The Real Sugar Hill Records Story: In-House Drummer Keith Le Blanc on the Myths Surrounding Rap's First Label
"I don't think the true Sugar Hill Records story has ever been told because there's so much skull-duggery attached to it," says Keith Le Blanc, the one-time in-house drummer for Sugar Hill Records. The pioneering New York label, which brought hip-hop to the world's ears in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," later became legendary for mistreating rap's first wave of recording talent--their accounting habits made rumors about Suge Knight's shady activities at Death Row Records seem like behavior befitting a hippie artist's commune. With the release of a fresh retrospective on the label, A Complete Introduction To Sugar Hill Records, we asked Le Blanc to address a bunch of the popular accusations aimed at the notorious enterprise, which was run for years by the infamous husband-and-wife duo of Sylvia and Joe Robinson.
The Sugar Hill Gang scored hip-hop's first big pop hit with "Rapper's Delight"--but were they really a rap group at all?
"All the other rappers didn't consider the Sugar Hill Gang to be real rappers. They just got lucky. They hadn't lived the life, they hadn't invented anything. They took what people were already doing in New York and Sylvia got her son [Joey Robinson Jr.] to find some kids to imitate what was going on in New York. There wasn't so much resentment towards the Sugar Hill Gang as jealousy that they got to be the first group out. I think Sugar Hill Gang is the only group that was manufactured--the others all had their own material."
According to legend, Big Bank Hank stole the lyrics he recited on "Rapper's Delight" from the Cold Crush's M.C. Grandmaster Caz. Was this rap's first documented case of stealing?
"For Big Bank Hank, they definitely had to write raps for him. I know the Furious Five helped him write at times, and [fellow Sugar Hill Gang member] Wonder Mike would help him. Sometimes Sylvia Robinson would even help write lyrics for them. It was a joke in the company--they'd make jokes in the studio under their breath. It was also kinda a joke that it was really hard to make them sound funky. Compared to the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee or Kool Moe Dee, it was night and day. To be honest with you, the only one in the Sugar Hill Gang to me that was creative was Wonder Mike. He wrote all his own stuff and was a funny guy. He could have been a comedian. He used to do this routine where he'd do an imitation of a black weather man, like how a black rapper would do the weather, cause in those days there weren't any black people on TV."
Naughty By Nature rapper Treach once boasted that he was "more feared than a Sugar Hill contract," alluding to the way paperwork was skewed against artists. Did anyone who recorded for Sugar Hill ever get paid?
"Really, the best way to get money out of the Robinsons was to be related! Beyond that, the one that got the most consistent money was [in-house arranger] Jiggs Chase, cause he was arranging songs all the time. For artists, it was the Sugar Hill Gang, because when it first started they were trying to do the right thing. They made pretty good live money, at least, though I don't think they got what their record did. Looking back, it seemed like Sugar Hill used money as a tool to manipulate people to do what they wanted. I wish I didn't have to say that in an interview, but I can't lie, that's how it seemed to me. It seemed like whenever a group asked for what they were supposed to get, they got thrashed by the company, didn't get anything released for a while, and were left to go broke. It was the old pimp game. It's a shame, cause if Sugar Hill had done even 25% of the right thing for their artists, they'd have been the biggest rap label ever."
Hip-hop's folk story decrees that the nascent hip-hop scene regularly mixed with New York's downtown punk crowd. Was there really a brilliant clash of cultures going on?
"No, not at all. The cultural cross-over might have been someone who'd listened to The Ramones a few times--and I don't know how much you'd call that punk. We'd hear it in the rehearsal studios, but punk never got anywhere near the Sugarhill Records scene, really. When we'd do shows, the crowd was always mixed, but a lot of the time we were on big r&b tours, opening for groups like Parliament, Funkadelic, Cameo, The Gap Band, Roger Troutman--anybody that had a hit at the time."
Keith Le Blanc's "Malcolm X No Sell-Out" is credited as one of the first ever examples of a totally sample-based hip-hop song, being based around vocals from Malcolm X speeches. But did Sugar Hill rip-off Malcolm X's widow in the process?
"For that song, sometimes Grandmaster Flash would play beats and take the soundtrack to Dirty Harry and chime in over the top. I thought that was a good idea and Sugar Hill had put out some speeches of Malcolm X's before I got there, so I grabbed a few of them. Marshall Chess was there at the time--the label were working the Chess records catalogue that Joe Robinson had just bought but didn't know what to do with--so I approached Marshall and he agreed to finance the record. In the end, we went over the river to Tommy Boy records to put it out as I found out that Sugar Hill never paid Malcolm X's wife any money and she didn't want anything to do with them." (Bonus Egregiousness: The song was also released on Sugar Hill Records, credited to The Sugar Hill All-Stars. Asked about the group, Le Blanc says bluntly, "No, there was no such thing as the Sugar Hill All-Stars...")
On the surface, Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)" was an anti-drugs ode. But was the whole thing an ironic in-joke designed to mask rampant substance use on the Sugar Hill scene?
"No one really partied in the studio. When it came to being in the studio, there was lots of money being spent and it was pretty serious to get the job done. There was that New York ethic that if you were derelict in any way it would show and you would be replaced by someone waiting in the wings for their shot. After the job's done, the rappers might go outside to party a little bit, but they definitely didn't do that in front of Sylvia! She was definitely the queen bee in the studio. On tour, I saw people do all kinds of stuff, but the only time the work ethic slipped in the studio was around tax time, when lots of older, non-hip-hop artists would come in to record records that would never come out. We didn't find out that was their way of writing off taxes until a lot of years down the line, but they'd have artists like Squeeze, Candy Staton, Bunny Siegler, Jack McDuff come in to work..."
History has characterized Sylvia Robinson as a ruthless, money-grabbing business lady. But did she add anything to the label's creative output?
"I would say that Sylvia's forte was being able to recognize talent and get all that talent in the same room at the same time. She would have some creative input as far as what she did and didn't like about this or that, or she might have an idea based on something that she heard in a club and would get Jiggs Chase to write, but mostly the creative side of the music came from the musicians and the rappers."