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People who died in 2011

Lesser-known but significant figures

Photo: Illustrations by Ben Claassen, License: N/A

Illustrations by Ben Claassen


As the ’70s waned, disco did too, as did All Platinum. The Robinsons had purchased the catalog of the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records, an investment that backfired and all but sank its new home label. But their teenage son Joey Robinson had been going to parties uptown in New York and caught on to this crazy new scene where kids chanted rhymes over the instrumental breaks from old funk records. Stories vary on how it all came together, but there’s no dispute that Sylvia Robinson heard something in the nascent sound, recruited three utterly unknown MCs, appropriated Chic’s disco hit “Good Times” as a backing track (the first de facto uncleared sample), and recorded and released the first hip-hop single, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

More than a hit, “Rapper’s Delight” was a phenomenon, and the Robinsons’ new Sugar Hill label would become the first company devoted to releasing hip-hop. In addition to releasing any number of deep old-school party cuts, such as the Sequence’s epic “Funk You Up,” Robinson also scouted a young party DJ named Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, and basically browbeat him into being the artist of record, so to speak, for a more serious-minded rap written by Sugar Hill house musician/producer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher. Fletcher recorded his lyrics with Flash’s cohort Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and co-produced the track with Robinson. With its gritty description of inner-city living and despairing tone, “The Message” proved another sensation, and also tipped anyone paying attention that hip-hop could be, and would be, capable of more than starting a party. And Robinson made that happen every bit as much as Fletcher, Glover or Saddler did.

Times changed, as they do, and Sugar Hill had trouble keeping up with hip-hop’s explosive evolution. The Robinsons eventually sold the label (and later divorced). Sylvia Robinson never had any more hits, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the hits she did have, and the influence of the genre she helped put on the map, will outlive us all, as they outlived her. She died on Sept. 29 at age 75. – LG

John McCarthy

Coined the term “artificial intelligence”

No one invented the Internet. Much like the Internet itself, its birth was an amorphous collaboration of people and organizations over time, each contributing something to a whole the purpose of which still remains somewhat elusive. There was Tim Berners-Lee, the man who’s responsible for the World Wide Web. Before that there was ARPANET, a defense project designed to wire computers together to a mainframe. And before that there was John McCarthy.

McCarthy, who died Oct. 24 at the age of 84 from heart disease complications, coined the term “artificial intelligence,” a concept that emerged from the same seeds that eventually spawned the Internet. Though he mistakenly dismissed the personal computer as little more than a toy, McCarthy was among the first to envision interconnected computers and technology that could “think” rather than just compute. (Think Watson’s reasoning powers instead of Deep Blue’s chess match.) Among his earliest accomplishments is time-sharing, the concept of multiple users accessing a mainframe simultaneously for general-purpose use. And all of this in the 1950s and ’60s.

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