (now doing business as Ray, Goodman
and Brown) and earlier-era holdovers Chuck Jackson and Hank Ballard.
Sylvia started writing and producing for The Moments.
All platinum eventually faded out. In '79 it was revived, using
the same offices and studio, as Sugarhill Records. Sylvia created
a rap group, the Sugarhill Gang, to go with the label. Their 'Rapper's
Delight' first put rapping on the map.
How did she come to sign Grandmaster Flash and the Funky Four?
"I knew of these kids from the Bronx, I had heard tapes of them
and my kids were playing the rap records the other companies were
putting out. The first Grandmaster Flash record really knocked
me out. I felt if I had put that out I could have brought it all
the way home. They are really natural street rappers. And then
by chance they were brought to me and I was just tickled."
Robinson wouldn't elaborate on who brought them and why. So I asked
about the fabulous Sugarhill house band.
"They are the same musicians that travel with the Sugarhill Gang
on tour. I put them together as a band, with the group.
"There's Doug Wimbish on bass, a white drummer called Keith LeBlanc,
Bernard Alexander on guitar, a horn section called Chops. The arrangements
are by Clifton Chase. We call him Jigs.
"Our concept is done before we even go into the studio. On 'That's
The Joint', the musical ideas came from a record that the Funky
Four brought in by Taste of Honey, and we added the funk part to
it. We take bits and pieces of stuff and add our own funk."
The Sugarhill Gang's borrowing of the bass line from Chic's 'Good
Times' in fact began a tradition of rap records borrowing rhythms
from more mainstream disco/funk.
I asked Robinson if she had got complaints from Chic.
" We had so many complaints from everybody but Chic. Everybody was
very nosy about it."
But no threats of lawsuits?
"No. Chic made money off it, so there's no problem there. They were
credited. (My copy of the record indicates they weren't). They
may have made more money off my record than they did off their
The company has had a good year?
"Oh, thank God."
What are you doing right? Everyone else says business is bad.
"I'd say God has been good to me. Because I have known bad times
too. You have to have hit records. But you have to go with different
records and different ideas, because the market has changed so
much. Sometimes they catch on, if you're lucky. I've been lucky."
What about the majors moving in on rap? Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic
was at the Ritz for the Sugarhill show.
"Yeah, did you see him hug and kiss me? I used to record for him
when I was thirteen years old.
"They have to recognise what's selling. Blondie number one with
a rap song and all. They may not like it but they have to deal
South Bronx unwraps the rapping revolution
article comes from the 30th May 1981 edition of the NME and was written by
New Yorker Richard Grabel. It's obvious that his preference would have been
an interview with Grandmaster
the biggest name on the rap scene at the time, but luckily for us Flash was
too greedy and he had to settle for The Funky Four Plus One.
What follows is a rare interview with 17 year olds K.K.
Rockwell, Keith Keith, Little Rodney C, Jazzy Jeff and Sha-Rock... straight
from the Bronx...
Last summer, when Kurtis Blow's 'The Breaks' was the sound of New
York city, sceptics said it was a novelty hit and that 'rapping'
would never last. They were wrong.
Naturally enough Kurtis Blow's album turned out to be a disappointment
- he records for a major label, and major labels still think in terms
of albums. Rapping is a music made for singles. 12" singles,
whose liberating opportunities for stretching out and riding a beat
the form fully explores.
As is so often the case with something black and streetwise, it took
a white interpretation (white wash?) to make it palatable for mass
consumption. So Blondie's 'Rapture' hitting the top of the pop charts
in the States finally pushed rap music over the line that divides
minority cults from true pop crazes. Suddenly rap is the thing to
dance to, to play at parties, to be curious about. A form instigated
by black teenagers in the South Bronx is becoming indispensable for
blacks and whites catching up to the new funk.
Blondie at least had the decency to acknowledge their debt. "Flash
is fast, Flash is cool" la Harry murmurs, introducing her rap.
The line refers to Grandmaster Flash, the leading light of rap, the
king of the quick mix, the Bronx's fastest fingers on the turntables.
The man is fast and cool, so cool he's even cold to pass interviews.
Three times I had been set to meet him and the Furious Five, and
three times they had cancelled.
The third time, I called Flash at home in the Bronx to make sure
he was coming. A man identifying himself as "Flash's secretary" took
the call. "Can you send a car up here for us?" he wanted
I explained that I had no car.
