The lead singer of hard rock group Mountain died in December, and whilst many mightn’t remember the Woodstock alumni, his fingerprints can be found on hundreds of tracks, from Eric. B & Rakim to Lana Del Rey.
“You out there?”
It was some twenty minutes past nine on August 16 when Leslie West looked out over the ragtag crowd. The last rays of daylight were sinking beyond the horizon at Max Yasgur’s farm, where some 400,000 fans had gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The year was 1969, the LSD was plentiful, and on this particular afternoon, the music was loud, hard and rockin’. Canned Heat had just played, The Grateful Dead were up next, and in the hours that followed, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone and The Who would all take to the stage for an unflagging audience.
At that moment, though, the honor belonged to four Long Island rockers known as Mountain. The crowd jeered back in response to the question, but Leslie was unmoved. “Louder,” he urged over the PA, the drums hammering away at an undeniable beat, “well, clap your hands to what he’s doing!” The claps lagged, the timing off, and Leslie quipped: “On tempo, Jack!” A moment later, he kicked that track into gear with a fierce “yeah,” a searing electric guitar cutting across the mix and dwarfing the eager crowd. “Long Red” roared to life, and the show went on.
It was a blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment, the kind of on-stage presence that’s helped bring many a show to life. Within the mythos of Woodstock, the slight pre-track ribbing wouldn’t even warrant a mention, especially not on the very same day that Carlos Santana had taken to the stage on mescaline and started “wrestling with the guitar.” Hell, Pete Townshend would bludgeon activist Abbie Hoffman with his Gibson SG just seven hours later.
Interstitial though it was, Leslie West’s twilight banter outlasted many of the festival’s more iconic moments, quietly becoming one of Woodstock’s greatest legacies, one of hip hop’s most formative samples, and – by the time of his death in December of 2020 – one of the most prolific sounds of all time.
It didn’t happen overnight. Mountain had played a grand total of two shows together by the time they arrived at Yasgur’s farm, a fact that did little to dampen their set or temper the crowd’s enthusiastic reception. It’s shocking in hindsight, but at the time, they weren’t the only fresh faces: Santana, though more experienced in their live show, were without a record or a reputation, and three-piece Crosby, Stills and Nash had only played a single gig with the then-recently recruited Neil Young.
If those two acts used their place in Woodstock folklore to further their careers, it owed something to their appearances in the festival’s smash-hit 1970 documentary. Technical difficulties came between Mountain and the film component, and of their recorded performance, only two tracks were included on 1972’s Live: The Road Goes Ever On. One was “Wanting To Take You Away,” and the other was “Long Red.”
That was all that came of Mountain’s Woodstock performance – at least for a good 50 years. The band carried on, members changing from year to year, roster ebbing and flowing with life’s many detours. A mere six months after Woodstock, the four-piece released “Mississippi Queen,” the most successful song of their relatively brisk career. Their revered technical abilities eclipsed their modest critical reception and, with commercial returns flagging, the group split in 1974. A decade later, soon after one of Mountain’s studio-record revivals, something unprecedented started to happen: other people started to use the group’s records as instruments.
In the first case, ‘other people’ were Eric B., Rakim and Marley Marl. The Mountain record in question was the Woodstock rendition of “Long Red.” It was in Marl’s living room that those fellow Long Islanders cut “Eric B. Is President,” ushering in the so-called ‘golden age’ of hip hop with a revolutionary combination of sampled sounds and innovative raps. It depends on who you believe, but either Eric B. or Marley Marl produced the James Brown-heavy track, adding in Leslie West’s crowd-pleasing Woodstock antics at the open. “Limitations made us who we were,” reflected Marl in 2014. “We were making classic hip hop in the projects in a living room, no studio, and a 4-track.”
That track burst onto the rapidly-expanding hip hop scene in late 1986, helping enshrine the practice of sampling in one of the culture’s most formative years. If the appearance of Mountain on “Eric B. is President” and its b-side, “My Melody,” was initially novel, it marked the beginning of a long and uncommonly fruitful relationship between the ‘70s hard rock outfit and the blossoming hip-hop movement. The song soon turned up on tracks such as M.C. Mitchski’s “Brooklyn Blew up the Bridge,” a minor Bridge War entry, and Sport G and Mastermind’s “Louder,” which took its title from West’s scratched vocal.
