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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Songs in the Key of My Life: 13

No Sell Out, Malcolm X (1983)

I was saddened to read of the recent passing of maverick hip-hop and dub drummer Keith LeBlanc at the age of 69. Having started to play the drums as a child after seeing Ringo Starr on TV, his musical influence stretched back over 45 years and across multiple genres.

Among many others, he worked with were Peter Gabriel, The Cure, R.E.M., Annie Lennox and - famously - Nine Inch Nails. Tackhead, his industrial funk collaboration with Adrian Sherwood, which spawned three albums in the late 1980s and a further two more recently, largely passed me by. But the genesis of that band was in New Jersey in 1979 where LeBlanc along with bass player Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald formed the Sugar Hill Records house band that subsequently laid down the Sugar Hill Gang’s early classics “8th Wonder” and “Apache” as well as “It’s Nasty” and “Freedom” for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Those records - and they were records, 12” slabs of solid vinyl - were where I came in, I loved all that stuff, a world away from everything else that was around at the time. It seems extraordinary now that a hip-hop label would have an actual drummer laying down the tracks. Even more extraordinary was that that after leaving Sugar Hill in 1982, on the first solo record that LeBlanc released, he used an early digital drum emulator.

That record was No Sell Out, a cut-up of speeches of American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X set to a drum heavy electro soundtrack. It caused some controversy. It was felt by some that Malcolm X (who was assassinated in 1965) would not have wished his words put to music, others objected to a white musician using the words of an African-American activist in a song. In fact, proceeds from the recording went to Malcolm X’s family and his widow, Betty Shabazz, was firmly on side with these words on the cover of the record:

This recording documents Malcolm's voice at a time and space in history some nineteen or more years ago. Its meaning is just as relevant today as it was then. His belief is that people must constantly monitor behavior, refine goals, and direct their objectives to insure that the right to life and work is a reality. Ultimately, our goals should be peace and brotherhood. After all, the universe belongs to all its inhabitants.

I’d like to say that listening to No Sell Out I was inspired to learn more about Malcolm X. I wasn’t, indeed I probably only had but the vaguest idea who Malcolm X was. I know only slightly more now but I have time on my hands so can put that right; a good place to start looks like The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, published just months after his death.

But taken alone, No Sell Out was truly groundbreaking, a hypnotic dancefloor filler and a fabulous example of the talents of Keith LeBlanc. RIP.

White, black, red, brown, yellow

It doesn't make any difference what color you are

The only thing power respects, is power


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