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Sugar Hill Records’ Joe and Sylvia Robinson

The Infiltration of Black Rap (1981–86)

Black entrepreneurs — the earliest purveyors of recorded rap — created an industry, but their story remains mostly untold

“We can’t have anything?” Minister Farrakhan sighed as he broke down at the selling of yet another Black company, Soft Sheen. Soft Sheen had just sold to the largest cosmetic company in the world, L’Oreal (the same company that would gobble up Carol’s Daughter… but that’s another piece). Of course, Minister Farrakhan mentioned the BET/Viacom sell-out. But what he didn’t mention — in this particular lecture — was the recorded rap whiteout that took place between 1981 to 1986.

Reams and reams have been written about Def Jam, Tommy Boy, Profile, and other record labels, but one would have a hard time locating any real scholarship on those early purveyors of recorded rap — the businessmen who put their companies and reputations on the line for what white record industry executives (and their Black emulators) considered a fad.

It would be almost a decade before Black entrepreneurs wrestled some control back from the opportunistic vultures who recognized the vulnerability and self-hate of young Black men and women who were just looking for a few bucks for clothes or local notoriety. The creators of the music watched the industry grow into one of the most popular genres in the world… and received little to no benefit for their creation.

Our story, of course, begins where all rap stories begin: with Sylvia and Joe Robinson cashing in on the popular subculture of hip-hop by assembling three able-bodied non-rappers to become the Sugarhill Gang. The two would make a label of the same name — Sugar Hill Records — recording the first popular rap song and pilfering the Bronx and other labels of talent.

It’s a well-known and often told story that we won’t waste time and space here to retell. Some of that history is covered in “The Devil Killed New York Rap,” but there are far better and more in depth portraits everywhere. Google the word ‘hip-hop’ and the word ‘history’ together — voilà. What takes place over the next seven years in general — but 1980 in particular — is our primary focus, although we will work to bring the story full circle.

The story of Black record labels doesn’t start the same way that white record label stories do. There is rarely a mention of someone borrowing seed money from a parent. Also, one rarely hears of second and third generation music people. Our stories start with number running, mob deals, parlaying this into that, riding the waves and trends trying to stay afloat and sometimes the key players end in court. The history of Black labels is a Black story and it’s mostly untold.

As mentioned earlier, we have to start with “Rapper’s Delight” as our foundation, as one can’t talk Black rap without talking Black radio and Black record stores. Let’s face it, playing a fifteen minute song — or any song for that matter — was a daunting proposition. When the average song clocked in at three to four minutes, the Sugarhill Gang’s breakout track sucked up all the time, leaving little room for radio’s bread and butter: advertising. That said, people were reluctant to play it.

That was just one of the challenges. The other challenge was that rap was a mostly unknown genre. If you lived outside of the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut), there was almost no chance that you would have stumbled across a hip-hop cassette. Those were mostly distributed locally through independent cab services. How could a radio station program director have any idea how their audience would respond to people “talking” over a record for fifteen minutes? Then, of course, there were issues of class.

Yes, white people, that issue exists in the Black community as well. Our class issues are deep and involve status, wealth, education, complexion, regionalism — a whole lot of shit. Generally speaking, those with power operate with “respectability politics.” The definition of respectability politics is: attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values, rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference. These are the type of politics that Berry Gordy threw at Marvin Gaye when Gaye wanted to record “What’s Goin’ On.” The type of politics that manifested when the Temptations wanted to emulate Parliament and Funkadelic. Those politics had no way of weighing where “Rapper’s Delight” fit in just yet, but it was certain of one thing: this wasn’t singing.

Because of all this, the Robinsons had a hard time finding anyone to play their groundbreaking single. But they worked their connections and it finally paid off, but not in the tri-state area where people had some familiarity with hip-hop. The first people to hear the song that would jumpstart a multi-billion industry were over 900 miles away.

What is that ? They’re rapping over… this is Chic’s music,” Gates said. “That made it passable, because Chic had sold about 10 million records already. I said, ‘I like that. I’m going to play that now.’ — Jim Gates

Gentleman Jim Gates, the program director for Black-owned WESL — 1490 on the AM dial — always had an ear for hits. As a youth, he would listen to the radio until they signed off. Even at a young age, Gates said he knew a hit as soon as he heard one. By 1979, Gates had logged a decade in radio and had risen to the position of program director.

