The First Family of Hip Hop. While many of us are familiar with such records like, ‘Rappers Delight‘ and ‘The Message’, to just name a few, it is the machine behind them that many don’t know much about. Sugarhill Records. Started by Slyvia Robinson, considered the Mother of Hip-Hop, her legacy is cemented but often not celebrated as it should. Enters the new generation of ‘The Robinsons’. Looking to bring to light her story and their own, Leland Robinson Sr., his son & daughter Darnell Robinson, LeA Robinson, lead the effort in their reality show, ‘The First Family of Hip-Hop’. Excuse me, a docuseries, as Darnell Robinson explained to me in our recent interview.
Taking the time out to talk to us at Def Pen, Leland, Darnell, and LeA bring us into their world briefly. We discussed what it means to each of them to be apart of such a prestigious family, how has it impacted them throughout their lives, what did the passing of Joey (Leland’s brother) mean to them and the legacy of Sugarhill Records. We touched on what plans they had for their music, LeA specifically as she has a lot in stored for her fan base. Check out the interview in its entirety below.
Def Pen: Alright, how are you guys doing?
First Family: Great, great, how are you?
DP: I’m good, appreciate you guys sitting down with me on behalf of DefPen.com and I know we had a little back and forth with scheduling so I really appreciate you all taking the time out to sit with us for this interview.
First Family: Anytime, anytime. Not a problem.
DP: So I came to the conclusion why not just have a regular conversation with you guys.
First Family: That’s cool.
Leland Robinson: That’s different, sounds good.
DP: When you guys hear the “First Family of Hip Hop” what exactly does that mean to you on a personal level.
LeA: That’s so funny, that’s so hysterical. To me First Family of Hip-Hop just means that we are the first family that stamped this genre of music. For me, it’s mostly so just showcasing that my grandmother started this thing as a woman. My dad says it all the time that she doesn’t get her recognition just because of the fact she was a woman. First Family of Hip Hop for me just means that the world showcases her story and just lets my generation especially know the history of the genre of music they love so much.
DP: Yeah, I totally agree with the fact she doesn’t get the recognition or her name isn’t as glorified as it should be as a woman. I mean for me personally, I am only 28 years old but I have a keen understanding of the roots of where it came from and who started what. It’s like a history lesson. I feel everyone should be known and this goes along the lines of the movie ‘Hidden Figures’. Three women who worked for NASA and this was a story not many people knew. So I kind of resonated her story with that because it is important to know who paved the way for those who are in the game now.
DP: Did Darnell or Leland want to chime in real quick on this?
Darnell Robinson: Ah man, Sugar Hill. (laughs) What else is there to be said? Sugar Hill.
DP: You are absolutely right. (laughs)
LR: It means a lot to me. LeA couldn’t have said it any better but it’s a situation where we know hip-hop is a male driven, you know. If she was a male who took the chance putting a hip-hop record together and putting it out she would be glorified. You know what I mean? It’s crazy that people can’t realize that she started something no one else started. She opened up a billion dollar business for everybody; hip-hop radio stations, hip hop internet stations, hip-hop A&Rs, hip-hop everything. So you know basically she started a multi-billion business and I think she really deserves her credit and we are going to try our best to make sure she gets her credit.
DP: Absolutely and I totally agree with that.
LR: Just like that television show that was on recently, I believe it was on VH1, it was a female hip-hop honors or something like that. How could you have a hip-hop honors ever and not acknowledge the first lady who started it and not acknowledge the first female group which is The Sequence? How could you not acknowledge these people first?
DP: That’s a very valid point, that’s a very valid point.
LR: Then go into everything else, right, then they can go into everything else. But it is what it is, we’ll try our best to make sure she gets her recognition.
DP: Nah, I totally agree with you and I believe the reality show is a very good start and to continue talking to you Leland real quick when you were growing up what were some of your memorable moments with your parents as they were building the Sugar Hill empire?
