The Woo-Hah!!–ing of the Age of Aquarius

‘Hair’ Composer’s Tangled, Spangled, and Spaghettied Beats Let the Sunshine Into Hip-Hop

Galt MacDermot lives in a restored schoolhouse in Staten Island with his wife, Marlene. He has the financial resources to live anywhere he wants, but he chooses this drowsy borough for the very reason many New Yorkers scoff at it: There's not much going on here. "It's just a typical suburb," says MacDermot, whose hawkish gaze and high cheekbones bring to mind a septuagenarian Glenn Gould. "Coming from Canada, I needed green."

The 72-year-old composer of the rock musical Hair maintains a discreet distance from the city that, for a brief shining moment in the late '60s, turned him into the toast of Broadway and made him filthy rich. Now, a small yet devoted cabal of cultural obscurantists and beat scavengers hop on the ferry and pay their respects. But not necessarily because he penned the music for such pie-eyed flower-power anthems as "Let the Sunshine In" and "Aquarius." No, baggy-legged hip-hop DJs and producers looking to grab a leading edge make the pilgrimage because MacDermot is an original funkateer, and they want to filch a bit of his old black magic.

MacDermot's musical thumbprint is smudged all over the urban landscape, thanks to the unlikely rediscovery of his early solo oeuvre: ultra-rare albums that barely grazed any retail record racks upon initial release, but which have now become dusty groove nirvana and are being reissued this week as a two-fer CD on MacDermot's Kilmarnock Records. Those albums, 1966's Shapes of Rhythm and 1969's Woman Is Sweeter, as well as MacDermot's score for the 1970 Godfrey Cambridge blaxploitation film Cotton Comes to Harlem, have turned the laconic pianist into the most unlikely old-school maestro since David Axelrod.

The secret grandfather of rap music?
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The secret grandfather of rap music?

Think you haven't caught MacDermot's act since Three Dog Night covered "Easy to Be Hard"? Here's a partial list of Galt-gestalt jams: Busta Rhymes's "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check," Run-DMC's "Down With the King," Quasimodo's "Loop Digga" and "Discipline 99," the Beatnuts' "Uncivilized," Handsome Boy Modeling School's "The Truth," Rah Digga's "Lessons of Today," Thirstin Howl III's "Brooklyn Hard Rock."

Just don't call it a you-know-what; MacDermot never really had a solo career in the traditional sense. The Montreal native attended music school in Capetown, South Africa, because his father, a diplomat, was assigned there. MacDermot's exposure to the continent's rhythm-rich musical culture had a transformative effect on him. "I saw all the great ones while I was there, like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, this great vocal group called the Manhattan Brothers," says MacDermot. "Did a couple of sessions with Hugh when I moved to New York. Nice guy."

Recorded and pressed by MacDermot in Montreal in 1956, the pianist's no-budget first album, Art Gallery Jazz, netted some decent royalty checks when a track called "African Waltz" was recorded by both John Dankworth and Cannonball Adderly. Emboldened and mildly enriched, MacDermot set out for New York in 1964 to make demos with session heavies like drummers Bernie "Pretty" Purdie and Idris Muhammad and former Ellington bassist Jimmy Lewis, completely circumventing the hotly competitive club circuit. "When I came here, all the rhythms I had learned in Africa didn't apply," says MacDermot. "Here, it was all backbeat. I didn't realize how pervasive it was. Nobody did it the African way, where the beat came on one and three."

1966's Shapes of Rhythm, like Art Gallery Jazz, was a DIY affair. But with no distribution deal, only about 500 copies were pressed—strictly a vanity project. "I paid for those records myself with my royalty money, which was small," says MacDermot. "Anytime I did something I thought I wanted to record, I just recorded it." Woman Is Sweeter, put to tape after Hair's success and therefore not a financial burden, was the soundtrack for a self-produced film by an unknown French actress named Martine Barrat, whom MacDermot had met through Hair cowriter Gerome Ragni. "It was a very far-out film, very avant-garde," says MacDermot. "It was about Yves Saint Laurent. I don't think it got distribution."

Swinging, slightly batty exercises in soul-jazz, reeking of patchouli and cold sweat, the albums funk along quietly but insistently. MacDermot's r&b-tinged melodies and block chords on Shapes of Rhythm land somewhere between the bluesy bop of Bobby Timmons and Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts pop; Woman Is Sweeter has a stronger rock undercurrent, thanks to the greasy electric riffs of a guitarist named, oddly enough, Charlie Brown.

Copies of both records sat in MacDermot's Staten Island basement for decades, forgotten even by their creator, who over the past three decades has written musicals like Two Gentlemen of Verona, recorded jazz-funk albums with his New Pulse Band, and supervised the occasional Hair revival when the mood struck—MacDermot was the musical supervisor for City Center's acclaimed "Encores!" production last May. The turning point came when Victor Padilla, a producer for the Beatnuts at the time, got wind of Woman Is Sweeter from a fellow collector. "I was in a record store in Teaneck looking for some old Hair records, and the guy in the store gave me the name of this kid who collected soundtracks," says Padilla. "He told me I could find Galt just by calling information. Next thing I know, I'm in Galt's house, looking at the records."

Next Page »