Gates knew Joe Robinson from earlier in his career, and as a favor, he agreed to have “Rapper’s Delight” played. As the story goes, Gates had to find someone to play it and decided upon DJ personality Edie Bee. But Bee had no desire to play the record, not because she disliked the song or even knew what it was, but because the three Jersey-based male musicians conflicted with her all women final hour routine.

Despite her reservations, she played the record and before the song was even over, the phone lines began lighting up. “Rapper’s Delight” was requested so much that at one point Gates had it played twice an hour for two hours. You do the math. Legend has it that orders streamed in right away to the tune of 30,000 to 50,000 records, all placed by local distributors. “Rapper’s Delight” may be one of — if not THE — biggest selling 12-inch vinyl singles ever. We’ll never know, of course, because Joe Robinson didn’t register with the RIAA and most of the records were sold by Black owned “mom and pop” shops.

Everything about the first recorded rap song was Black — from the creator, to the outlet, to the distributors and the buyers. Long before any white people caught on or even had any idea what it was, rap had exploded… at least in its recorded form.

Modern white historians downplay the rush of Black labels to jump on the proverbial rap bandwagon. Skipping over dozens of recorded songs, either because they’re unfamiliar with the musicians or perhaps they’re engaging in the age old discriminatory practice of only allowing a few Blacks in at a time. Whatever the case may be, from October 1979 when “Rapper’s Delight” premiered until October of 1980, there was a gold-rush frenzy to record rap by dozens of independent labels.

The analogue to Sugar Hill’s influence and strong-arming was Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy Records. Robinson’s classic story, starts with the 8 G’s he earned in the service by loansharking. With $2500 of it, the 29 year old Robinson bought a record store on Harlem’s famed 125th street — right down the block from the Apollo Theater. Some say he was the first Black business owner on 125th street. Mr. Robinson knew music and began recommending James Brown and Elmore James to Frank Schiffman, the Apollo Theatre’s booking agent.

Bobby Robinson & friends

Soon Bobby Robinson was recording music out of the back of his record store. Doo wop was in full swing and Robinson cashed in, recording and naming the then-unknown Gladys Knight and the Pips. Time went on, and despite having his ear to the street, it would take another Harlem record producer to open his eyes to the latest trend in Black music.

Disco producer Peter Brown was a major player in the early rap single bonanza. He is rarely mentioned in the early recorded rap discussion. For reasons unknown, Brown ran over 28 labels with titles like Land of Hits and Heavenly Star. He was close to Sugar Hill’s Joe Robinson and like countless others, heard “Rapper’s Delight” and the corresponding “cha-ching.” He had to have a rapper, as disco was waning.

Peter Brown strolled into Bobby Robinson’s store. Robinson’s nephew, Spoonie G, and his crew The Treacherous Three, were beginning to make a name for themselves. Brown wanted to make his first record with them, but none of them were present. He left the word with Robinson’s other nephew, conga player Pooche Costello. Once Spoonie heard, he met up with Brown, and they rolled with Costello to the studio and recorded “Spoonin’ Rap” in one take. The single was released on Brown’s Sound of New York/Harlem Place Records imprint.

It was huge locally. Not nationally, but huge nonetheless. Huge enough for Spoonie Gee to have notoriety. Huge enough for him to perform alone. And The Treacherous Three wanted to be down. Why they didn’t just stay with Brown and his many labels one can only speculate. Instead, Spoonie and his crew took it back to the family record company, Enjoy, and put together what is to this writer the first classic 12-inch, “Love Rap/New Rap Language.”

Another afterthought in the tale of early rap producers is Paul Winley, who, in reality, could be famous alone for his compilation of eight popular breaks, Super Disco Brakes. He put out the first of six volumes in 1979 and continued putting them out until 1984. And if he wasn’t famous for that he could be famous for “discovering” doo wop group The Jesters. But as far as rap, Winley dropped a series of songs: his daughters Tanya ‘Sweet T’ Winley and Paulette Winley recorded “Rhymin’ and Rappin’” as well as Sweet Tee’s “Vicious Rhyme.” More importantly, he recorded one of hip-hop’s founding fathers.

What modern historians credit Bobby Robinson for is being the first to record a “real” hip-hop artist. He recorded Funky Four + 1 More’s, “Rappin and Rocking the House” in 1980… but Paul Winley also recorded the “Zulu Nation Throwdowns 1 & 2” in 1980, so more specifics are needed. Bobby Robinson had done his homework though — that much is true. He didn’t stop with Funky Four +1 More, he then added on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five for “Super Rappin’” and the first of the truly unsung bunch, Kool Kyle the Starchild.

