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Taken from Variety (Apr 05, 2024)

Keith LeBlanc, Pioneering Drummer on Early Hip-Hop Classics by Grandmaster Flash and Sugar Hill Gang, Dies at 69

Keith LeBlanc, a drummer known for his work on rap hits by Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Hang and later with Tackhead and Nine Inch Nails, has died.

by Jem Aswad

Keith LeBlanc. Courtesy Image
Keith LeBlanc. Courtesy Image

Keith LeBlanc, a drummer, producer and recording artist best known for his work on pioneering early hip-hop records by Grandmaster Flash and others, died Thursday after a battle with an undisclosed illness, his wife Fran LeBlanc confirms to Variety. Later in his career he worked extensively as a producer, session musician - including on Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut "Pretty Hate Machine" - and member of the bands Tackhead and Little Axe. He was 69.

While hip-hop is far more commonly associated with electronic drums, the genre's early records were mostly played by live musicians, with LeBlanc, bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald were a house band for the groundbreaking labels Sugar Hill - which released Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and galvanizing early singles by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel - as well as Tommy Boy Records. The music required both precision and flair, and the trio were ace musicians who both held down the beat and gave songs like Sugharhill Gang's "Apache" and "8th Wonder" and Grandmaster Flash's "Freedom" and "It's Nasty" a vitality to support the rappers and their lyrics.

Ironically, he scored an underground solo hit in 1983 with "No Sell Out," which was one of the first sample-based songs of note and featured LeBlanc on synthesizers and a drum machine. Credited to Malcolm X and featuring the late minister and activist's voice over LeBlanc's music, all proceeds from the song went to Malcolm X's family; the song received rapturous reviews and even reached No. 60 on the U.K. singles chart, a remarkable feat for an independent release at the time.

Raised in Connecticut, LeBlanc was inspired to play drums by the Beatles and played in multiple bands as a teenager. In the late 1970s, his friend Harold Sargent was leaving his role in the house band at Sugar Hill brought in LeBlanc to audition for Wimbish and McDonald. He remained with the label until 1982, playing on songs by Kool Moe Dee & the Treacherous 3, the Crash Crew, the Funky 4+ 1 and others, before moving over to Tommy Boy and session work. During this time he also played on the debut album by the Force MDs and played a key role in the 1985 "Sun City" anti-apartheid project and album led by "Little" Steven Van Zandt.

In the early 1980s, LeBlanc met British producer Adrian Sherwood, who was best known for his work with dub music but mixed or produced recordings by Depeche Mode and Ministry, and soon began collaborating with him, bringing in Wimbish and McDonald. Calling themselves Tackhead, the four worked under a dizzying array of names and with many collaborators - whether Tackhead, Gary Clail, Dub Syndicate, Barmy Army, Mark Stewart and the Maffia or any of a number of releases on Sherwood's On-U-Sound label, the team worked on dozens of recordings throughout the '80s and early '90s. Tackhead actually signed with the U.S. major label SBK and released the "Strange Things" album - featuring veteran session singer Bernard Fowler - but unsurprisingly did not remain with the company. The group dispersed in the early 1990s but reunited for tours in 2004 and 2022.

In later years LeBlanc worked with McDonald's blues-influenced group Little Axe and on solo material. He released six solo albums over the years, with a career-spanning compilation, "Stop the Confusion (Global Interference)," arriving in 2005. Yet the final word is yet to come: Hip-hop historian Jay Quan is working on a documentary about LeBlanc's life and career.

Taken from On-U Sound (Apr 05, 2024)

In memory of Keith LeBlanc

by Adrian Sherwood

Keith LeBlanc. OnUSound
Keith LeBlanc. OnUSound

All of us at On-U Sound are heartbroken to share the news that the great Keith LeBlanc has passed away.

Keith LeBlanc started out as a session drummer with Sugarhill Records in the early 1980s. He formed the Sugarhill House Band with fellow Americans Doug Wimbish (bass) and Skip "Little Axe" McDonald (guitar), working with leading rap artists such as the Sugarhill Gang ("Rapper's Delight") and Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel on "The Message" and "Freedom".

Adrian Sherwood originally met the trio in 1983 at the CMU conference in New York City, connected via Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records, for whom LeBlanc had just made the ground-breaking "No Sell Out" single, utilising cut-up Malcolm X speeches, and an early example of the use of emerging sampling technology. Impressed by what he heard, the British producer invited the Americans to join him in London. Once ensconced in the studio, they continued their sample-based explorations, with the producer as a fourth member manning the mixing desk. This is something they would also replicate in their live set-up, with Adrian dubbing and processing the musicians in real time as they played on stage. Cutting records simultaneously as Fats Comet (for the more dancefloor-oriented material) and Tackhead (for their more aggressive political tracks), they also became the second incarnation of The Maffia, the uncompromising backing band of Mark Stewart. The members were additionally involved in solo projects, session assignments, and appearances in other mysterious guises on the On-U roster, such as Barmy Army and Strange Parcels.

Keith's landmark album "Major Malfunction" (considered to be the first Tackhead recording, although credited to LeBlanc solo) was of great influence to a whole generation of musicians. The album, a reaction to the 1986 disaster with space shuttle Challenger, inspiring a lot of the musicians in the US industrial scene in particular.

Apart from his work as member of the On-U Sound posse, Keith LeBlanc continued to experiment with new sounds via his own Blanc Records. His writing and production skills were utilised by Living Colour, Peter Gabriel, The Cure, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails. As a drummer/programmer he worked with everyone from James Brown to Trevor Horn, Seal to R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, Jalal (Last Poets), The Stone Roses, Robert Palmer, Bomb The Bass, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner, Bryan Ferry, Depeche Mode and Sinead O'Connor.

The last Tackhead show was at the On-U Sound 40th anniversary concert at the Forum in London.

An incredible drummer, producer and musical maverick, he will be hugely missed. Rest in power Keith.

"Keith was a major, major talent ..incredible drummer, producer and musician.. Along with Doug, Skip and also dearly missed Mark Stewart we enjoyed some of the most creative times together that shaped my musical life. Thank you Brother Keith..Love Forever. Heart and Soul." - Adrian Sherwood




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