Eric B. and Rakim returned to West’s enthusiastic “clap your hands” on 1988’s “Put Your Hands Together,” but by that time, the duo wasn’t alone. In the two years since they’d broken the record, elements of “Long Red” had appeared on cuts from MC Shan, Jazzy Jay, Whodini, Ultramagnetic MC’s, EPMD and Public Enemy. That meteoric rise, charted by WhoSampled, lists three samples in 1986, ten samples in 1987, and 20 samples in 1988. That affinity grew stronger still, and while West’s vocals and Norman D. Smart’s drumming entered the ‘90s as popular soundbites, they left the decade as genuinely omnipresent hip-hop staples.
The Long Island act, much like Rakim himself, transcended regionalism with a useful blend of vocal exhilaration and percussive strength. “Long Red” made a mark on N.W.A’s “Real N***az Don’t Die” and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “Good Life,” both 1991 classics, and in the space of just six months, West contributed vocals to Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and drums to Snoop’s “Gin and Juice.” That coast-to-coast influence coalesced on Ice Cube’s “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)” – it had long been a staple of producers The Bomb Squad, and it would soon become a recurring favorite for Cube.
The boom-bap scene seemed particularly seized by the sounds. Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth pulled N.D. Smart’s drums for “Return of the Mecca,” “Soul Brother #1” and “Ghettos of the Mind,” and DJ Premier scratched West’s distinctive “yeah” into Gang Starr’s “Words from the Nutcracker.” Those encouraging adlibs helped anchor EPMD’s 1988 breakout, “It’s My Thing,” and the heaving drums in the background later underpinned 1991’s “It’s Going Down.”
Smart’s distinctive drumming pattern, like West’s vocals, proved impressively malleable, a fact which helped enshrine it as a reigning breakbeat. The large, cavernous beats brought a sense of impending disaster to “Stress,” a horn-laden anxiety-ridden nightmare from Organized Konfusion, but also managed to bring levity to Jazzy Jay and The Fresh Prince’s “I’m All That.” In 1992 alone, Mountain bridged Kurious’ “Walk Like A Duck,” a lighthearted hip-hop celebration, and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Two to the Head,” a vicious cut featuring menacing bars from Scarface, Cube and Bushwick Bill.
Elements of “Long Red” started appearing so frequently that, in 1994, they averaged out to one new invocation every eight-and-a-half days. Those disparate references spoke to the adaptability of Mountain’s hard groove, drawing curious connections between some of the year’s farthest-flung contemporaries. The East Flatbush Project’s cult YouTube relic, “A Madman’s Dream,” channeled West’s vocal into a menacing mood, whilst Scientifik’s “Downlo Ho” found Buckwild punctuating a jazzy boom-bap beat with those same sharp yells. The New Kids on The Block’s Donnie Wahlberg-produced “Intro: Face The Music” took a pass at lucrative R&B textures, where Buckshot LeFonque’s “Some Shit @ 78 BPM (The Scratch Opera)” landed as a curious collaboration between the modern jazz fusion act and producer DJ Premier.
West’s casual vocal, offered in the spirit of exhilaration, proved just as adaptable as the drums it encouraged, working as a blank slate upon which producers could imprint their own character. It opened “Fame,” a track from Vanilla Ice’s infamous Mind Blowin’, but also broke through on Gravediggaz “Freak the Sorceress,” a b-side produced by supergroup member Prince Paul. The sounds ran the gamut from indie to mainstream and inspired to reviled, also managing some unknowing prescience, with West’s yell landing on an early remix to Korn’s “Shoots and Ladders.”
As Leslie and co. pushed past the boundaries of genre and tone, they also managed to press into some of hip hop’s freshest scenes. Mountain cropped up on Swiss-based quartet Silent Majority’s “Wegotrippin,” and pioneering Japanese hip-hop artist DJ Krush even worked the pounding drums into 1994’s “Interlude.” Early though his sample was, Krush wasn’t the first J-hop act to take it on – Yokohama quartet Rhymester had worked the unmistakable cadence into the intro of their 1993 debut.