Although his name only rings out among the rap geek population now, in 1980 Kool Kyle had almost DJ Hollywood status. And that is perhaps why he’s rarely mentioned as a major Enjoy signing. Kool Kyle was more of what they called a “disco rapper;” meaning he had a more polished, clean, adult sound. He performed in clubs — not the parks — but he was still a b-boy and rapper. He was still one of most popular “rapping DJs” in the Bronx, which is why 1980’s “Do You Like That Funky Beat” is significant.

Most rap historians discount the explosion of recorded rap in late 1979 — 1980. Perhaps their measure of success is Sugarhill Gang’s meteoric rise. I’m sure that was what every artist recording at the time aspired to as well. But let’s be real—most would settle for what we call “hood famous,” having enough notoriety to be recognized on the street and enough street cred to book shows. That more than a desire to be at Sugar Hill status appears to be what drove the swell of recorded rap at that time. Very few of the songs recorded outside the Sugar Hill Recording factory followed the cover song formula.

Whatever the case may be, 1980 has to be looked at as year one and it was almost 100% Black. Take Peter Brown’s output as an example. In addition to the previously mentioned songs, Brown also put out Margo’s Kool Cut Crew’s “Death Rap” on his Heavenly Star imprint, Mistafide’s “Equidity Funk” on his Land of Hits imprint, Master Jay’s “We Are People Too” & Mr. Fox’s “Smooth Talk” on his Golden Flamingo imprint, Teen Machine’s “Teen Machine Rap” on his Land of Hits imprint — you get the picture. Brown’s releases matched Sugar Hill’s in quantity, if not in quality.

And I’m not much into making lists, but suffice it to say the amount of songs released in 1980 — at least 100 — were enough to consider rap a genre. Modern ears are unfamiliar with a majority of the releases and names; I’m sure few people would cite Nice & Nasty 3's “Ultimate Rap” as their first foray into rap. Contextually with each release, young aspiring rappers saw another route to success. And Sugar Hill appeared like the place to be. Whether it was the sound quality, the label’s logo, whatever — Sugar Hill Records exuded success. While most rap shows had now classic, hand-drawn flyers and posters, Sugar Hill Records’ posters screamed professionalism.

Between Sugar Hill looking like the major leagues and Joe Robinson’s strong arm tactics, two of Enjoy’s biggest signings decamped to Sugar Hill. Eventually, even Bobby Robinson’s nephew and his crew would leave for the New Jersey label.

It’s almost a common refrain. When immigrants move to America and decide to open up shop, their first destination is wherever the most Black people are. A stroll through what’s left of the Black communities in the U.S. supports that claim: liquor stores, nail salons, corner stores, even hardware stores — more often than not — are all foreign owned.

Which is good business—you see a need and you provide that service. And that’s exactly what the first non-Black rap labels had to offer. Peter Brown, Bobby Robinson, Sylvia and Joe Robinson, Paul Winley all were older than their artists, old enough to be the rappers' parents or grandparents. Because of that age gap, they often tended to be paternalistic. Greater than that, in the case of Winley and Bobby Robinson, they entered into the Black music business two genres (R&B and disco) ago. How in tune could their tastes have been?

But Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki were in their early 20s.

I have to mention again, while it’s spoken of so matter factly and without any note being made of it — Robbins and Plotnicki didn’t have to start from zero. Sure they had no artists and no real experience, but the hardest thing to raise — the unicorn for most aspiring Black entrepreneurs — is capital. Both Robbins and Plotnicki were able to go to their parents with their dream and ask for $17,000. I don’t know about you — but even now, I doubt my parents have $17,000 to shell out to me. Robbins and Plotnicki took that 34 Gs, rented out office space, opened up Profile Records and were the first to plug the gaping hole in the early rap scene.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde were a part of that 1980 wave of rap records with “Rapper’s Convention.” They recorded it for Harlem World owner, ‘Fat’ Jack Taylor’s Tayster Records as a part of the Harlem World Crew. Like many of the releases in 1980, it was a local hit, gained Jeckyll and Hyde some local fame, but it did little to put money in their pockets. Mr. Hyde was taken under the wing of the Aleem Brothers (Taharqa and Tunde Ra Aleem), twin record producers who were known for their bodybuilder physiques and their musicianship. He recorded “Young Ladies” under the moniker Lonnie Love for the Brother’s Nia imprint. Without verification one can assume that they were offered what seemed like a large amount of money for the single and they took it. But it is unclear what Profile did that the Aleem’s couldn’t.

