Keith LeBlanc, Drummer for Grandmaster Flash & Sugarhill Gang, Passes Away at 69

Keith LeBlanc, the heartbeat behind Tackhead’s drums, left us last Thursday. At 69, he succumbed to an illness, leaving a void, his wife Fran LeBlanc confided to Variety. A legend in his own right, Keith’s beats were the backbone of hip-hop classics by icons like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang.

The folks over at On-U Sound, his musical family for years, are shattered. “The great Keith LeBlanc has passed away,” they announced, mourning the loss of a true pioneer. His genius wasn’t just behind the drums; Keith’s production and writing prowess touched the works of Living Colour, Peter Gabriel, and even Nine Inch Nails. From James Brown to R.E.M., his rhythm knew no bounds. “An incredible drummer, producer and musical maverick,” they said. Keith’s legacy? Unforgettable.

Born in the vibrant year of 1954, in Bristol, Connecticut, Keith’s journey into music was almost cinematic. It all started with Ringo Starr and a Beatles’ performance on TV. That was it. Keith was hooked. Moving from tapping on practice pads to mastering the drum kit in his school’s orchestra, he was a prodigy in the making. By 14, he was already showcasing his talent in a club, a glimpse of the legend he was to become.

The ’70s were a turning point. Keith auditioned to fill the shoes of his friend Harold Sargent at Sugar Hill Records. He got the gig, and what a ride it was! From 1979 to 1982, Keith’s live drums added that unmistakable groove to hits like “Apache” and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. At a time when electronic beats were the norm, Keith’s style made Sugar Hill’s tracks stand out, giving them an edge that’s still celebrated.

1983 was a landmark year for Keith. He released “No Sell Out,” a track that was revolutionary, blending samples with synthesizers and drum machines. It wasn’t just a hit; it was a statement, climbing to No. 60 on the UK singles chart. The track, featuring Malcolm X’s powerful voice, was a tribute to the late activist, with all proceeds going to his family. It was more than music; it was a movement.

Then came the encounter with Adrian Sherwood, a meeting of minds that would change the course of music. Keith, alongside his Sugar Hill comrades Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald, formed Tackhead. Their sound was a fusion of industrial and hip-hop, a genre-bending experiment that produced classics like Tackhead Tape Time and Friendly as a Hand Grenade. Though they parted ways in the ’90s, the band’s reunion in 2014 and tours in the 2000s proved their music was timeless. Keith LeBlanc’s rhythm will forever echo in the halls of music history, a beat that refuses to fade.

Noah Mitchell
Noah Mitchell
Noah Mitchell is a senior music writer at Noah has been passionately covering the music industry for over five years, with a particular focus on live performances and the latest updates on artists.