King of the Beat
Keith Leblanc will tell you that in the early days of Hip-Hop, playing outdoor parties in the parks of The Bronx, Harlem, and Queens with THE SUGAR HILL GANG, MELLE MEL, and GRAND MASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE, many after the shows didn’t believe him when he said he was the drummer in the band. With all the attention paid to the MCs and DJs, and his being hidden behind a large drum kit, most hadn’t noticed him while the party was going on. So after being threatened (more than once) by those thinking he was being a smart ass, when asked why he was wearing a SUGAR HILL jacket, Keith resorted to saying he drove the van, resigned to the fact that most B-Boys would never believe a skinny little white guy from Connecticut could be responsible for the original Hip-Hop beats they had become such fans of.
But of course that was the fact. Along with long-time friends, musical collaborators, and ORIGINAL SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION mates (bass guitarist DOUG WIMBSIH and guitarist SKIP “LITTLE AXE” McDONALD), Keith can legitimately be called one of the FOUNDING FATHERS, responsible for the beats on HIP-HOP anthems such as “WHITE LINES,” “THE MESSAGE,” “NEW YORK, NEW YORK,” and “THAT’S THE JOINT.”
— photograph (BlancRecords.com)
After essentially drawing the blueprint for Hip-Hop with guitarist SKIP “LITTLE AXE” McDONALD and bassist DOUG WIMBISH (THE ORIGINAL SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION), KEITH LEBLANC went on to write, play, and produce some of the most historic recordings in the 1980s.
— video by dave.hogerty
After a 14-year hiatus, TACK>>HEAD reunited in 2004 for a Summer Tour. As here at the Abbey in Chicago, Illinois, Keith typically opened the shows with a short drum solo. typically did on its Summer 2004 Reunion Tour. This performance was at the Abbey in Chicago, Illinois.
1976 — Harold Sargent, invites Keith to take his place as the drummer in the popular Hartford band WOOD BRASS & STEEL. Also in the band are SKIP McDONALD (guitar) and DOUG WIMBISH (bass guitar). WOOD BRASS & STEEL is signed to TURBO RECORDS, and produces the dance/funk track “FUNKANOVA” that becomes a favorite of DJs playing the popular clubs (STUDIO 54, PARADISE GARAGE) in New York City.
1979 — JOE and SYLVIA ROBINSON “discover” THE SUGAR HILL GANG, create SUGAR HILL RECORDS, and release the legendary (first-rap-on-vinyl) “RAPPER’S DELIGHT.”
Needing a band to play on their original Hip-Hop catalogue, JOE and SYLVIA recruit WOOD BRASS & STEEL’s rhythm section. TURBO records is one of many small labels owned by the Robinsons.
1980-1982 — As the SUGAR HILL RECORDS HOUSE BAND, Keith, Skip, and Doug write, play, and produce many of HIP-HOP’s ORIGINAL ANTHEMS, including “THE MESSAGE,” “WHITE LINES,” “NEW YORK, NEW YORK,” and “THAT’S THE JOINT.”
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES — Before cutting “NO SELL OUT,” Keith asked MALCOLM X’ widow BETTY “QUEEN” SHABAZZ’ permission … and later, Betty sat with Keith in Federal Court when he made his case against JOE and SYLVIA ROBINSON, and SUGAR HILL RECORDS.
— video by dj TyDoZ
“NO SELL OUT” (MALCOLM X) — Keith’s cut set to a mix of Malcolm X still images.
1983 — Keith cut Malcolm X speeches to his innovative electronic drum beats to make “NO SELL OUT,” considered the first use of “sampling” committed to vinyl. A dispute with JOE & SYLVIA ROBINSON over the records ownership and profits is settled in Federal Court. Some believe Keith’s legal victory was the beginning of the end for SUGAR HILL’s Hip-Hop dominance. By 1985, the SUGAR HILL empire had fallen, replaced by RUN-DMC, THE BEASTIE BOYS, and the rest of the younger, more aggressive DEF JAM crew.