LR: Well when I was growing up and the Sugar Hill Gang had come out and then Flash and all these groups came out on our label, it was a great experience. I learned how to DJ, I watched Flash DJ, I got into it, I was DJing for a few different artists. I DJed for Bizze B and Melly Mell on tour. I learned a lot and it was a real good experience and it was something I wasn’t real familiar with.
DP: Let me shift to a question that can be aimed towards everyone. How has being in such family of this nature shaped you as individuals, personality wise, things of that nature?
LR: Well the first thing is the way we are today is based on our parents because of upbringings. The way we were taught with upbringings is we respect everybody and everyone. It’s not a time no one can say Leland thought he was better than other people or this one is better. We were all grounded we stayed to the streets at all time and my kids do the same thing as well. So basically, no matter what it is we are all grounded and we all look to the streets the same way.
LeA: Absolutely. And for me, I was the only girl for a very long time so being around all these men, my brothers, my father my uncles my grandfather it just made me tough, to be honest. It made me be able to go out into this world and feel unstoppable and feel like no matter what, I am good to go. I am around all these men that are extremely powerful and they molded me to be tough. So for me, that’s what it was like for me growing up.
DP: Alright, how about you Darnell? How has it affected you on an individual level?
DR: Ummm, affected me? What do you mean by that?
DP: Like, growing up in a prestigious family like yours, how has it shaped you as a person?
DR: Shiiiit, had to grow up real quick and open my eyes to a lot of different things in life. When I grew up I was regular just like everybody else. I didn’t see things how everybody else saw it. LeA says it all the time in interviews, man when we grew up we literally didn’t know what the family had gone through but we knew what Sugar Hill was out here in the world. But when we did find out it was one big history lesson and we kept digging and got busy within the company.
LR: And more importantly, though, After losing my mom we thought that we would be here to continue on. Then I lost both my brothers right away and we had to get the story out. Anything can happen, you know every day is not promised us, you now. One year I lost my younger brother the other year I lost my older brother. So everything was timing so that is why we were pushing to get this thing out there.
DP: With losing your brother Joey how has that, like I know it has changed your life dramatically, that’s not even a question but as far as taking over the company and building it back up, how has that affected you guys with continuing on with the legacy of the company.
LR: Well with losing Joey, it made us work much harder because Joey did a lot of the work himself know what I’m saying. Joey was the one responsible for doing all the major work and we would just sit back with a little bit of this and that. But Joey was really focusing the business 100%. We had to roll up our sleeves and make things happen and anything that was crooked we had to straighten it.
DP: Growing up, to go back to that conversation, Darnell, I know you had a super sweet sixteen episode and I know you probably get this question all the time. And to be honest with you, I seen the episode and I know it was years ago but my question is how have you been able to shake that stigma of the kid who had his 15th birthday on Super Sweet Sixteen? I know it sticks around with you to this day, does that bother you or you just embrace it and keep it moving.
DR: Nah man, I embrace it and keep it moving. But let me tell you, there was a point in time where the show had so much success and it was so big that it was a nightmare for me. I was fighting to have something bigger than that. Everybody that when they see me they go ‘oh I know you, you’re that kid from the show.” So I was constantly fighting to have something that was bigger than that so they knew me for something else. Shit, We all lost Joey and shit I started making music and I was like nah we are going to do this and then the television show. So things started shaping and I’m like alright cool we going to find that way. Shit its been hard but I love it, I embrace it. When people always see me they want to take pictures and they show love and I give the love right back.
DP: I definitely feel you on that and I just wanted to let you know that at that age you had already won at life for the simple fact you rode in on camelback with Rihanna.
DR: Thank you man. (laughs)
DP. Now to continue speaking on the music aspect. LeA I know you are very big on your music. I heard a couple songs and I am impressed, just to put that out there.
LeA: Well, I have a question for you then just to make sure you heard some of the songs. Which ones did you hear?
DP: Well, I am going, to be honest, I heard the ones throughout the episodes.
LeA: Was it “hey young boy?”
