A little-known American drummer who played on such classic recordings as 'Rappers' Delight' and 'The Message' talks to Dan Goldstein about "stretching" technology.
This is the drummer who abandoned his kit to explore programmed rhythms, mixed hip hop with Gregorian chants and pioneered vocal cutups with the cult single 'Malcolm X'. This is Keith LeBlanc.
Chicago seems the right location for an audience with Keith LeBlanc. The man who sits opposite me belongs to the breed of musician for whom the phrase "rules are made to be broken" could easily have been invented. A musician who prefers to work without an instruction manual, without the attentions of teachers or mentors, without even so much as a reference to what mainstream commercial music is doing.
And Chicago appears, above all, to be a city in which laws are treated with contempt, not respect. The weather openly flouts the laws of physics by changing from thunderous humidity to breezy sunshine in the space of minutes. The people walk in the shadow of institutionalised vice, the sort which has never really faded from view since Al Capone first got into the violin-case business. And the local musicians treat copyright as if it were some social disease, stealing rhythm tracks, basslines and samples from each other's records to peddle the dancefloor drug they call House Music.
Yet no matter how comfortably he seems to sit here, a bottle of Budweiser in his hand, an easy smile on his face, Keith LeBlanc is not a native of the Windy City. He's a New Yorker, and his choice of words - as much as his accent - occasionally makes the English interviewer's task tricky.
But who is Keith LeBlanc, anyway? Some of you may have seen his name on the backs of record sleeves, credited as drummer, or programmer, or engineer, or perhaps just as someone to whom "thanks" are due. But you will never see his face on Top Of The Pops, and it's unlikely you'll see it anywhere in the next year outside the pages of this magazine.
But don't let the man's low profile fool you. Keith LeBlanc is one of the most important figures to have (ab)used new musical technology in the last five years, and the extent of his influence has grown out of all proportion to his own - still fairly uneventful - career.
AT THE AGE of 18, Keith LeBlanc was at High School and playing drums in a typical American High School rock 'n' roll band. He enjoyed it for a while, but the journey soon lost much of its interest, and the teenager found himself wandering onto less well-trodden paths.
"Funk came along", he recalls, "and it seemed to me it was a good compromise between jazz and commercial rock music, so I went with that."
For LeBlanc, it was simply a case of facing up to the musicians who'd always mattered most to him. When I ask him to name his influences, he recites: "Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles." Names not to be taken lightly.
"There were lots of smaller influences too", he adds after a pause. "As a kid I used to listen to a lot of old Stax records, because I used to play along with the rhythm. And James Brown was really big, so I got into a lot of that.
"I never really listened to the production of records. I was influenced by a lot of drummers, because they're the instruments I play. As far as instrumentalists are concerned, I suppose I just about wore myself out with Miles Davis. When I was a kid I bought Bitches' Brew, which was just too much for me so I used it for a frisbee. But five years down the road, I realised just how good it was - and is."
After leaving school, LeBlanc spent some years at what he calls his "training camp", NY-based Sugarhill Records, the company responsible for 'Rapper's Delight', 'The Message' and a host of other slices of vinyl history that helped give rise to hip hop as we know it today - on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Those days at Sugarhill were a unique experience", says LeBlanc, with a hint of cynicism that comes from having been ripped-off, misunderstood, abused and downright ignored during the formative years of his recording career. "You can say a lot of bad things happened then, but they were still good times. I remember touring with 50 rappers, scared to death for the first couple of gigs, but really getting into it after that.
"That was around '79. I met Doug Wimbush and Skip McDonald - they'd been playing a couple of years before me in the band - and joined the band playing drums with them. 'Rapper's Delight' had just come out and the record company were looking for people to go and record some more stuff. Doug and Skip didn't really wanna do it because they'd had a bad experience with the company before, but I heard the words 'recording studio' and I was there. And I managed to talk them into coming along, too.
"The company tried to pay me less than we'd agreed, but where else can you play in a recording studio for 18 hours a day and get paid for it - fresh in off the street and with no track record?
"I hated drum machines then a guy turned me on to the Oberheim DMX. I didn't like it at first, but as soon as I found out you could stretch it out of shape, I was hooked."
"A lot of good people went through that setup, too. I'd say 75% of the people who are doing good stuff in New York now went through Sugarhill at some time or other. I think they'd have been a huge record company if they hadn't been so short-sighted, because there was such a load of talent there in such a short space of time."