— (VFG) “Sun City”
— video Steven Van Zandt/Arthur Baker (1985)
1985— In addition to the song “SUN CITY,” a full-length album by the same title was also released. Although nearly all recognition went to the participating mega stars (BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, MILES DAVIS, U2, RUN-DMC, LOU REED, HALL & OATES, HERBIE HANCOCK), when listening, KEITH’s hand in the production of SUN CITY is obvious, and his being asked to play and produce easy to understand when knowing of his musical connection to many of the participating artists (PETER GABRIEL, KEITH RICHARDS, RON WOODS, AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, and MELLE MEL, who had (THE ORIGINAL SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION (Keith, Skip, and Doug) help write, play, and produce “THE MESSAGE,” “WHITE LINES,” and “NEW YORK, NEW YORK.”
Moving to London, Keith begins a serious musical partnership with ADRIAN SHERWOOD and his ON-U SOUND records. Having invited DOUG WIMBISH AND SKIP McDONALD to join him in England, THE ORIGINAL SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION was now moving in a more Electronic/Industrial direction, playing for GARY CLAIL and MARK STEWART, who might be considered LEFTIST POLITICAL COMMENTATORS as much as singers. One of the most popular of these (12″) singles was “HARD LEFT,” using samples of then English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s speeches.
These singles marked the formation of TACK>>HEAD, although the name had never been written in any credits at the time. Until 1987’s GARY CLAIL’s TACKHEAD TAPE TIME, most credits were made to MARK STEWART and GARY CLAIL as bandleaders, or FATS COMET on instrumentals, or when wanting to include the entire group.
1986 — After moving to London and partnering with ADRIAN SHERWOOD and his ON-U SOUND label, Keith releases MAJOR MALFUNCTION, sampling NASA’s Launch Control’s account of the space shuttle Challenger exploding on the title track. with the inclusion of SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION mates SKIP McDONALD and DOUG WIMBISH, many consider MAJOR MALFUNCTION the first full-length TACK>>HEAD album.
— by Keith Leblanc
Video for the title track of Keith’s MAJOR MALFUNCTION record, on which, similar to “NO SELL OUT,” Keith “sampled” NASA control room recordings of the moment the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launch. With DOUG WIMBISH, SKIP McDONALD, and ADRIAN SHERWOOD all appearing on the album, many consider MAJOR MALFUNCTION to be the first full-length TACK>>HEAD record, despite the band not having yet been named. Doug came up with “TACK>>HEAD” a few months later, using the name of a popular inner-city/ghetto African-American hairstyle of the day.
After making a number of 12″ singles, many by the name FATS COMET, the band did credit 1987’s “WHAT’S MY MISSION NOW?” (one of its most popular singles) to “TACK>>HEAD.” It was then too that the band began using the (American) Statue of Liberty as a common visual element its media and on covers. Most notable was using friend GEE VAUCHER’s painting on the cover of the first (official) full-length TACK>>HEAD album, FRIENDLY AS A HAND GRENADE. (Vaucher is best known [in the music world] for her work with the band CRASS.)
Before Bernard Fowler’s arrival, “TACK>>HEAD” maintained the heavy, more electronic industrial sound established by Keith and Adrian. This was apparent on 1987’s “Ticking Time Bomb,” and the 1988 show at the RITZ in NYC recorded with plans to release as EN CONCERT. The record wasn’t officially released, but one could see the increasing American influence, as Doug and Skip (with Keith) began to reestablish their ORIGINAL SUGAR HILL RHYTHM SECTION bond. Most notable on EN CONCERT was the inclusion of MELLE MEL and his singing the Sugar Hill, Hip-Hop anthem, “THE MESSAGE,” and a true-to-the-original cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Crosstown Traffic.”
With this TACK>>HEAD shift toward Funk, Rock n Roll, and Soul (especially after Bernard’s joining later in 1988), Keith released many of the more industrial/instrumental tracks on 1989’s STRANGER THAN FICTION (with “DREAMWORLD,” and still-a-favorite “EINSTEIN”), as his own band called INTERFERENCE.
When TACK>>HEAD first disbanded in 1991, Keith started Blanc Records, and released two (“Best Of”/Alternative and Outakes) compilation albums, TACK>>HEAD POWER VOLUME 1 and TACK>>HEAD POWER VOLUME 2, in 1994. In 1997, Keith finally delivered what so many fans (who always considered TACK>>HEAD a better band to see/hear live) had been waiting for. TACK>>HEAD POWER VOLUME 3 was a compilation of the band’s live performances (from New York, New Zealand, and England, with BERNARD FOWLER, MARK STEWART, GARY CLAIL, and MELLE MEL, between 1988 and 1991.