DP: Yeah, that one. Well, my question is for you, I know you say that you are the granddaughter of hip-hop but how do you try and make your voice known but not let it be so much just associated with the family name.
LeA: I mean at this point I have always been like this my entire life. I don’t try anymore, I just do what I do best and that just do me. So, of course, I do my own thing but my last name is Robinson and I would never allow anyone forget that. I know how incredible my family lineage is and everything they have done. So I just continue to embark on my own journey and still just allow everybody to pay respect to my family as well. I do what I do but I know where I came from and where I come from.
DP: How would you describe your style of music?
LeA; I would say it’s a breath of fresh air, my music just makes me feel good. When I make it, when I write, when I sing it when I perform it when I hear it, it just makes me feel good. I always watch peoples faces when they hear the music for the first time. How it makes them feel. It gives them the same feeling that it makes me feel. It’s just a breath of fresh air something new to the ears which I love and respect because we are in a generation where when you turn on the radio and everything sounds the same you can’t even name the artist because you don’t know, everything sounds the same.
DP: One thing I wanted to ask you, Darnell, how do you separate your personal life from the music business?
DR: It’s hard. I go through my thing, everyday man. It’s hard to balance. You just gotta go about your day by making people happy and your situations happy you know?
DP: I feel for you brother, I feel for you. (laughs)
DP: Who’s idea was it to make a reality show?
DR: It’s a docuseries. I just had an idea to do a show after seeing a lot of things happening in the world at the time. I brought it to my uncle Joey and he was skeptical at first like everybody else was. Then I brought him the paper one day where it said something about what the Kardashians scored and he was like ‘ok maybe Darnell, maybe’. From there I just kept pushing.
DP: Now, was it hard to get everybody on board? I know dealing with cameras.
DR: The beginning of everything is difficult, man. But you know you just have to have faith and keep pushing, man. Everything is going to be difficult in life.
DP: Speaking of difficulties, how have you been dealing with your diabetes I know that is something that has been affecting you since you were 16?
DR: Yeah since 16. that’s one thing I am happy about. alright? (laughs) My health is good, I feel great. My numbers have been great and I am in a great honeymoon state. Hey man, that’s one thing I am happy about.
DP: As long as you are good in health it’s all good.
DP: Leland what were your first thoughts when you found out your kids wanted to do music?
LR: I thought it was great, you know what I’m saying? Because I watch a lot of people’s parents you know, with their kids, the kids take over the business when they get older and keep going with it so I thought it was good. SO you know what thought let me not stop them but let me make them work that much harder to be able to take over the business so I can take a step back to let them do what they want to do.
DP: Now I know Sugar Hill was brought up with songs like ‘The Message’ and ‘Rappers Delight’, what are your thoughts on the current state of Hip-Hop?
LR: My thoughts are, I always tell my kids regardless of what, try to make catalog songs. Meaning songs that are here today and be here tomorrow. Like how their grandmother did, she made songs like The Message, Rappers Delight that is here and it’s 40 years later and you put it on at a party after work and everybody is dancing. So my thing is I try to push that thing where they make catalog songs.
DP: Exactly. That’s definitely a good point because you can make a hit and then cash but what’s next?
LR: Right, but there are a few rappers who have catalog songs that last forever. Think of 50 Cent, ‘It’s your birthday, we gonna party’, that’s gonna be here forever. ‘Hip-Hop Hooray hoo hey’. Those records there, are going to be here forever. Those are forever records. So when my kids do music I try to tell them to try and make music based on the same scenario. Make something that is going to be here and not go anywhere.
DP: When it comes to music, Darnell, do you see yourself more so as an artist or a manager?
DR: A manager? Shit, I’m the renaissance man, I do it all brother. I don’t limit myself and I will never limit myself.
DP: So you don’t see yourself being boxed in with just one lane, you feel you can just do it all.
DR: Hey man, it’s some people out here who are just athletes. They can play soccer, they can play football, they can play basketball, you know what I’m saying. I’m one of those dudes when it comes to entertainment.
LR: Just be happy Darnell you can eat and chew gum at the same time.
