Before she launched rap into the mainstream by releasing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Sylvia Robinson owned one of the odder labels of the 1970s. (And before that, she made the 60s novelty “Love is Strange” as part of Mickey & Sylvia.)
All Platinum Records, which she co-founded with husband Joey in New York, had a roster that included the Philly soul ensemble the Moments and Sylvia herself. Both racked up hits: the Moments recorded the classic ballad “Love on a Two-Way Street,” and Sylvia landed a crossover pop smash with “Pillow Talk.” There was also Shirley & Company and “Shame, Shame, Shame.”
In his essential book Rap Attack, David Toop noted that All Platinum had a taste for “vocal eccentrics.” Linda Jones’s gospel-like exhortations on “For Your Precious Love” frequently ascended into yelping melisma, and staff songwriter George Kerr’s clumsy attempts at a love rap sparks the Isaac Hayes-like grandeur of “Three Minutes to Hey Girl.” “Pillow Talk” wraps itself around Sylvia’s breathy, kittenish voice, and she sashays in ecstasy over a tuft of string arrangements like a negligee barely hanging over her body. Her follow-ups included “Sweet Stuff,” where she coos seductively over a louche rhythm that epitomizes disco sleaze. The Moments made “Girls,” a platform boot groove that mixes up its falsetto appreciation for the fairer sex with cheerily lunkhead lines like “I like ‘em fat, I like ‘em tall, some skinny, some small.”
While those aforementioned hits made it part of the black music mainstream, All Platinum (and its offshoots like Vibration and Stang) espoused a grungy, home-cooked variation of 70s soul far removed from the tastefully appointed elegance of Philadelphia International Records. It’s catnip to collectors – copies of the Whatnauts’ 70s debut, which features the essential “Message from a Black Man,” have traded for over a hundred dollars. It’s been a sample source for producers like Kanye West, who rearranged Jackson 5 acolytes the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound” into “Bound 2,” and sped-up a section of the Whatnauts’ “I’ll Erase Away Your Pain” for the chipmunk soul of “Late.”
Today, Sylvia Robinson is best known for creating the Sugarhill Gang –
controversy exists to this day on whether she assembled the trio herself or discovered them at a party in New Jersey– and the first important rap imprint, Sugar Hill Records. It was a triumphant coda to one of the funkier tangents of the soul era.
(October 16, 2016: It’s well-established now that the late Sylvia Robinson assembled the group after discovering the hip-hop scene at a party. However, her empire is controversial for many other reasons.)
Unlike New Romantic, Goth, and so many other fast fashions that whipped through the UK in the early 80s, British jazz-funk is barely known in the U.S. Inspired by Stateside acts such as Roy Ayers Ubiquity and George Duke, who girded their jazz fusion exercises with disco and boogie soul arrangements, ensembles like Light of the World, Beggar & Co., and Hi-Tension crafted a sound aimed at the dance floor. The tracks first appeared via DJ-friendly white labels, and then on the UK singles chart: Shakatak’s “Easier Said Than Done” (which was later sampled by early Aughts dance-pop singer Annie), and Level 42’s “Love Games,” among others. But while Hi-Tension promised to “Bless the funk,” and Beggar and Co. chanted “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” while bopping to “Somebody Help Me Out” on Top of the Pops, the scene failed to cross the Atlantic.
The style peaked between 1980-1982. Thereafter, Shakatak became a smooth jazz staple, while Level 42 evolved into a Big 80s arena pop band, and finally cracked the US charts with “Something About You.” Freeez, who had an early jazz-funk hit with “Southern Freeez,” teamed with producer Arthur Baker for the electro smash “IOU.” Incognito, led by former Light of the World drummer Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, released Jazz Funk in 1981 before going on hiatus. Their re-emergence in 1991 with Inside Life catapulted them to the forefront of 90s acid jazz.
While much of British jazz-funk remains unavailable here, there are a handful of songs worth checking out, including Mirage’s “Summer Groove,” Central Line’s “Walking Into Sunshine” and Savanna’s “I Can’t Turn Away.” Not all of it qualifies as jazz, per se, and tracks like Imagination’s “Body Talk” fall squarely into the R&B idiom. But they’re necessary to evoking an era that’s worth deeper exploration.