EXCLUSIVE: Award-winning filmmaker Justin Simien is set to direct Warner Bros. untitled Sylvia Robinson project about the famed singer, songwriter, and Sugar Hill Records founder known as ‘The Mother of Hip-Hop’.
The script, written by Tracy Oliver, Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez, is a rags-to-riches tale about how Robinson blazed a trail as a female record producer and music mogul in a male-dominated industry. In 1979 she recorded the first rap record “Rapper’s Delight” which ushered in the new era of hip-hop and cemented her legacy as the “Mother of Hip-Hop”.
Simien’s Dear White People feature won the special jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Roadside Attractions. The pic was ultimately spun off as a Netflix series over three seasons. Simien recently wrapped production on his second feature, the horror satire Bad Hair, which stars Laverne Cox, Vanessa Williams and Michelle Hurd. Simien is also the host of the KCRW podcast Don’t@Me.
Paula Wagner acquired the film rights to Robinson’s life story five years ago from her son Joey Robinson. Wagner, who produced last year’s Marshall and the new Broadway musical Pretty Woman, produces through her Chestnut Ridge Productions along with Homegrown Pictures’ Stephanie Allain and Kraftbox Entertainment’s Robert Kraft. Allain is an EP on both Dear White People‘s feature and TV series and was key in bringing Simien aboard to the Warner Bros. feature. Niija Kuykendall brought in the project at Warner Bros. and is the executive in charge. Sylvia Robinson’s son Leland Robinson and Tracy Oliver serve as EPs. Kraft’s career as President of Music at 20th Century Fox spanned a near two decades and he’s a Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter. He was also nominated for co-writing the “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” from 1992’s Mambo Kings which earned him a best song Oscar nomination, and he was nominated twice for a Golden Globe for both “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” and the 1999 song “How Can I Not Love You” from Anna and the King.
“Justin connected with Sylvia and her era right away. His unique sense of style and his innate understanding of the origins of hip hop make him the perfect director for this film. Also actors love him. He’s a real actor’s director. I could see that when Stephanie and I visited the set of Bad Hair. We are looking forward to recreating the summer of 1979 and bringing Sylvia’s story to the world,” says Wagner.
Robinson had early success in 1957 being part of the duo Mickey and Sylvia with the No. 1 R&B hit “Love Is Strange,” and later was a solo artist with “Pillow Talk.” At one point during the early ’60s, Mickey and Sylvia were known for singing background on Ike & Tina Turner’s hit single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”. In 1966, Robinson founded the soul label All Platinum Records with husband Joe Robinson and ultimately launched Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s. During her career she wrote and produced for such as artists as Ike and Tina Turner, Kid Rock, Puff Daddy, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Stacy Lattisaw.
Hip-hop came to her ears when she was in a Harlem club and heard DJ Starski yelling in a spoken rhythmic word to the crowd. Word has it that Sylvia turned to her husband at that point and said ‘The spirit has touched me’. Her initial cut of Rapper’s Delight from the Sugarhill Gang in 1979 was 15 minutes. No DJ would touch it, but Sylvia prevailed against all odds.
“The music business in the late 70’s was corrupt and male dominated. It was the end of disco and Sylvia Robinson brought hip hop to the mainstream, earning the moniker: ‘The Mother of Hip Hop'” says Wagner.
Another hit that Robinson steered which paved the wave for Hip-Hip was 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. She died of heart failure in 2011, aged 75.
Simien is repped by WME, Grandview and Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Finkelstein & Lezcano.
Below the official videos for “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message”.