LeA: The dopest part about Darnell is that he is trying to do all these things at the same time, he actually does them. That is the dopest part. You’ll see him in the studio and then see him taking a break from the studio booking something for the Sugar Hill guys. Or just doing everything. I think you can do everything but you have to balance your time properly and he is just really good at doing that.
DR: Thank you LeA!
LeA: You’re welcome man, I love you.
DR: Love you too man.
DP: LeA so what can we expect from you musically? Album, mixtape, tour? Anything of that nature.
DR: Don’t tell him about that ‘First Family of Hip Hop’ Tour, don’t tell him about that LeA.
LeA: Oh no no no, that’s in the bag we not going to leak that just yet.
DP: I can’t get an exclusive?
LeA: No, no, not right now man, we are only two episodes in we can’t give you that exclusively. But you can expect some incredible amazing music. My project that you guys will hear throughout the show is entitled ‘SAY’ which is Songs About You. My single “Hey Young Boy will be out very very soon. I already started on my next project that I have been writing and, producing myself, recording and doing all that stuff. It’s going to be really great. You’re going to hear a lot of amazing music from all of us actually. And yeah, just stay tuned, the show is going to be incredible and you guys are going to learn a lot, see a lot and just grow with our family as we grow.
DP: Music from everybody? You guys got your dad in the booth?
LR: Ahh man nah, I am a mad rapper (Laughs). Nah I’m just joking.
DP: Who are some artists you guys listen to, who are some of your favorite artists right now?
LeA: I love J Cole, I love Kendrick, I love this new undercover. I said undercover, he’s an underground artist called Dornik, he literally sounds like a baby Michael Jackson but up to date. He is just incredible. I just like listening to my brother’s stuff, I love listening to my stuff and my friend’s music also.
DR: Facts I think she said, Kanye, you know, Kendrick, J Cole, The Weeknd. I like the vibes, I just like good vibes.
DP: Yeah, I think I am on the same page with you. I like music I can just vibe to and zone out to. But I kind of keep a balance and I listen to a little of everything here and there.
LR: A little old school too, got to throw a little R Kelly in there every now and then.
DP: Of course, you definitely got to throw a little Kellz on the playlist.
DP: Before we wrap this up, is there anything you want to leave for the people or add?
DR: Follow me on Instagram @TheDarnellRoy
LR You can follow me on Instagram @LelandRobinson.NJ
DP: Lea who are some artists you would look forward to working with?
LeA: I think me and Kendrick would something so ill. I believe that. I think me and Kanye would do something incredible because of number one, we are both Gemini’s, which means we are one of the greatest signs of creativity. We would do something incredible, it would be Like symphonies and the whole production and it will be incredible artistic music.
DR: Working with? I never really thought about that. Like my project now it’s just me. You know, If I bump into somebody and we vibe and we end up connecting to make a record, that’s what it’s going to be. But as far as my project now that I got, my album called ‘In Time’ that’s about to come out, that’s all me right there. I got Velous on, Grammy nominated.
DP: You just dropped a video for that right?
DR: Yup, yup, “Not So Lowkey“. That’s out now, doing very well. Make sure you go get that on iTunes!
DP: Outside of the music, record label, the reality show, what other endeavors are you guys working on?
LR: I am working on a “Fun Sponge”. It’s a wrap that goes around the baby head it’s called the Fun Sponge, I am working on that and it should be out real soon, I am working on a few other things but I can’t speak on those yet. The Fun Sponge, look out for that, though.
LeA: It’s so funny that you ask that because right before this interview, my bathroom, sitting on the floor, lighting a candle, that’s my space where I create a lot of stuff. So I was literally just sitting here developing another idea. I can’t really tell you what it is about. But I love food so much, I love to eat. I am a fat girl internally. So I am developing something along those lines.
DP: That’s fair enough, I respect the creative. Thank you guys for sitting down with us again and take care.
Be sure to check out First Family Of Hip-Hop each and every Sunday at 9 P.M. on Bravo.