"Well you know we ain't even getting paid to do this?" Flash's
secretary said. I said they were getting paid in ink.
In publicity. Spread the fame of Flash. Turn more people on to rapping.
OK the secretary said, they'd be there. They never showed.
Which goes to show that with rap we're not dealing with a well-oiled
mechanism of the music biz machinery. Rap is mostly from and for
kids who know more about street hustling than media hustling. It's
marketed mostly by entrepreneurs more interested in fast money than
such niceties as royalty payments.
The rap youth are fresh-faced and naive, which is part of their charm,
but also leads to them being frequently exploited. Everything about
the rap phenomenon, from the strutting bass lines to the way the
records are distributed, is funky, grass roots. So when I interview
the Funky Four Plus One, they wind up asking me questions about the
business, like how long they should have to wait to get paid by their
record company. They are amazed to discover they should be entitled
to regular accountings. The whole phenomenon harkens back to the
days of the late '40s early '50s when scores of local operations
sold what were called "race records" for the black juke
joint market. There's a similar widespread lack of square dealing,
but against that a lot of adventurous music is getting slapped quickly
Rap is putting its roots out everywhere, making itself felt. James
Brown does 'Rap Payback'. Junie Morrison does 'Rappin About Rappin'.
Coati Mundi (Andy Hernandez of Kid Creole) appropriates the form
for 'Me No Pop I'. Lakeside stick some rap into 'Fantastic Voyage'.
The Clash dub it up on 'The Magnificent Seven' and get played on
black radio station WBLS for their trouble. Talk about crossover!
Rap is growing and moving. The records are starting to catch up with
the action on the street - meaning the house parties, block parties
and clubs. The fancy turntable work pioneered by Flash is finally
being recorded. This involves cutting back and forth between two
turntables with the same record, to reconstruct the record - the
famed "quick mix" - and also manipulate the turntables
manually to get a phrase of music, or a beat, or a word, to play
over and over. You can hear this stuff of Flash's 'The Adventures
Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel' (Sugarhill) and on Trickeration's
'Rap Bounce Rock Skate' (Sound Of New York).
There are new arrangements and textures. Bambaataa's 'Zulu Nation
Throw Down' (Paul Winley) is built on a spare, soothing organ and
bass sound, almost a Young Marble Giants of rap.
And rap keeps reaching out to other contemporary disco/funk for ideas,
then throwing them back with new moves added. The Treacherous Three's
'Feel The Heartbeat' (Enjoy) borrows the bass line of Tanya Gardner's
'Heartbeat' and uses it cunningly.
But the Funky Four Plus One's 'That's The Joint' (Sugarhill) is still
the rhythmic paradigm of the form. The rap-rhyming is almost choral
in arrangement, the five voices cutting back and forth in counterpoint,
teasing the beat, pulling back and then rushing to the break - "That's
the joint" chanted in unison. The backing track is impeccable.
If you're only going to buy one rap record, this is the one.
Though Grandmaster Flash played hard to get, it wasn't hard to get
the Funky Four Plus One to talk. It was hard to get them to stop.
They treat being interviewed and photographed as something new, maybe
even a good excuse for a party. They come bounding into Joe Stevens'
studio with tape box blaring (mostly old Motown), ready for anything.
Yet they're shy enough to freeze up when the camera starts clicking
- they're not used to it. When we talk, one of them - Jazzy Jeff
- never says a word, but it soon turns into a jumble of voices spilling
over each other, all agreeing, all shouting and rushing to make the
The Funky Four Plus One are Kevin Smith, Keith Caesar, Rodney Stone,
Jeff Miree and Sharon Green. "And don't forget our DJ" they
tell me. "Keith Williams, known as DJ Breakout. He's it. If
he mess up, we mess up." They are better known by their rapping
tags - K.K. Rockwell, Keith Keith, Little Rodney C., Jazzy Jeff and
Sha-Rock. As in: "I'm K.K. Rockwell 'cause I rock so well. Every time you
hear my name it rings a bell. I'm Keith Keith, you can call me Keith
reason why, I'm a woman pleaser. I'm Sha-Rock and I can't be stopped.
For all the fly guys gonna hit the top."
