GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME – THE STORY OF SUGARHILL RECORDS HOUSE BAND & TACKHEAD DRUMMER KEITH LE BLANC By JayQuan Summer 2006

 

Once again it’s always an honor and privilege to speak with those closely affiliated with Sugar hill Records! As I have always said, this label was as important to me personally as the Motown label was to my parent’s generation. Its always exciting to hear the behind the scenes stories, and to get a chance to ask the questions that I have wondered about for nearly thirty years. So to add to my list of Sugar hill band members, artists and affiliates here is the story of the man behind the drums on some of raps first recorded jams: Keith LeBlanc.

 

JayQuan: How did you get into music, who were your influences, and what instruments do you play other than the drums?

 

Keith: Well I play most percussion instruments. I can remember being about 3 years old and figuring out quarter notes, eighth notes, 16 notes and 32nd notes – but they were too fast for me to play with one hand. I always loved listening to music on the radio, and I grew up listening to stuff on the Stax label, Muscle Shoals, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Archie Bell & The Drells – which was much later, and James Brown. All that was pop music when I was growin’ up!

 

JQ: Where did you grow up?

 

KL: Connecticut….the suburbs of Connecticut. I had a problem in school, and it was dyslexia, but they didn’t know about dyslexia back then. But I was hyperactive, and they were gonna give me drugs. They gave my parents the choice of putting me on medication, or buying me an instrument, and they bought me drums. But before that I remember seeing the Beatles on Tv, and I made myself a drum set – that’s my first musical memory. I learned all the drum parts off of different records. When I was about 8 years old this kid named Tommy Reamer was in the orchestra and he played drums. He was so good that they let him play at the school dances. He kinda took me under his wing. When I first heard him, that was the first time that I actually heard real live drums and I was blown away. I joined the orchestra, and I was the only one out of all the drummers that could read music, so I got to play all the time. From there I took all the music and art classes that I could, ‘cus it was the only thing that I was good at with my dyslexia.

 I actually didn’t find out that I had dyslexia until I was about 40 years old. I just thought that I was a bit strange. I had lil bands and we did James Brown stuff in the town I lived called Bristol. Then I started getting into bands doing original music, mostly fusion type stuff inspired by Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham and people like that. I used to go to clubs and jam, and there was this drummer in Hartford named Harold Sergeant, he was leaving Skip (Mc Donald) and Doug’s (Wimbish) band. He introduced me to them after hearing me play, and I actually got the gig and played with Wood, Brass and Steel for a while. That’s how I ended up going to Sugar hill. Skip and Doug didn’t wanna go, but I couldn’t wait, because I heard them talking about recording studios and stuff!!! Doug and Skip had already dealt with Sylvia Robinson (of Sugarhill Records), but I joined after they left Sugarhill. So I played with Wood, Brass & Steel when they were on their last legs. When Rappers Delight came out we figured there might be some money over there. But back to my influences; I loved Hendricks, Mitch Mitchell and when I heard Miles Davis that totally took my head off! The first thing I heard by him was Bitches Brew, then I got into Tony Williams – and many drummers have influenced me over the years.

 

JQ: Did you dig Clyde Stubblefield (James Browns Funky Drummer)?

 

KL: Oh yeah. I listened to his music for quite some time without even knowing it. I just loved music and I made no distinction between Black or White music.  I liked the Beatles, and I didn’t even know that they were imitating Black music, and the music from the states; I just liked their music. The time that I came up musically was a great time to come up. My goal was to be a session musician.

 

JQ: So the gig with Sugar hill was your first big break?

 

KL: Well no, I had done some sessions for advertisements and commercials, but Sugar hill was the first time that I played something that came out on a record. That was the first time that I was able to play and actually hear what I played, so I was getting paid and learning at the same time. But Sugar hill had a band before we showed up.

 

JQ: Positive Force?

 

KL: Right – they had that record We Got The Funk. They were good but Sylvia didn’t like them for some reason….and I forgot as far as influences I played lots of Jazz stuff, especially when I went to England to live.

