The composer of Hair's music passed away last Monday at the age of 89.
Although the famous musical (a symbol of the hippie adventure) remains his best known work, his copious repertoire is full of many other singular and inexhaustible grooves. The Montreal native, also a pianist, studied music as far away as South Africa before making a name for himself with the composition “African Waltz,” performed by Cannonbal Adderley and awarded a Grammy in 1960. During that decade, Galt MacDermot not only penned music for cult Broadway shows, he also recorded a solo jazz album, Shapes of Rhythm, influenced by Latin rhythms and filled with inspired Rhodes keyboards. It’s on this album that we find “Coffee Cold,” a classic with an earthy rhythm and elegant melody, a composition so ageless that it was recently covered by BadBadNotGood.
In the 1970s, MacDermot also worked for the movies, particularly the soundtrack of the blaxploitation film, Cotton Comes to Harlem, to which he brought that funky and playful touch that we already find in his musicals.
At the end of the decade, Hair took on an extra dimension. The song “Ain’t Got/ I Got Life” was covered in 1968 by Nina Simone (and in a sublime way), but the success of the 1979 film adaptation of the already cult Broadway show gave a much greater scope to the themes written by MacDermot. During this same period, he formed the New Pulse Jazz Band, a team of stars including drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Wilbur Basscomb, with several albums mixing different approaches to jazz.
A goldmine of samples
The composer’s work has also had a lasting impact on hip-hop music; his compositions have been sampled, looped, and cut by the most talented hip-hop producers from the 1990s to the present day. From Buckwild to Jay Dee to Mf Doom, tall you have to do is take a look at the WhoSampled database to see how Galt MacDermot’s work has a place in the beatmakers’ finds. Not at all conservative, the gentleman even worked in collaboration with Stones Throw and Oh No (Madlib’s brother) in 2005 on the Exodus into Unheard Rhythms project, a solid album with first-class rappers as guests, composed only of samples drawn from MacDermot’s music. To further explore the links between rap music and the artist’s discography, we can (re)immerse ourselves in the documentary Looking 4 Galt, produced in 2014 by the French media company, Gasface. It’s a kind of crazy puzzle going back to the source, especially through interviews with big names in hip-hop, such as Pete Rock and Prince Paul.