Three brothers whose parents started Sugar Hill Records, the New Jersey label that made many of the first rap music albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s, pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns.
Leland, Rhondo and Joseph Robinson Jr. admitted today in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, that they didn’t file returns from 2005 to 2008 that would have declared royalties from their ownership of Sugar Hill Music. The Englewood studio was the birthplace of rap’s first Top 40 hit, “Rapper’s Delight.”
The brothers collectively failed to pay $1.29 million in taxes and also owe interest and penalties. Each pleaded to two misdemeanor counts covering a different tax year and admitted to related conduct for failing to file in two other years. They face as many as two years in prison. Joseph Jr., 50; Leland, 46; and Rhondo, 41, each declined to comment on the case.
“Joseph Robinson Jr. is making every effort to comply with his past and present tax obligations and hopes the judge will consider his efforts at sentencing,” his attorney, Henry Klingeman, said in an interview. The brothers didn’t file returns, he said, because of “sloppy business practices.”
“They’ve been concentrating on protecting their parents’ musical legacy instead of fulfilling their tax obligations,” he said.
Leland Robinson’s lawyer, Richard Sapinski, said his client acknowledged his error.
“He’s trying his best to make amends for it and move on with his life,” Sapinski said. An attorney for Rhondo Robinson, Frank Agostino, apologized on behalf of his client and said Rhondo hoped others will learn from his mistakes.
Sugar Hill Records was founded in 1979 by Joseph Sr. and Sylvia Robinson. They recorded albums including 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the self- titled debut album by the Sugar Hill Gang, and the first studio album by the Treacherous Three.
Beyond getting royalties, the brothers were involved in music publishing and got payments for work as copyright administrators, according to the criminal charges.
Joseph Robinson Sr. died in 2000 and Sylvia Robinson, a rhythm-and-blues singer before forming a record label with her husband, died last year. Sugar Hill Studio in Englewood was destroyed in a fire in October 2002.
Joseph Robinson Jr. lives in Tenafly, New Jersey. Rhondo and Leland Robinson live in Englewood. They were each released on a $50,000 unsecured bond.
The cases are U.S. v. Joseph Robinson Jr., Leland Robinson and Rhondo Robinson, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).
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