 

JQ: You mentioned Miles Davis, and a lot of musicians mention him as being innovative, even Prince gives him props, and he doesn’t give too many people props, so what is it about Miles that was so great in your opinion?

 

KL: I think that it was what he didn’t play…..the spaces he left..

 

JQ: That’s exactly what Prince said, that he used space as an instrument…

 

KL: I agree with him, and Miles had some of the baddest musicians on the planet playing with him. That did not hurt either!!

 

JQ: Who are some of your favorite drummers?

 

KL: Steve Gadd - the drummer for all the first Steely Dan records. He practically invented studio drumming. Billy Cobham , Kenwood Denard from Manhattan Transfer. He teaches at Berkley now. Later on when we opened up for Parliament, Dennis Chambers influenced me. Mark Mundase also later influenced me, and he is also one of my current drum buddies. I gotta add Tony Williams who played with Miles (Davis) since he was like 14. He also took lessons from the same teacher that I did – named Allen Dawson. Tony was a child prodigy like Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic.

 

When we toured with Sugar hill, I got to play with all the great R&B bands like Faze – O, Rick James, Skyy, Cameo – all the bands in that period we played on stage with, so I was influenced by that as well. In D.C. they had EU (Experience Unlimited) and Trouble Funk, and those boys kicked ass! I remember Trouble Funks drummer had like a million drums and he was hittin’ all of em!! That sound was indigenous to D.C., and everybody who played D.C. got thrashed. When we went back I said "what do we have that sounds remotely Go Go"!! The only group who escaped unscathed was Parliament. Even Cameo got their asses kicked, and they were the top group at the time. But we used to wear the crowd out, having such a big hit, and it was rap with crowd participation. There was a lot of envy from other groups, and they would turn the house lights down on us and sabotage our set. The Sugar hill Gang didn’t have that many songs, so we would play for like 40 minutes before the Gang came out. We were playin' bits of Wood, Brass & Steel stuff. The only group the respected us back then was P Funk. They invited us to open up for them on the Knee Deep tour. But the first time that we saw Flash & The Furious 5 at a high school in New York, we knew that bands were about to be over. Flash was playin’ the beat box and spinnin’ records and I remember askin’ Doug (Wimbish) did he miss the band and he said no. I didn’t either….

 

JQ:I always ask musicians that were affiliated with rap groups – did you respect rap as a form of music. Not the recorded rap, but the essence of 2 turntables extending a breakdown of an already recorded song and people rapping/harmonizing on top?

 

KL: Well for me I just liked what sounded good!! And I do all kinds of stuff- like produce records, mix and engineer. I have worked with drum machines since they came out – they were taking my job!!!…..and it didn’t happen for me like that anyway. See when we were Wood, Brass & Steel we used to play this club where the dj talked over the records. I heard this stuff for months, and then one night he played Rappers Delight. I liked it a lot. I didn’t see it as anything groundbreaking; it was like a natural progression from the guy talking over the beats. In fact I thought that the song was just a dj talking over Good Times, I didn’t know that it was actually a group! I didn’t know about the people who were actually pioneers until I was signed with Sugar hill. I remember Furious showing up with a record that they did for the Enjoy! label and it killed me when I heard it. I always liked that group!! They took a lot of Cameos shit for their show and made it their own. They had a very theatrical show, and I don’t even see anybody today that comes close to what they pulled off on stage!!! I will tell you who took them to the next level – Kevie Kev – Waterbed Kev (from The Fantastic 5 Emcees). He came with all this leather and stuff. That’s when they started pushing the envelope as far as fashion.

 

JQ: What was the first Sugar hill release that you played on?

 

KL: That horrible Sugar hill Gang album!!!

 

JQ: What did you not like about it?