We can say this — as a people, due to our condition and our oppression, the NOW has historically been more important. Legacy, an afterthought. Not to mention, we historically have been of the belief that somehow what white people have is better. It’s this writer’s opinion that that’s why seeing the red and black of Profile’s label painted a picture of a company that was bigger than it really it was. Appearance usually takes precedence over reality. So I’m sure the professional packaging played a role in the perception that Profile could do more for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

The reality, however was far more dubious. Although they did record a hit with “Genius Rap” — a smash by 1981 standards, selling 150,000 over an interpolation of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” — all they received was $2,000 and the right to give up all of their publishing for the rest of their deal. Meanwhile Profile made a dollar a record — yes, $150,000 — enough for them to move into bigger office space. Mr. Hyde? He took his girlfriend out to dinner, bought a pair of sneakers, and gave his mother the rest of his money.

“And basically, back then you would try to take a current record, that was hitting the charts, and you’d do a rap over it, like, another version. And at the time there were two that we were thinking of: ‘Genius Of Love’ Tom Tom Club and ‘Funky Sensation’ by Gwen McCrae. Basically, I figured that someone else was going to do ‘Genius Of Love’ and there were three versions that came out. So we picked ‘Funky Sensation,’ and we called it ‘Jazzy Sensation.’ And that sold, for Tom, like 50,000 records.” — Arthur Baker

The legend says that Afrika Bambaataa’s move to Tommy Boy was because he was frustrated by the reception that “Zulu Nation Throwdowns pt 1 & 2" received. And while I’m sure that played a role, I think the other popular story is closer to the truth. Bambattaa was a man with eclectic taste — the DJ that would drop “C is for Cookies” in the middle of a jam. Winley’s Harlem Underground Band did him no justice.

But how then does one explain Afrika Bambattaa’s first Tommy Boy recording, “Jazzy Sensation?” Was there already a deal to do a groundbreaking record? Did they stay in the studio right after the recording of “Sensation” and go right into “Planet Rock?” Because based on the first recording, the whole didn’t-want-to-do-cover-music rap theory doesn’t hold water. According to Arthur Baker, it was only after the success of “Sensation” that they decided to make another record.

Of course we know what came next. With “Planet Rock,” Tommy Boy is put on the map. But what also happens is a change of sound. Recorded rap moves from the disco-esque, live band sound to a more electro-rap sound. That played a major role in the elimination of many of the labels that were backing-band heavy. Even labels like Enjoy had to change; The Fearless Four’s “Rockin’ It” perhaps being the last release of its kind. But no more Peter Brown releases. No more Paul Winley singles. Just an overall drop in Black independent records.

One would think that a more drum machine oriented sound would have worked to the advantage of these labels, but it was quite the contrary. Drum machines in the early 80s were hard to come by and incredibly expensive. Even if you lept over both of those hurdles, there was a serious learning curve. As students of rap know, even Arthur Baker rented the TR 808 for Planet Rock and still needed someone to operate it.

Sugar Hill Records would survive due to two men: Duke Bootee and Reggie Griffin. Enjoy would be able to move forward due to Master Don. What has to be remembered is rap was a low cost venture — a moderate hit of 100,000 records sold could keep the lights on. I’m not sure how many records Masterdon’s “I’m the Packman” song moved, but it made some noise. Funk Box — the name given to Masterdon’s 808 — was a staple on Power 99 in Philly and could still be heard on the radio in 1984. I needn’t explain Duke Bootee’s contribution; we all know “The Message.” Reggie Griffin, on the other hand, had a mastery of technology and brought the electro sound to Sugar Hill with “Scorpio,” a track that had neither Grandmaster Flash nor the Furious Five and was done entirely by Griffin, according to legend. Whatever the case, people bought it.

