Keith LeBlanc, Grandmaster Flash drummer, dead at 69
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Keith LeBlanc, Grandmaster Flash drummer, dead at 69

The early days of hip-hop were arguably some of the most important that the genre has ever faced. Rappers were trying to break new ground with it, and that meant that their music had to be bold but also accessible to the public at large. This wasn’t a one-person effort; it came down to the MC, the record labels, DJs and, of course, the musicians responsible for bringing the tracks to life, one of the most important of whom, Keith LeBlanc, passed away last week at 69. 

When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 released ‘The Message’, they changed music forever. They used funky music in order to paint an accurate picture of the world they lived in, one of racism, bigotry and inequality. They didn’t make it romantic or paint themselves as struggling poets as many people in folk music did, nor did they provide a solution to their problem; they stated the facts as they knew them. 

The track blew people away as the power of hip-hop, what was predominantly party music before then, was realised. Of course, the music was just as important as the message itself, if the song wasn’t good to listen to, it would be the equivalent of an audiobook like that made by Iceberg Slim as opposed to a song that belonged in the charts. Keith LeBlanc played a vital role in making the song stand out. 

He didn’t stop at ‘The Message’ either. During his time at Sugarhill Records, LeBlanc provided the drums on iconic early hip-hop tracks such as ‘It’s Nasty’ ‘Apache’ and ‘8th Wonder’. He also worked with the Funky 4+1, one of the first rap outfits to have a female MC. 

Of course, someone of LeBlanc’s calibre didn’t stop at working on hip-hop beats; he stretched himself into various different genres, playing with some of the most iconic bands on the planet. In the statement released by his longtime label, On-U Sound, they highlighted just how many legendary bands he had worked with, really putting his stamp on music as a whole in the process. 

“All of us at On-U Sound are heartbroken to share the news that the great Keith LeBlanc has passed away,” they wrote before going on to list some of the different artists he had worked with, “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…” and the list goes on and on. 

LeBlanc was a true musical maverick and one of the rare kinds of session drummers who could work with whatever genre people put in front of him. Whether it was hip-hop, punk, rock or indie, he was able to settle into the groove as if it was a second language, and while he will be sadly missed, the impact he has made on music isn’t going anywhere.