How Canadian composer Galt MacDermot unwittingly became rap royalty
He's one of the most sampled artists in hip hop, even earning the nickname King Galt
Even if you don't know who Galt MacDermot is, you know his music.
MacDermot was mostly known as a prolific composer, pianist and songwriter for Broadway musicals, notably 1967's Tony and Grammy Award-winning Hair.
He died in 2018, but in his lifetime, MacDermot also became one of the most sampled composers in hip hop, with artists such as Kanye West, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Busta Rhymes, Jay Dilla, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and many more using his music over the decades.
On the website Who Sampled, a database of hip-hop songs and their sample sources, a search for MacDermot reveals 188 songs –– and those are just the ones we know about.
MF DOOM, who died in October of last year, was also a devoted MacDermot fan and sampled him often. For his Special Herbs series alone, DOOM used three songs from one MacDermot album, 1969's Woman is Sweeter.
"If you're sampling, there is just so much to cherry-pick from, so many rich parts," says Oakland-based hip-hop writer and podcaster David Ma, who interviewed MacDermot in 2016. "You can have some piano clinks here and some strings here and you can kind of pluck whatever you want."
From Montreal to Broadway
Born in Montreal, the son of a diplomat, MacDermot graduated from Bishops University and then went on to receive his bachelor of music from Cape Town University in South Africa. He relocated to New York when he was 36 years old and eventually became a Broadway darling with the release of Hair in 1967. Covers of songs from the musical, such as "Aquarius," "Let the Sunshine In" and "Good Morning Starshine," all became No. 1 chart hits in 1969, the same year MacDermot won a Grammy for the original score. To date, it is one of the most successful scores in Broadway history.
In a career that spanned over 50 years, he became known for an output that was vast, varied and virtuosic. Besides composing the music for over a dozen Broadway musicals, MacDermot recorded original soundtracks for film, including the hit Blaxploitation film Cotton Comes to Harlem. He also released more than 60 albums, ranging from chamber music and opera to funk, R&B and jazz.
One of his earliest compositions, "African Waltz," also won a Grammy when Cannonball Adderley recorded it in 1960.
"My father was a bit like a guy who found a mine," says MacDermot's son Vince from his home in Staten Island. "You know, you go into the mine and come out with rubies and emeralds and things like that, and those were the songs, and he would do them, but once he'd done them, he'd go back into the mine."
My father was a very, very disciplined guy. He was basically breakfast and then straight to the piano, all his life.- Vince MacDermot on his father Galt
Vince, who also manages his father's music and played with him in his touring outfit, the New Pulse Jazz Band, says that his father "just liked playing music and writing music, so he didn't see why it should be restricted. He wrote funk or he wrote string jigs, there's even a clarinet concerto. He just loved music."
Vince says that, in his father's lifetime, he released more than 3,000 catalogue works. "That's more than Mozart," he says. "My father was a very, very disciplined guy. He was basically breakfast and then straight to the piano, all his life."
A 'treasure chest' for sampling
While Galt continued recording and performing live well into his later years, his most acclaimed work was released in the '60s and '70s. In the 1990s, when sampling in hip-hop was booming, MacDermot's music was given a second life.
The first hit record to sample MacDermot was Run-DMC's 1993 song "Down with the King," produced by Pete Rock, who sampled the melody from "Where do I Go?" From the Hair soundtrack. (He had also previously sampled "Where Do I Go?" on "Can't Front On Me," from his album Mecca and the Soul Brother.)
Hair, MacDermot's most popular recording, is also the one that's been sampled and covered the most. The Beastie Boys also used a snippet of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" for their 1992 song "Finger Lickin' Good," while Kanye West flipped the same song into Mos Def's "Sunshine," a standout track from his 2004 album, The New Danger.
Producers were coming over to my father's house and then they would go down to the basement. They'd come back up with a stack of records and pay cash.- Vince MacDermot
"What happened was, guys started to find out that my father's house in Staten Island was full of tapes and old records and things like that," says Vince. "So, in those days, these producers were coming over to my father's house and then they would go down to the basement. They'd come back up with a stack of records and pay cash, and my mother would sit them down and make tea.… In essence, I would say it was rhythm that they found, you know, a feel, which his music is heavy on. There were guys coming with bodyguards and, you know, it was kind of a trip."
As more producers heard about Galt's music and sought it out, he adopted a "say yes" approach, rarely turning down licensing requests.
"He appreciated anybody that liked music, whether it was his format or not, and these guys have skill and they had ears, and he recognized what they were after and he liked that," says Vince.
Taking into account the sheer breadth of MacDermot's work and the number of rap producers who have sampled him, Ma would put him in the same echelon of composers like Bob James, the most sampled jazz artist of all time, and Dr. Dre favourite, David Axelrod.
It also helped that, from early on, MacDermot played with some of the best musicians around, including drummers Bernard Purdie, renowned for his backbeats and precision, and Idris Muhammad, known for playing with Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield.
"You can just see why, when people started discovering Galt Macdermot," says Ma. "It's like, look at this treasure chest to choose from."
Take a look at how a quirky bass line and melody from "Space," which MacDermot wrote for a 1969 film about the work of Yves Saint-Laurent, got transformed in Busta Rhyme's breakout hit "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check," in 1996.
Producer Rashad Smith had found the album in his mother's collection, and ended up looping the melody and bass to build the foundation of the song.
But perhaps one of MacDermot's best-known compositions is "Coffee Cold," from his 1966 album Shapes of Rhythm.
It's been sampled in at least 28 songs, by artists including Gang Starr and Nipsey Hussle, but it was the 1999 track, "The Truth," by Handsome Boy Modelling School, that really set it off.
"I think that's certainly a huge one that we would be remiss not to mention — the sort of cold yet emotive piano plaints are just amazing," says Ma. "Off the top of my head, I'm sure it's probably one of the most sampled piano portions ever.... It's one of those songs where, you're looking at a two-minute piece of music, but then once it gets repurposed, it just has a life of its own. It will live forever depending on how it gets repurposed and reused."
"It was like, oh my God, this is incredible," producer Prince Paul said in the 2012 documentary Lookin 4 Galt when asked about sampling "Coffee Cold." "Listening to that record and then going through the whole album, it just made me realize how dope he is.… Afterwards people just started sending me a lot of stuff with Galt MacDermot on it. I didn't realize his body of work was that incredible."
When MacDermot died in 2018, hip-hop producers took to social media to pay their respects. "King Galt," wrote Questlove, referring to the nickname MacDermot had gained in the hip-hop community. "The Broadway community is mourning his passing ... but best believe he was the hip-hop community's too."
Vince says that his father always embraced hip hop, and respected the artistry of sampling. Now, as a result, it has helped introduce Galt's work to a whole new generation of listeners.
"My father's music is a bit like grass reseeding itself," he says. "When I look at the profile of the people that listen on Spotify, the largest denominator is 28 to 34 year olds. And they must have known through rap or hip hop."
Watch the full video at the top of this post, edited by Andrew Alba and Krzysztof Pospieszynski, produced by Jesse Kinos-Goodin and hosted by Rich Terfry.