Sugar Hill Records remained viable by sheer volume alone. A list of their catalogue shows that any given year between 1980–1985 Sugar Hill had put out ten or more songs. Enjoy Records had far less. But what they both had in common was a growing reputation of poor business practices—most notably, not giving artists their due. The average Sugar Hill or Enjoy Record credits left out Jiggs and Pumpkin respectively and neither label was big on kicking out royalties. Hits began dwindling and artists acted like free agents — they looked for the team selling the most records. Their motivation wasn’t necessarily money, they just wanted more. It was a B-side release by a largely unknown group from a borough that what was yet to be on the rap map that put a death nail in that entire era of music as well as the labels that championed it. More was to come, indeed.

Some claim it was lack of vision. Others make claims of him being money hungry. But this writer believes that if Russell Simmons had the capital, he would have made a label around his brother Run. If there was any lack of vision it was due to that. Simmons had the foresight to recognize that people really wanted a recorded rendition of a live rap show. Simmons saw that he had to strip away all artifice: “no curls, no braids…” no spacesuits, no spikes — none of that — his group would appear like the everyday b-boy. Simmons even knew the name Run DMC — in a time where names like Two Fresh MCs (or something to that effect) was the norm — Simmons knew that that name would ring out. The “lack of vision” claims clearly are false and usually used in a compare and contrast argument to build up the character of his future partner, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Run DMC before their uniformed look.

I have to be honest — I was never a fan of “It’s Like That,” let’s get that out of the way. It seemed too simple and slow and tame. “Wake Up,” a song from the debut album had the same amount of saccharin. I couldn’t get behind those songs at all. But the B-side...

The B-side won again. “Sucker MCs (Krush Groove part 1)” not only changed my life, it changed the trajectory of recorded rap. It was hungry. It was hard. It felt young and new and the way it started (“boom bap bap bap bap bap bap bap bap”) jarred the listeners attention. I’m not alone in saying that my identity was shaped by Run DMC and this release. Of course, that could have been the first Def Jam record— it certainly is the blueprint for its aesthetic. But instead Simmons did what everyone did in this era: he took his group to a label — in this instance Profile — and got a shitty deal.

If “Genius Rap” opened the door for Profile, “It’s Like That/Sucker MCs” bought Robbins and Plotnicki the whole damn building. That single alone moved 250,000 units (keep in mind the dollar a record equation). Success is like the lead fish in a school, as all the other fish follow close behind. The only difference is: unlike fish, people with that mentality are rarely protected. Profile had its pick of talent. And that was just a single. At Simmons urging, Profile put out what no other record label would dare attempt. Run DMC dropped a self-titled, cohesive album and it was a success. And that, dear reader, is an understatement.

This is my era, when I came into hip-hop consciousness. I could wax poetic about 1984 and what the music meant to me, but that’s another essay. Suffice it to say, the summer and fall were filled with “Sucker MC’s” inspired songs.

Like “Rapper’s Delight,” enough ink has been dedicated to “It’s Yours.” Not because of its bass, although that’s noted. Not because of the rapper, T La Rock, whose interesting history of being down with Coke La Rock and Scott La Rock have yet to be investigated. Nope. “It’s Yours” is talked about due to the overwhelming lovefest for Rick Rubin.

We know that Rubin ran what would become Def Jam from his dorm room. We know he wanted the Treacherous Three, but they were under contract. We know how his parents treated him for God’s sake and his childhood sensibilities. For us, none of that is important.

What’s important to us is Rick Rubin had a moment when he heard “Sucker MCs” and his eyes were opened to the type of rap he wanted to make. Because of that, “It’s Yours” is of the same stripped-down, beat box and scratch-type rap. A sound he would repeat on the first true Def Jam recording — LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat.”

The recording of the former is what brought Rubin and Simmons together. Supposedly, Rubin convinced Simmons that they could have their own label, and borrowed $5000 from his family. Simmons threw in some of his own money and the legend of Def Jam began.

That’s the well known story and while that’s not the end of any Black label per se — Russell Simmons empowered everyone from Andre Harrell to Lyor Cohen, but the focus became less about him and more about the bearded Rubin. Everyone knows this story and if they didn’t, they could drown in the words dedicated to it.

The other story — the one less known—is about a small label and a big hit. Fred Munao began his label Select in 1981, the same year as Tom Silverman and Robbins and Plotnicki, but up until that point hadn’t had a major hit. All of that changed in the fall of 1984.

