The ubiquitous Alan Hawkshaw was the most famous British composer you had never heard of

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ALan Hawkshaw’s end-of-life status as a funky hero for American hip-hop producers surprised him somewhat. “I remember getting an email requesting permission for a room,” he told me a few years ago. “And I called my daughter to ask her who ‘Jay Zed’ was. Jay-Z wasn’t alone: ​​ lists 205 tracks that sample Hawkshaw’s music, since the dawn of hip-hop, when the Sugarhill Gang used part of Here Comes That Sound Again, a track from his Love De-Luxe project, in the Rapper’s Delight intro in 1979.

Even then, Hawkshaw – who died aged 84 – was somewhat of a veteran. His musical career began in the early 1960s when, as a member of Emile Ford and the Checkmates, he performed on Bills with The Beatles and The Stones. In the 70s, he joined the Shadows. But the vast majority of his work has been done offstage. As a session player, he has appeared on over 7,000 tracks, often playing the Hammond organ. And as a composer of library music (compositions written and recorded on a writ, only to be licensed for commercial use), his music has traveled the world during the opening credits of TV shows – but not always. in the expected way: what was written as a hot topic could (and would appear) accompanying a sports program, for example. Library composers had no control over the destination of their music.

Hawkshaw has worked for most of the major library music companies, but is more closely associated with KPM, where he has produced theme after theme after theme, all written and recorded to tight deadlines and budgets, with minimal fuss. . Years later, he and other KPM writers were able to form a band to perform live, the KPM All Stars. But even under the constraints of producing music on commission, Hawkshaw found freedom.

Robin Phillips, who ran KPM in its heyday, encouraged his musicians to run eight tracks in a three-hour session. If seven of them closely match the brief – which could be music to accompany a car chase; or the misadventures of domestic comedy; or whatever on TV that might need a soundtrack – he let the musicians do whatever they wanted with the eighth. As it turned out, Hawkshaw had a knack for funk, and his early ’70s work for KPM would later become a new sample seekers’ paradise. KPM albums such as Speed ​​and Excitation (1970), Music For a Young Generation (1971), and Move With the Times (1973) don’t sound like funk from America, but they have an irreverent and inventive unpredictability. which makes it a delight.

Therefore, the man who was responsible for the music for the Milk Tray TV commercials, the Grange Hill theme, the Dave Allen at Large, Channel 4 News and Countdown themes was also responsible for what is often seen as the no longer sampled. instrumental break in history: the organ chorus that opens The Champ by the Mohawks (1968), an ineffably electric and irresistible explosion of colors. “People think it’s a black band from Detroit, but it was mixed by studio musicians from Yorkshire,” he said.

The Champ’s continued popularity baffled Hawkshaw. “I much prefer my orchestral stuff,” he told me. “I can never understand why someone laughs at the three notes I play on an organ for The Champ. That day it took his KPM colleague Brian Bennett (and, yes, you will know a lot of his work, too) to explain to him, “Those are the three good grades, Alan. Hence the list of artists to have sampled The Champ includes Frank Ocean, Anderson .Paak, Eric B & Rakim, Ice Cube, Nicki Minaj, De La Soul, Migos, Q-Tip, Ariana Grande, Black Eyed Peas and The Notorious. BIG. In total, The Champ appears in over 700 other tracks. Nonetheless, Hawkshaw maintained that he would have preferred to write a West End musical.

“The three good notes” … listen to The Champ by the Mohawks

Getting so heavily sampled was pretty good for Hawkshaw’s bank account. But what appealed to him most was the way he called attention to library catalogs, and how he brought this remarkable music back to the forefront, defying all genre conventions. “What this has generated is respect for this music,” he said, “and it has only continued since. “

Hawkshaw’s music will continue to be heard everywhere, every day. TV themes will remain in rotation and samples will continue to flow. The most famous composer you have never heard of will be around for a while.


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