MUSIC

Keith LeBlanc, Drummer on Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang Songs, Dies at 69

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Keith LeBlanc, the Tackhead drummer, producer, and session musician best known for his work on classic hip-hop songs by Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang, died on Thursday (April 4) due to an undisclosed illness, his wife, Fran LeBlanc, told Variety. He was 69.

“All of us at On-U Sound are heartbroken to share the news that the great Keith LeBlanc has passed away,” his longtime label wrote in an obituary. “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…. An incredible drummer, producer and musical maverick, he will be hugely missed. Rest in power Keith.”

Born in 1954 in Bristol, Connecticut, LeBlanc gravitated towards drumming after studying Ringo Starr during one of the Beatles’ TV performances. LeBlanc moved from the practice pad at home to a proper drum kit in his school’s orchestra, and performed his first show at a club when he was 14.

In the 1970s, LeBlanc auditioned to replace his outgoing friend, Harold Sargent, in the house band at Sugar Hill Records. LeBlanc landed the gig and stayed in the house band until 1982, playing live drums on hip-hop songs that gave them a sharp groove: Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache,” “8th Wonder,” and their 1980 self-titled album; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “It’s Nasty” and The Message; and more by the likes of Kool Moe Dee & the Treacherous 3, the Crash Crew, and the Funky 4+1. His style helped Sugar Hill songs stand out at a time when electronic drumming dominated.

LeBlanc landed his own independent hit in 1983 with “No Sell Out,” one of the first songs to integrate samples. The track, on which LeBlanc also used synthesizers and a drum machine, hit No. 60 on the UK singles chart. The single, which prominently features Malcolm X’s voice, was dedicated to the late activist, with all proceeds going to his family.

When LeBlanc met British producer Adrian Sherwood in the early 1980s, the two teamed up with LeBlanc’s former Sugar Hill collaborators bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald to form the industrial hip-hop band Tackhead. Together, they churned out dozens of records for On-U Sound, including 1988’s Tackhead Tape Time and 1989’s Friendly as a Hand Grenade. Though Tackhead broke up in the 1990s, they reunited to record the 2014 album For the Love of Money and hit the road for tours in 2004 and 2022.


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