 

KL: See Doug & Skip had worked with Sylvia before, and the business wasn’t right. Now she wanted them along with me to come and do the tracks on this lp. Well Doug & Skip weren’t giving up anything! The album wasn’t really all that because of that. Not too long after that lp she got into an arrangement with Jiggs Chase who would write arrangements based on break beats that Djs like Flash and groups like the Funky 4 would bring in. Jiggs would write the arrangement based on the break part then add something to it. I remember when the Funky 4 came to do “That’s The Joint”. Jiggs had this arrangement that the guys hated!! They said that it sounded like it was for an older crowd….they said “this is shit, we don’t like it”. Jiggs saw it as a smack in the face, but he came back the next day with what you now hear as “That’s The Joint”.

 

JQ: Were you there when Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie did their parts for “Sugar hill Groove’?

 

KL: Yes. It messed Tito up because he was used to his Latin grooves, and wasn’t used to rap, but he went in and killed it. Dizzys part didn’t work so Sylvia took it out. I also remember when Reggie Griffin went to work with Arif Mardin on “I Feel For You” for Chaka Khan. Arif distrusted Sylvia so much that he sent just the section of tape that Mel was supposed to rap on. It was this little tiny spool of tape!!! I heard one time that Wilson Pickett punched this producer in the face there. I wasn’t there to meet him, but I heard that he was kinda wild. Man a lotta people came through that place.

 

JQ: I heard Ronald Isley used to come through there a lot.

 

KL : Yeah he used to hang out with Sylvia. They go way back ‘cus Hendrix was hooked up with Sugar hill when it was All Platinum. That’s why the Isley's sound like Hendrix, because they were all hanging out. Hendrix used to borrow Sylvia’s guitar. They actually cut some records there.

 

JQ: Philippe Wynne from the Spinners released an lp on Sugar hill right?

 

KL: Yeah, and he was a very nice man. Also Bunny Sigler – he could sing his ass off. He was this huge guy, and he carried around this little Casio keyboard that he did all his arrangements on. I remember we were doin’ a track for Lou Rawls and Bunny was singing the pilot vocal, so Lou would know how to sing the song. Bunny starts killin’ it, and Jiggs (Chase) stops the track and says, “ hey this is for Lou, he has to sing on this, pull back!!!”

.....but Philippe did his last lp at Sugar hill. I first met Philippe when we were on tour with Funkadelic. He was on the Knee Deep tour with them, ‘cus you know that’s him doing the scat at the end of Knee Deep. I was lucky to be on that tour with them, because to me that was the height of Parliament. Knee Deep is one of my all time favorite tracks, along with Funkin’ For Jamaica by Tom Browne and Flashlight by Parliament.

 

JQ: Im gonna name some Sugar hill songs, and I want you to tell me whether you played on them, and any interesting or funny story associated with them.

 

That’s The Joint by Funky 4 – I played on that. As soon as we did it we knew it was a slammer. Like I said they hated the first track, but Jiggs came back with a killer.

 

Funk You Up by Sequence – Yep I played on that. It was their first song, and I used a Sinn drum, which had just come out, we cut that at the old nasty Sugar hill studio where everything came out mid range, no matter what you played!!

 

Freedom – I played on that, and played kazoo on it. In fact we all played kazoos on it, they were just handing them out. And of course we did the party track, or clap track. Sylvia always wanted a clap track no matter what. But Freedom was infectious.

 

It's Nasty – Yeah I changed the beat from the Tom Tom Club a little bit. I put a quadruple bass drum on it, which no one had done before. People did it on drum machines, but not on live drums.

 

JQ: How was the recording process. Like were the Emcees in the studio at the same time as the musicians, or did you record the tracks, and then bring them to the Emcees?

 

KL: The rappers would be there a lot of times. Jiggs would get the music straight, get the rhythm section down. They had just started to work with click tracks (metronome- which is a sound that aids the musician in keeping time) so they had me in the studio with a click track, and Skip & Doug were in the control room. They would record with me just for the vibe, then go back and do their parts, once they heard the drum track that they liked. Doug & Skip were able to overdub themselves and try different licks, punch in and everything, but I had to get it right all in one shot. I was kind of jealous of that – they didn’t punch drums in back in those days.