Tags are very important in rap, and in this rap is related to another
important activity of New York's ghetto kids - subway graffiti, or "writing",
as it's called. Graffiti has been called "a postcard from the
ghetto to the rest of the city". We're not talking about casual
squiggles or vandalism. The real "writers" are artists
executing complex designs with amazing graphic technique and eye
for colour. The most common motif is a stylised rendition of the
writer's tag - Blade, Futura 2000 and Seen are among the current
Rappers and writers both aim for a high recognition factor, so repeating
the tag becomes important. It's a matter of assertiveness, proclaiming
one's bravado and style, reaching for stardom in a star-obsessed
I put it to the Funky Four Plus One that what they and the graffiti
writers do is an advertisement to the world, saying "I'm coming
up from the bottom and here I am."
Rockwell: "That's what it is."
Sha-Rock: "That's why we put so much into it. 'Cause we came
a long way, and we want to get recognised for what we did."
Another form of ghetto youth culture related to rapping is breaking,
a competitive dance that involves executing complicated acrobatic
movements. The guys in the Funky Four Plus One, like a lot of other
rappers, started out by teaming up for breaking competitions in local
Rodney: "That was before rapping started. It was B-Boying, wild
dancing, on the floor spinning around. The MCs, all they used to
say was 'B-boys, are you ready?' and the B-boys would get down. It'd
be sides, like me and him would break against some others."
Keith: "Same with the DJ battles; my equipment against his,
my crew against his crew. It started in the parks. Everybody used
to bring out their sets and play out."
Rockwell: "Then it got to a certain point where one DJ would
go to another DJ's area and they'd have battles. You'd curse the
other DJ out, you know, saying 'I'm the best, you take your trash
Keith: "It was DJs and B-boys. All the groups had MCs but the
MC wasn't into rhyming or unity yet, they were just talking, like
radio announcers. Then it got to a point where somebody started "Hip,
hop, hip hipity hop" and "To the beat y'all, freak freak
y'all." And people started wanting to hear that."
What records did you B-boy to?
Keith: "Breaking records, fast records. Like James Brown 'Sex
Machine', 'Apache' by the Incredible Bongo Band, Sly and the Family
Rockwell: "Anything that was really funky."
Rodney: "Our group back then was the Brothers Disco. This is
how we'd do our party: we'd play some freaky music, then a lot of
B-boying. Then we'd play slow records. Then we'd tell them it was
over and where we were gonna play next time."
Keith: "If you did a good show you could be sure that people
they'd definitely be there when you'd play again."
Rodney: "Then when we started hip hopping, we 'd always use
hit records. If a DJ played a record and everyone liked it, we'd
make a routine off that record. At first the MCs didn't do rhymes,
just little sayings that the people started getting into. They started
hearing it so much they started liking it. Then it got into long
raps. First it was just one MC, then two. People used to think that
five MCs would never work. We were the first group with five MCs."
Sha-Rock: "Then later everyone had this five or that five. Furious
Five, Fantastic Five, Fabulous Five."
Keith: "The people that used to follow the DJs, like DJ Hollywood,
they used to be against hip-hop. We're young teenagers, and Hollywood
and them, they had a mature crowd. It was looked on as something
Sha-Rock: "Until they had to get into it 'cause that was what
the younger crowds would come to see."
Rodney: "Back then there wasn't too many places in the Bronx
that would let hip-hoppers in their clubs. 'Cause the younger crowds
were wild, and a lotta people were scared, they didn't want a lotta
kids in there who didn't know how to act."
The rap clubs in the Bronx are still looked on as dangerous to most
Keith: "Well sometimes they'd be fighting, like people from
different territories. If I was with one group and you was with another
group and you stepped on my shoes I might want to start something
with you. But it wasn't really wild."
Jeff: "It wasn't about fighting or nothing. Everybody'd just
be dancing and we'd be hip-hopping and it was a good party."
Where is it happening now?
Rodney: "Right now it's in the roller skating rinks, and the
T-Connection, and the Disco Fever. Now people will be skating while
After being in various combinations, the group as they are now got
together in the summer of '78. Sha-Rock, Little Rodney C, Jazzy Jeff
and Raheem, now of the Furious Five, were the original Funky Four,
in '77. They introduced the first female MC.
Rodney: "She was the first girl rapper in the world. Now some
girls are saying they're Sha-Rock, or they're Little Sha-Rock. You
see groups using our tags."
Rockwell: "It was more like a boys' sport, like basketball.
You wouldn't figure a girl to be doing it."
Sha, did you worry people wouldn't accept you?
Sha-Rock: "No, because when I started it was just beginning,
the MC thing. I didn't feel awkward because I started when it all
Rockwell: "Eventually it got to all girl MCs and girl DJs."
