Generations have heard Galt MacDermot’s songs, whether they know it or not. His catalogue, dating back to the ’50s, has been go-to sample fodder for Madlib, Doom, Dilla and other esteemed producers. In the same echelon as David Axelrod or Bob James, he’s a gifted composer whose songs contain moody flourishes, drum breaks, organ and tremendous piano. They’ve also anchored some of rap’s biggest hits for decades.
“Space,” recorded in 1969, was famously used in 1996 for Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check.” Even more recently, a later catalogue cut, “Rhinocerious Theme Version B,” ended up sampled by Your Old Droog, a New York rapper whose boom-bap aesthetic complements MacDermot’s striking yet subtle piano work. Says Galt: “I’ve never ever had a problem with how hip-hop used my music. I’ve always been credited and paid, so it’s never bothered me one bit.”
The Canadian-born pianist also penned musical theater, notably the psychedelic epic Hair. His work in musicals alone spans 40 years, starting in 1957 with My Fur Lady. As an undergrad he attended Cape Town University and was awarded a Bachelor of Music with an emphasis on African music. He eventually won a Grammy thereafter for penning Cannonball Adderley’s hit, “African Waltz.” “I was always more interested in different rhythms and that was something that wasn’t hard to find in South Africa,” he says.
He was at his busiest during the ’60s and ’70s, recording monster sessions with masters like Bernard Purdie and Jimmy Lewis. “Walking in Space,” a cut from the aforementioned Hair, features New Orleans drum titan Idris Muhammed – the result is a throbbing, ebullient arrangement that underscores their respective prowess. This era also saw MacDermot writing movie scores, notably layered, cinematic soul for films like Cotton Goes to Harlem, a ’70s Blaxploitation release starring Redd Foxx.
By the start of the new millennium, his songs had been covered by everyone from Three Dog Night, Nina Simone, Barbara Streisand and perhaps most famously, The Fifth Dimension’s rendition of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” Run–D.M.C., Nas, Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg and an array of others have all used his work in their own celebrated respective catalogues. But it should not be forgotten that MacDermot’s career includes chamber music, ballet scores and even an Anglican liturgy. In 2010, he received the prestigious SOCAN Lifetime Achievement award in Toronto. Now, at 88 years of age, I got on the phone with Galt to discuss and present his most oft-sampled and compelling recordings.
Ripped Open By Metal Explosions
“Ripped Open By Metal Explosions” might be one of the best song titles ever. The track itself is a slow burner, woozy at times, and held together with eerie stabs of melody. The instrumental version was reissued on 45 due to popular demand and is rather tranquil despite its violent, graphic title. Says Galt: “This was another one that was a part of Hair. It was written at the beginning and played during the war scene. Hair was of course very, very anti-war, so the title was meant to evoke a sense of feelings. The name of the song itself was a description of the Vietnam War.”
“This was one of the first songs I recorded when I got to New York. Jimmy Lewis played bass on this. He had played with Count Basie years earlier and ended up playing on Hair after this. I had just came from Montreal,” says Galt. The piano and drums ended up being sampled by Dan The Automator and Prince Paul in 1999 for “The Truth” as part of their Handsome Boy Modeling School collaboration. DJ Premier also grabbed this for Gang Starr’s “Werdz from the Ghetto Child,” chopping the brighter piano bits and layering drums over it.
Woe Is Me
Similar to “Coffee Cold,” “Woe Is Me” has melancholy rolling rhythms and many sample-friendly segments. It was also all due to Joseph Papp, a producer of musicals who was once referred to by Newsweek as “the single most creative and controversial figure in American theater.” But for Galt, Papp was a friend who simply wanted to work with him. “Joe was probably the best theater guy around in New York. He founded New York’s Public Theater and he always loved Shakespeare. Well, he really wanted to do Hamlet and wanted me to do the songs for it. I told Joe, ‘Okay,’” says Galt. “I’ve always liked how that song turned out.”
Let The Sunshine In
Galt explains: “I always use this one as a finale, but this song is actually meant to be a segue that comes out of ‘The Flesh Failures,’ which is very dramatic.” Galt’s son, Vincent MacDermot, a longtime musician in his own right who played drums and trombone in his father’s band, remembers the song’s sublime impact: “When we toured and played a lot of dad’s songs, every time we played this, I swear you could see it throughout the universe. That’s how powerful the song is.” Although The Fifth Dimension’s 1969 cover, “Aquarius (Let The Sunshine In)” helped popularize the song, Galt’s instrumental take has an epic, timeless quality that cuts through the Fifth Dimension’s sunny pop version.
“Martine Barrat was a French filmmaker and she wanted to do a movie about the top French designer at the time. Martine had the film commissioned, so she had the funds to approach me and bring my songs into the soundtrack. That record came out as Woman Is Sweeter. This is my favorite from the album,” explains Galt. Through the years, “Space” has been sampled by Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans and, probably most notably, Busta Rhymes. “My dad pressed 1,000 copies in the late ’60s and they just ended up everywhere,” adds Vincent MacDermot.