 

JQ: Back to the songs

 

Showdown with Furious 5 & The Gang – Yeah I played on that. I don’t remember much about cutting it, but I played on it.

 

JQ: Maurice Starr & Michael Jonzun came with that track right?

 

KL: Yeah that’s right. Sylvia didn’t care for them too much. They just did that one track because something about the business side didn’t work out. Those guys were tryin' to come in and move us out. In fact Jiggs and Ed Fletcher (Duke Bootee) tried to come in and take our spots, until they heard us play!!

 

8TH Wonder by Sugar hill Gang – Yeah I played on that. I really like the middle part of that song. But when I was out with Parliament I was hanging with their drummer at the time – Dennis Chambers, and he introduced me to Teddy Pendergrasses drummer. He was kinda nasty towards me; he was like “yeah yeah Buddy Rich type”, but anyway 8th wonder had just come out, and we ran into each other again. After the gig he said to me “Dennis told me that you played on that fuckin’ record, but I didn’t believe it, I had to see it for myself”. He shook my hand and stuff and it was cool.

 

 I got a lot of that at first being a White drummer. When people saw me with the Sugar hill jacket on, I just told them that I was the bus driver. I had so many drums in front of me on stage that nobody saw me most of the time anyway. But a lotta wild shit happened on the road. Being down South with a bunch of rappers from New York was wild. When we got off the tour bus to go eat I was the first one in line!!! When you take a bunch of guys who have never left the Bronx to a place where things move so slow it’s a trip. I mean these guys are from a place where if you don’t speak up fast enough in line the person serving you will skip you and move to the next person!!

 

One time we had 2 or 3 buses, and we were doing a Sugar hill revue. We stopped at a fireworks place down South and some of the guys from the Furious 5 bought some fireworks. Well one of the buses broke down, and we were waiting for help when we looked and the whole center of the highway was on fire!! Flames were to the tops of trees – it looked like fuckin’ Vietnam. Well we finally got the bus working, and we just got out of there, I don’t know if anyone called the fire department or what….

 

JQ:How was it being the only White cat around at the time?

 

KL: It was an issue some times, but most of the time it was no big deal. I remember much later after Sugar hill I was out in L.A. with Afrika Islam, and Ice Ts group Body Count was gonna come through Islam’s crib. Islam had asked me to stay at his house, and this was not too long after the L.A. riots. What I realized was that Body Count used to be a gang, now they just have guitars!!! Well I ended up staying, and I walked in with drumsticks and they were messin' with me. Well they were all sittin' around laughin’ and telling jokes, so I started laughing and Moose the bass player said “what the fuck you laughin' at?” I said well I just got from England, im here in L.A. its sunny and I get to meet you guys – and the joke was funny!!! Then the drummer says that he likes my stick bag and he comes and takes it off of my arm. I went and took it back and said “well you play with Body Count im sure you can get a whole box full! I had learned how to go left on people, and diffuse situations, because people expect you to act one way, but you mess them up when you do the opposite. Being on the road with all the rappers taught me that.

 

There was actually some fighting going on between the rappers. We were all stuck on the bus once and someone put in a kung fu movie. By the end of it there was a fight in the back of the bus. They were tryin’ to throw Jazzy Jeff (Funky 4) out of the window at 90 MPH….Once everybody had guns with ‘em, and there were a lotta problems on that tour. Once the police were so afraid of Hank (Big Bank from the Sugar hill Gang) that they stuck a gun right in his mouth, and took him to the police station like that. They didn’t believe that he was part of the band.

 

The wildest shit was at the first ever Rappers Convention at the 145th st Armory. Sequence wanted to do a ballad, and we told them that wasn’t a good idea, but they did it and gunshots rang out. Skip & Doug ran for the dressing rooms, and I got under the drum riser. Fletcher was under there with his lil 22. This girl got under there with us and said what are we gonna do. Fletcher was like “what do you mean we?” These 2 cops come up and ask whats goin on out there, and Craig Derry says you have the guns why don’t you go see!!!! It was a massacre- 20/20 was there filming with a mobile studio – it was a mess.