In less than a decade, Mountain’s “Long Red” had become a strangely essential hip-hop element. Pioneering producers put the fleeting excerpt to work, and artists intending to channel that same feeling – or imitate those respected artists – did the same.
In a sense, the record was both a basic sampling fundamental and a truly unrivaled musical foundation. Take Chicago emcee Grav, who spat alongside the Woodstock vocals on 1996’s “Sick Thoughts” – those adlibs were slotted into the beat by a fresh-faced Kanye West, then just 19-years-old. What might’ve been an obvious choice soon became an enduring favourite, with Ye bringing those same vocals back on 2007’s “Barry Bonds,” where they’d punctuate that titular namedrop; on The Game’s “Wouldn’t Get Far,” where the asides played a more rhythmic role; and on Common’s “The People,” where Leslie got the very first word. That word, of course, was “louder!”
Even as interest in sampling flagged under the weight of suits, cases and precedents, “Long Red” stood strong. The pounding drums that open the track were one of three percussion samples used by Rick Rubin on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” a flip that netted West a Platinum plaque. Mainstream placements were mirrored in indie invocations: Mos Def’s “Revelations,” included on his Madlib-produced opus The Ecstatic, toyed with decades of familiarity, chasing Yasiin’s own request to “turn it up louder” with the same interjection from West himself. An almost unedited stretch of the “Long Red” intro opened Jaylib’s “LA to Detroit,” a rare Madlib-Dilla co-production, and Dilla’s Donuts joint “Stepson of the Clapper” almost wholly centered on Leslie West’s 1969 crowd play.
The tally sitting at more than 700 samples, West’s vocal might just be the ‘Wilhelm scream’ of music – on any given day, you might just stumble into Mountain’s Woodstock performance.
His is the voice that urges Lana Del Rey to the fore on her career-making “Born to Die”; the interjection that keeps the beat riding on Rocky’s “Ghetto Symphony”; and the distant shout that emboldens J Cole on “Love Yourz.” It plays over supermarket speakers at unimportant hours, leaps from radio-ready pop tunes on the drive home, and even crops up in TV advertisements and broadcasting themes without as much as a knowing nod. It’s an unassuming moment of immense history, sourced from a watershed moment and burnished by an unlikely renaissance. Who’d have ever thought that a moment that didn’t make the Woodstock record could eclipse even the festival’s most mythic moments?
Not West himself: he never stopped being amazed. “I’ve got six different Platinum albums on my wall from all these different guys sampling my stuff,” West glowingly told Blues Blast Magazine in 2015. “When I wrote that song in 1969, there was no hip hop. It just so happens that song has a hip-hop beat.” It certainly helps that a handful of prominent artists, such as Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey, kick back royalties to the singer, but you don’t manage more than 700 invocations without a slew of infringements. Remarkably, Leslie never seemed aggrieved.
“There is a sample map that somebody did, of how many different people and groups sampled that song,” explained an excited West to Glide Magazine in 2014, “it’s mind-boggling!” His giddy candor is more than just endearing – it’s remarkable. Where musically mellower artists such as The Turtles and The Police have treated hip hop with a litigious disdain, the hard-rocking West dealt in bewildered appreciation and gracious thanks. It’s hard to see such open-minded acceptance as anything other than unabashed musical passion.
West was a mountain of a man, but his legacy has been sealed through stealthy connections and sly musical asides. Hell, you probably didn’t even notice him on Stormzy’ 2019 hit “Vossi Bop.” Go on, run it back: you’ll find that Leslie has been there all along, adding some punch (and, occasionally, a kickdrum) where you’d least expect it.
That’s the legacy he leaves behind: Leslie West might be gone, but he’ll never be too distant. He never meant to be a hip-hop legend, and he certainly never lived like one, but West’s story is a reminder that greatness takes on many forms. The rise of “Long Red” was as unexpected as it was abrupt, and yet now, it’s hard to imagine the world without those sounds. They’re the sounds of a band in their element — fun, spritely, caught in a moment that mightn’t last.
Luckily for us, it did… and by the looks of things, it might just last forever.
If you’re keen to explore that legacy, we’ve put together a nine-hour playlist that shows just a fraction of Leslie’s enduring influence!