When the effort of having to tour with 50 rappers and deal with internal record company squabbling became too much, LeBlanc struck out on his own to record 'Malcolm X'. It was a once heard, never forgotten chunk of beat-driven bass, cunningly employed to underpin recordings of Malcolm X, a contemporary of Martin Luther King who, like King, fell victim to an assassin's bullet back in the '60s.
Malcolm X preached the virtues of peace, love and understanding; LeBlanc decided the way to get that message across in 1983 was to get people dancing to it. And that's where technology came in. Today the record's equipment list reads like a catalogue of might-have-beens. But four years ago, it was state-of-the-art stuff: Oberheim DMX drum machine, Octave-Plateau Voyetra 8 synth, Drumulator...
With LeBlanc's programming genius and a healthy dose of airplay (especially in the UK), 'Malcolm X' became a cult classic - much to its maker's surprise.
"Before then I hated drum machines", he says dryly. "Then a guy named Reggie Griffin turned me on to the Oberheim DMX. I didn't like it at first, but as soon as I found out you could stretch it out of shape, I was hooked. I'd never program something into it that I could play myself as a drummer, but using it as another instrument was really what I was into.
"Still, I didn't anticipate just how much attention the record would get. I don't really know how well it sold, but I've seen it on all kinds of compilation albums from all sorts of countries.
"People either loved it or hated it. It certainly pissed some people off. I know that Sugarhill tried to stop the record getting too much airplay. They got into this thing about 'white boys stealing our shit', but I figure the record just had to come out. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have."
So did LeBlanc get paid?
"Well, it went into a court battle, which was a new experience for me - Malcolm X's widow turned up every day to the hearings! The judge worked out what was going on pretty quickly - I wasn't even called to speak. But I still didn't get paid too much because I think the record got taped more than it sold. It got a lot of attention but it wasn't a huge seller."
WITH 'MALCOLM X' SAFELY under his belt, LeBlanc continued to record material solo, the result being Major Malfunction, his first and to date only album under his own name. It's a collision of programming styles and treated textures - dancefloor devastation in its rawest, riskiest form, and very much a taste of things to come.
At the same time, LeBlanc continued his association with guitarist McDonald and bass player Wimbush, and it is this route that has turned out to be the most rewarding - particularly when the trio was made a quartet with the addition of English mixmaster Adrian Sherwood.
"The production team with Adrian, Doug, Skip and me is really healthy", affirms LeBlanc. "We don't set out to produce a really high quality sound or anything like that. We just sit down with all the instruments and see how far we can turn them inside out.
"A lot of people drive themselves crazy trying to work out how some of our records are made. And because the records have a lot of sounds on them that haven't been heard before, people automatically think that we must have been using some new piece of technology - when in fact it was probably something really old that we just stretched out of shape.
"I didn't get paid too much for 'Malcolm X' because I think the record got taped more than it sold. It got a lot of attention but it wasn't a huge seller."
"I like working in a group. Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but our group is really democratic. If somebody has a good idea they can just show it to us on a keyboard or a drum machine or whatever, and the ideas that work best are the ones that get used.
"Working with people gives you an atmosphere that can be very exciting. Working on your own can be good too, but I find that if I'm doing something by myself, there's too much pressure: you have to take a decision every three minutes, and you end up just being too close to the thing.
"In the group, if one person has had enough he can go off and get some sleep, and the others can carry on without him, so the thing continues to evolve and the process goes on. I know that when I'm in the studio with the guys, there's a great force in there and something good is gonna come out of it.
"We've become a bit like a family. The group is really just four people who basically shouldn't even be in the same room together. But now those people are my friends, and I know I can rely on them if I'm working on a job outside of the group and I need something done - I know I'll get it done right."
With the help of Sherwood's own label, On-U Sound, LeBlanc and his colleagues have set out on any number of vinyl outings, catering for a groove-thirsty market that shows no sign of losing its taste for the big beat.
Most infamous of these is probably Tackhead's 'You'll Never Walk Alone', in which LeBlanc, Sherwood and company had their programming and sampling skills pitted against the audio experience of a player in an utterly different league: football commentator Brian Moore. How did the unlikely association come about?
"It was a pet theme of Adrian's; he gets them now and again, but I've never seen him get so precious about a record as this one. He got all his football buddies into the studio, and then he got Brian in, and he was just a lovely man, you know?
"We gave him a load of crowd noises just so he could get a bit of atmosphere and get into the mood for it, and although he didn't voice the record - we threw him in afterwards onto the rhythm track - the fact that he did it was enough.