Keith: "But they die."
Rockwell: "'Cause it takes skill. You can't do it just for the
gimmick. It won't last long."
Are the raps and routines hard to memorise?
Rodney: "At first. You just say them over and over. You're sitting
on a bus and people start looking at you."
Sha-Rock: "I used to stay up late practising and my mother used
to say 'Child, when are you going to sleep?' That was my whole life."
The stories start to sound like something out of the Coasters' 'Yakkety
Rockwell: "My mother used to say, 'Boy you better go to sleep,
you failed this test, you failed that test, you'd better stop that
dancing and running around in the street."
Sha-Rock: "My mother too. She'd say 'Stop going into them juke
By 1979 the Funky Four Plus One and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious
Five were the two top rap groups, the kings of the Bronx. Every weekend
they jammed 'em in at the T-Connection, the Back Door and the Spot.
Then the Sugarhill Gang came out of nowhere (Englewood, New Jersey,
actually) with 'Rapper's Delight', and the Bronx kids got a shock.
Keith: "When Sugarhill came out we had everything planned to
make a record, we just didn't have anybody to make a record for."
Rodney: "After Sugarhill Gang came out with a record we knew
we had to do it, 'cause they was getting all the credit. We were
the original street rappers. None of them knew how it felt to be
out in the street or play in a club till four in the morning."
The chance for both groups came in the form of Bobby Robinson, who
runs the Enjoy label out of a Harlem record shop. In the late '50s
early '60s Robinson recorded The Channels, Gladys Knight and the
Pips and Lee Dorsey. In the last three years he has been one of the
sharpest talent scouts on the rap scene, putting out the first records
by the Funky Four Plus One and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious
Five. Currently he's got the Treacherous Three and the Disco Four
in his stable.
Robinson's problem has been holding on to his charges. Both Flash
and the Funky Four left Enjoy after one record, enticed over too
Sylvia Robinson's (no relation) expanding Sugarhill label.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did their best record so far,
'Superrappin’, for Enjoy, But the Funky Four Plus One really
flowered after the move. Coincidentally, the riff they brought in
for 'That's The Joint' gave the Sugarhill house band its finest hour.
Keith: "Miss Robinson came to see us. She sent the scouts out
to a couple of our parties, and they liked us, and they asked us
if we'd like to get down with Sugarhill."
Rodney: "We thought, well, they were the first one to start
it, so it would be to our advantage to get down with them."
Keith: "But she didn't pump our records like we were expecting
her to pump it."
Rockwell: "We figure people like punchlines, like 'that's the
breaks' . So we made a record with a punchline 'that's the joint'.
We figured we'd wake up one morning and here it on the radio. But
she's not pushing it. (Actually it's played on the radio and in clubs
frequently). We know how cool we are."
Rodney: "And she knows. But being that she produced the Gang
first she wants them to always be number one."
Sha-Rock: "But it can't be like that too long, 'cause if you
say you are number one you got to live up to it."
Rodney: "We can't just go out and say, 'Hey, we were the first.'
We got to show them. We could make a record a day. We see what happens
in the street. We get ideas there."
As an example of instant street culture, rap is almost too good
to be true. It captures the mood and swing and sass and swagger
kids in a way no music has for years. Which makes it dangerous to
analyse, because it's too easy to play instant sociologist with
this stuff. There is a tendency among
the white, downtown art elite in New York to treat rap as exotica
be put on display. It's telling that the first performance by a
rap group downtown was the Funky Four Plus One's appearance at
not a club but a SoHo 'artists space'.
That was late '79. Last month a "Sugarhill Night" at The
Ritz demonstrated the commercial ascendance of rap. It was packed.
The crowd wasn't the arty cognoscenti but just anyone who'd heard
this funny talking stuff at a club or on a passing box and got hooked.
They weren't there for detached observation. They got down!
Sha-Rock: "A lot of the people at The Ritz we knew from the
places we played like the Mudd Club or The Kitchen. We went out ourselves
to play places like that so we'd get known to people down this way."
If rap is so dripping with authenticity it's in danger of being put
on a pedestal, by the same token it's too much a grass roots thing
to go away. The kids on the street dig it too much. Rap is going
to be heard, it's going to sneak into all kinds of funk and dance
music. It's going to have children and bastard children and hybrids
of all sorts.
It's going to put you to a test. How much of that beat can you stand
before your mind or your feet cave in? To the beat y'all.