 

I remember Kurtis Blow getting booed and shit getting thrown at him down South , ‘cus he came out with a Dj. Middle America wasn’t quite ready for that. People were like “I can play a record at home, I didn’t pay to hear you play a record!!”  When Adventures On The Wheels came out, I got a bunch of the first pressings and gave ‘em out in clubs in Conneticut and Jersey. As soon as the Djs played it they tried to do the same and fucked it up!! But Flash used to mix all kinds of spoken word Dirty Harry shit in with his music, and that’s where I got the idea for Malcolm X (No Sell Out). Adventures On The Wheels was a hell of a record, and the story around the studio was that they treated Flash to Mc Donald’s or some shit for doing that record – he didn’t see any money from it. That record changed the industry.

 

JQ: Yes it did. I remember the day I brought the record home. My mother and grandmother hated it. That’s when I knew that I had some good shit!!! My grandmother said “ you paid 4 dollars for that? It sounds like its scratched, turn it off – its noise!!!

 

KL: That’s how Joe Robinson felt, but he was putting the money in his pocket. But that record was a groundbreaker.Flash used to mix spoken word over beats all the time even before that record.

 

JQ: When did you leave Sugar hill and why?

 

KL: Well they started paying Skip & Doug salary, and me by the session – lil divide & conquer techniques. But the place was about to close up anyway. Doug & Skip were about to go to Philly and do some stuff. The last thing that I did at their studio was Malcolm X No Sell Out. That really raised my stock, and I went to Tommy Boy, and I was able to bring in Skip & Doug. We did the Force Mds first lp, I did a song on the Masters Of The Beat compilation, and we did Unity with James Brown and Bambaataa.

 

 We also took all of our stuff that wasn’t commercial and compiled it under the name Tack head. When I signed to Tommy Boy I moved to New York and got a loft on 14th st, and that was the hangout. Every rapper in New York knew that loft. G.L.O.B.E., Pow Wow and even Vin Diesel came by tryin to rap. He wasn’t called Vin Diesel back then, but I remember he couldn’t keep time. He kept blaming me, and I got mad and kicked him out. He had one White and one Black parent, and I was told that when he left he said “the White part of me fucked it up”!!

 

The James Brown experience was funny. He made everybody call him Mr. Brown. He made Tommy get him a limo to go 3 city blocks. We went to the New Music Seminar with him 3 days after we cut Unity, and we had to reintroduce ourselves because he didn’t remember us. Everybody was doin that Mr. Brown shit and he tried to pull it on George Clinton, and George told him that he would embarrass him in front of everybody, and not to try it. James started getting all friendly with George.

 

…..No Sell out got a lot of play in Europe, but Joe killed it in the states. He had a lot of Djs in his pocket.

 

JQ: Now there are some copies of No Sell Out floating around on the Sugar hill label, and it’s credited to the Sugar hill All Stars. It’s a rare record that goes for a couple hundred dollars on Ebay. How did it get released on Sugar hill?

 

KL: Joe Robinson recorded it off of the radio, and pressed it up. We went to court over that record. He tried to say that it belonged to them, because I recorded it in their studio.

JQ: Lastly, I read somewhere that Malcolm Xs wife Betty Shabazz had an issue with you doing the No Sell Out record. Is that true?  :

KL: No not at all. Here is what happened.I had already done the song, and I had just read the autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. I saw at the end of the book that Betty Shabazz was an administrator at Medgar Evers College. I set up an appointment to meet with her. I went in with the tape all excited , and I thought that she would listen to it right there. I went on and on about how I had worked hard on the track and so forth , and she said - look stop talking. This is my life I will listen to the tape and call you after I have heard it. The only number that I could leave at the time was my mothers, so I left that. Two days later my mother called and  said that Malcolm Xs wife had called , and that she said that I was a wonderful musician.