Full Force, a Brooklyn band consisting of three brothers and three cousins, had been trying their hand at being signed to a label to no avail. At the behest of their co-manager, Steve Salem, they entered into production. The first group they produced was a crew of dancers for Whodini made up of Doctor Ice, the Kangol Kid and their two friends, the Educated Rapper and Mixmaster Ice. They called themselves UTFO (Untouchable Force Organization) and they were about to make rap history.

In yet another example of the B-side being the right side, Munao had been doing his best to promote the A-side, “Hanging Out.” Full Force and UTFO also believed that to be the hit. But it was the B-side “throwaway” song that Full Force member B-Fine thought of that took off, a song about being turned down by a “stuck up” girl.

“Roxanne, Roxanne” could be heard everywhere in the tri-state area. There are literally hundreds of response records (seriously, Google “Roxanne answer records.”) “Roxanne, Roxanne” sold 200,000 records in six weeks. UTFO did more than keep Select alive — they gave Munao wings.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Sugar Hill records was again having nefarious dealings with organized crime. It was always alleged that the record label got its start with seed money from the mob and Joe Robinson maintained a gangster-like demeanor. His penchant for keeping guns on his person are almost legendary. But no gun was big enough to stop Sugar Hill Records from being drug into the United States Senate vs Pisello hearings. The label was officially over. The end of Enjoy Records wasn’t far behind.

By 1985, not only had Masterdon left Enjoy for Profile, Bobby Robinson’s own daughter joined the Profile team. Pumpkin, Enjoy’s original in-house producer, also made the exodus to 740 Broadway (Profile). The writing was on the wall. Billboard made a list of the Top 10 Indie Labels that summer of ‘85 and didn’t include a single Black-owned company, as even Def Jam did not even make the list. The top two spots being — you guessed it — Profile and Tommy Boy. Enjoy Records would close shop two years later.

“Most of the conglomerate labels haven’t gotten into rap music because they don’t have the tools—that is, street people with the knowledge of the market to work it properly.” — Ronnie Jones, former VP of Capital’s Black music promotion, Billboard, Sep 28, 1985.

Another unlikely, hardly mentioned group — The Boogie Boys — would be a sign of what was coming up the pike as well. While independent labels often connected with majors for distribution, the last time a major label had signed a rapper was 1979. But Capitol Records scooped up The Boogie Boys and released the David Spradley/Ted Currier produced “Zodiac/Break Dancer” in the spring of 1984. I don’t remember “Zodiac” but “Break Dancer” was definitely a B-Boy staple. It moved 60,000 units. Decent numbers.

The next Spradley/Currier production opened the majors to the true potential of rap music. Perhaps it was a part of the plan. I’m not privy to it. But the producers put out the sappy Sly Fox “Let’s Go All The Way” in the summer of ‘85. Then they stripped away all the instrumentation, leaving the same-damn-beat for The Boogie Boys “A Fly Girl,” at around same time. You had to be thirteen seconds in before you could even distinguish the two. Maybe Sly Fox was the Trojan Horse for the Boogie Boys. Who knows. All I know is that in four months, “A Fly Girl” sold upwards to 280,000 records, and the Boogie Boys album City Life was propelled to 200,000 when it was released a month later. Again, low investment, high return. Major labels took note. Out west, MCA Records swooped down on the L.A. Dream Team who were making noise with “The Dream Team Is In The House.”

Of course there were hold outs. Bronx-Based Vincent Davis of Vintertainment — the first to record Doug E Fresh in 1983 and had a pretty decent hit with The B-Boys’ “Girls Part 2" — scored big with Joe Ski Love’s “Pee Wee Dance.” Released in the spring of 1986, it quickly sold upwards of 100,000 copies. Davis rode that success for awhile dropping another well-selling Joe Ski joint, “Hey Joe,” later that year. But there would be no real career-shifting breakout hits. That would occur a year later with the signing of a 26 year-old crooner (some would say whiner) named Keith Sweat.

Black labels would emerge later: powerhouse labels like Rap-a-Lot, Cash Money Records, Roc-A-Fella, etc. but one can’t help but to wonder how large those original companies could have been. The success of those first rap records happened completely separate from any outside influence—Black records brought to Black radio, picked up by Black distributors and sold in Black “mom and pop” stores. Of course, the system could not have remained like that, the sheer volume alone would have blown that system up. Yet, if we look at the success of regional rap markets, we can see that artist can still thrive, producing the music that they want for their audience without having to cater to the mainstream. When the maker is no longer the owner, then that is no longer the case. Don’t believe me? Look at Trinidad James.

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