"It was just kind of a statement that we wanted to make - to put the rhythm of the commentator up against the rhythm of the record. And it was really something that we just wanted to put out on our own record label and then leave it at that.
"But then Island went crazy for it, and saw a really big hit in it. We told them it wasn't gonna be a hit, that it was just a novelty record and only for the UK at that, but they put a lot of promotion behind it... And it didn't do a thing." Successful or not, however, the alliance was consistent with LeBlanc's disregard for convention. More than anything, it seems he thrives on things that simply shouldn't work together. Malcolm McLaren - a man of whom much the same could be said - was impressed by LeBlanc's commitment to rule-breaking, and promptly called him in on his latest project.
"It's the most difficult thing I've ever done - and that's putting it mildly", says LeBlanc, with pride. "It's taking two completely different musical ideas, and banging them together until they do work. People have been trying to do it for the last 100 years, and nobody's really succeeded. I think we've come real close - there's some real good stuff."
"We don't set out to produce a really high quality sound or anything like that. We just sit down with all the instruments and see how far we can turn them inside out."
No news of a release date, though.
Lawlessness reigns supreme in Keith LeBlanc's musical life. He is actively interested in what new technology is doing, and in how its development may influence the musician's craft. But the 'Malcolm X' experience was enough for LeBlanc to realise that he was more at home stretching technology to its limits than he was in getting it do the job originally intended for it. Hence the title Major Malfunction. He seems unable to name a favourite single piece of modern equipment other than "the studio".
"I'm not precious about any one piece of equipment. I try and use what other people feel comfortable with, because I figure that if I get too involved with one particular piece of equipment, I'm gonna get left behind. So I use what other people use, and keep abreast of what's going on that way."
And LeBlanc's involvement with technology goes deeper than that, anyway. For almost alone among musicians who now program - rather than play - for a living, LeBlanc and his associates (they call themselves the Mafia - more lawlessness) are in the habit of taking their hi-tech paraphernalia out of the studio and on the road.
Onstage, LeBlanc triggers an Akai S900 from Simmons pads, Wimbush and McDonald play through a plethora of digital effects equipment, and Sherwood performs a live mixdown in stereo for every piece, quashing an instrument here, adding an impromptu sampled overdub there. Reception to the live Mafia has been mixed.
PA companies have taken a dislike to them for the complexity of their setup, A&R people have been unimpressed by the lack of what LeBlanc calls "a vaudeville element" in the show, and one critic has even suggested, in print, that the group use backing tapes instead of trying to fit all their technology onto the stage.
Nonetheless, reaction from the public has been generally favourable, and LeBlanc readily admits that the shows have been an education in themselves.
"It's more important to work with good people than it is to work with good machines", he says calmly. "But I've been sampling all kinds of stuff with the S900, and it's opened up a whole new world for me. It's really great for acoustic drums, but I've just been sampling anything that happens to be around, then treating the samples and triggering them.
"If I were given a straight choice, I'd sooner play everything than program everything. But in real life it's not that simple."
And now that LeBlanc is back in the studio again, his anxiety to bend rules is reaching new heights. The Mafia's collaboration with Mark Stewart (formerly of The Pop Group) has already led to an extraordinary album, When the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, on which hip hop rhythms found themselves inexplicably attached to Gregorian chants, among other things.
Now the culture clash has hit home even harder, with the influence of Erik Satie making an impact on Stewart's latest single, 'Stranger than Love'.
As the work with Stewart continues and other co-productions with Adrian Sherwood appear on the horizon, LeBlanc is finding himself spending more and more time in England - a country he seems to enjoy.
"I like England from a recording point of view - it's a good place to work. America has the same kind of places and the same technology available, but England is more receptive to the idea of mashing things up, so to speak, or taking chances with things.
"You've got a lot of influences in England too, like you've got bands that sound like 10 different bands all in one. Plus you're also good at marketing, doing things like taking American ideas and then selling them back to us, which I find kind of amusing."
SO DON'T UNDERESTIMATE Keith LeBlanc. His impact on modern music has already been immense, and his ability to forge successful alloys out of seemingly incompatible metals is almost unique. Next in line for his attentions? Why, those two old chestnuts, music and video...
"I've been trying to get Adrian involved in video because he's got a lot of ideas in that area. I've just done something myself that didn't turn out too good, but I still believe there's a lot of potential in the idea of a combined audio and video format. You know, if you could remove the vaudeville element from it, I think you could get some real interesting stuff out of it."
Well, if there's one musician around today that could make MTV interesting, that musician is Keith LeBlanc.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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