She really liked the song, but I had some gun shots at the end. She asked me to take those out. You have to remember that Malcolm X was still a taboo subject in 1984. Also Malcolm was killed right in front of his wife and children , and now they were dancing to this record , which they really enjoyed , and Betty didn't want those gun shots in there , because Malcolm was even a taboo subject in her household.

But Marshall Chess , whose father owned Chess records was doin' some administrative work at Sugar Hill because Joe had just acquired the rights to the Chess catalog , and didn't know what the hell he was doin. I told Marshall that I was about to do this Malcolm X Record , but that I didn't wanna do it at Sugar Hill because they wouldn't  do the right thing , and I wanted to make sure that Betty got paid! She didn't really care for Alex Haley and others who had dealt with Malcolm because they didn't pay Malcolm or her. Alex Haley's whole career took off because of Malcolm. There would be no Roots book or movie without Malcolm.

I went to Tommy Boy and put out Malcolm X. Mr. Magic had advance copies , and was playing it on the air. Joe Robinson recorded it , and pressed it up under the name Sugar Hill All stars or some bullshit. Then he took me to court , and I won. I didn't see any money off the record because Tom Silverman and Tommy Boy used all the money to fight their other legal problems,  so I had a falling out with Tommy. I remember in court every morning the judge would ask out lawyers where the gangsters were (referring to Joe Robinson's lawyers), so he knew what they were about. In court Sylvia went up to Betty and told her that she was honored to meet her and Betty said very loudly "get out of my face , you are a pirate and a liar". Sylvia just slumped down in her chair. Then Betty nudged me and said "that was just for effect". The judge said that he had a special interest in this case because he was the D.A. in Malcolm's murder trial. Betty said " I was there and I don't remember you", and he said "we have all changed over the years , but it was me".

Betty  told me that she always knew who killed her husband, where they lived and what they did (for a living). She also had a tape that Malcolm made of the FBI telling him that they would give him any protection that he needed or make anybody disappear if he would give them Elijah Muhammad's head on a platter. Malcolm replied that they must be fools to ask him something like that. Most likely they went right to Elijah Muhammad with the same offer for Malcolm's head.

Right around the time that the Spike Lee movie came out, I was having breakfast with Betty , and she looked at me and said "wow I was married to a Prince!"......around that time I was offered $20,000 to do a remix of Malcolm X. I told Betty that i would give her $10,000. The money ended up going down to $10,000 , and I told the record label that I would rather not do it at all , if it meant that I had to change what I had told Betty. The producer ended up doing it for free , and I said I would do it for free , so we ended up giving Betty the $10,000 that I had promised. She was in South Africa at the time , and we wired her the money. She took the money and opened a school in South  Africa , and named it after Malcolm. So in the end some good did come out of that record.

Betty was a sweet lady and she treated me like a son. I remember when they ran the advertisements for the song they had my name real big and Malcolm X really small. I said that I didn't need my name big - to reverse it and put Malcolm's name big. She told me to leave it like that , but she never told me why. She later told that many Black artists had a chance to do something with Malcolm's speeches , and not one attempted , it took a White guy to do it. Doug & Skip told me that I was the only one who could have pulled that record off without starting a riot. Joe Robinson had people like Al Sharpton on me saying that I stole Sugarhill's song - it was crazy for a while. In the streets people would make gestures with their fingers like they were shooting me. I kept a shotgun in my apartment while that trial was goin' on.

When I got the call that Betty had burns on 90% of her body I found it odd that her grandson could have done anything like that. This was a strong woman , I don't see that happening unless someone held her down and poured gasoline on her. I wasn't there of course , but I always found that story odd. Betty was a Princess and it was a life changing experience meeting her. I used to wonder , how did this kid from Connecticut get involved with this Princess?

 

©2006 JayQuan Dot Com. No part may be copied without authors consent.

 

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