The History Of Sugar Hill Records: Keith Leblanc Interviewed

Angus Finlayson talks to drummer Keith Leblanc about hip hop culture in New York, playing with Sugar Hill and pouring water on drum machines

It seems unlikely that anyone born in the last few decades, raised in a western conurbation and with access to the internet, a television and/or the timeless observances of the school disco would be unaware of ‘Rapper’s Delight’. As the first ever hip hop record to attain chart success, featuring a looped break (officially re-performed by a backing band, though many have alleged otherwise) from Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and the vocal contributions of a trio of rappers called The Sugarhill Gang, it was a global phenomenon when it was released in 1979, surprising the wider music industry and prefiguring hip hop’s soon-to-be ubiquitous cultural status.

The label behind the release was Sugar Hill Records (their co-founder and creative mastermind, Sylvia Robinson, also chose the name for the rap group); a small operation which went on to have a near-monopoly on the artists coming out of New York’s vibrant scene until the mid ’80s. In its heyday, the label worked with many of the most important rap groups of the time – perhaps most notably Grandmaster Flash and [latterly Grandmaster] Melle Mel – sculpting their performances into a string of polished, dancefloor friendly (and, significantly, commercially viable) 12”s.

Behind the drum kit for much of Sugar Hill’s output (each track would be meticulously re-arranged for full band from the original disco break) was a young Connecticut musician named Keith Leblanc. Along with guitarist Skip Macdonald and bassist Doug Wimbish, the trio constituted the label’s house band, performing on the vast majority of Sugar Hill recordings and touring the world with rap’s burgeoning superstars.

But Leblanc’s creative appetites where hardly restrained to session work. As the 80s edged on, and hip hop began to electrify itself through drum machines and synthesisers, Leblanc created ‘No Sell Out’; a beatbox-driven homage to Malcolm X featuring spoken word recordings of the man himself. Released in 1983 on Tommy Boy, ‘No Sell Out’ was the first ever sample-based record, and left its mark on a generation of musicians.

From that point, Leblanc’s career spiralled off in several directions. After the demise of Sugar Hill – it had become submerged in a welter of copyright disputes by 1986 – his career as a session musician and producer accelerated exponentially, leading him to work with the likes of Peter Gabriel, The Cure and Nine Inch Nails in subsequent years. And following on from a startlingly fresh solo album – Major Malfunction, based around the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster – he began to work with Macdonald, Wimbish and British dub innovator Adrian Sherwood under the moniker Tackhead.

By then based in London, Leblanc enjoyed considerable success with Tackhead in the late 80s. Their innovative, inclusive attitude to dub reggae, industrial and dance music and politicised use of spoken word samples struck a chord with the UK underground, leading to considerable critical recognition and, by 1990, a recording contract with EMI. While an ill-received album led them to be shortly dropped from the label, Tackhead’s members have remained active in a variety of capacities, often centred around Sherwood’s On-U Sound posse; a UK-based collective of musicians with a distinctly left-field take on the dub reggae template.

Leblanc has since moved back to the States, but is still active as a producer and performer; recent work includes Chess Moves, an album of reworkings of blues classics from the catalogue of Chess Records, and an impending Tackhead album (their first in over a decade) funded by contributions from eager fans via the internet; it’s evident that, in spite of a legacy which can be difficult to detect to a casual observer, interest and admiration for Tackhead – and Keith Leblanc – lives on. Off the back of A Complete Introduction To Sugar Hill Records, a new 4CD compilation being released by Universal, The Quietus quizzed the affable and forthcoming Leblanc on the length, breadth and depth of his career.

How did you get into playing with Sugar Hill? how did that come about?

Keith Leblanc: There was a band in my home town called Wood Brass & Steel, which Skip Macdonald and Doug Wimbish were in. Their drummer, Harold Sargent, used to come and see me sit in at places, and he had to leave the band, so he got me as his replacement; I had to audition and everything. I was in the band for about a month, and then Harold came back around and said that Sylvia Robinson was looking for Skip and Doug to do some recording, and I was in the band at the time, so I went up with them, and basically got the gig along with them.

So you were moving from your hometown to … New York was it?

KL: They were actually based in New Jersey – we’d commute from Connecticut to New Jersey and do all the recording. I think I moved to New York after the demise of Sugar Hill. But yeah, during that period, we were all living in Connecticut.

Did you feel connected to what was going on in terms of the hip hop scene, or was it very much a professional engagement?

KL: Well the hip hop scene basically followed us around, because we were playing with the band who put out the first record. Because that happened, a lot of other groups converged on the record company, so we were in the thick of all the cutting edge stuff at the time. I don’t think we really realised it; we were just trying to be good musicians and do the best we could for the tracks. We knew it was something different but I don’t know… it seemed like the natural progression of things in a way; because at clubs where we played, there would be DJs rapping over the beat all the time. When we first heard the Sugar Hill Gang we didn’t even know that it was a record, we just figured it was more DJs talking over the beat.

So how did that change things, when rap artists started getting signed and getting released? Presumably that changed people’s attitude to rapping as a legitimate form of music?

KL: When ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out, the music industry didn’t really pay it much attention. We’d play these big R&B shows, and we’d be headlining because we had the hottest record, but no one really paid us any attention as far as the other bands went. Probably the only person who saw that it was going somewhere was George Clinton; he put us on a year-long tour opening up for him. I think he was probably the first person to say ‘this stuff’s gonna go’.

But we were playing gigs when no-one had even heard of a rap group before. I remember we played Germany when the record wasn’t even out there yet, so you know, it was pretty new. And the other bands would sabotage us, turn the house lights up, all kinds of stuff, because – the rap stuff being pure audience participation – we’d wear the crowd out before the other acts got on! The press used to call us ‘Little Johnny One Song’!

How did people respond to it in Europe, where they’d never encountered this kind of thing before?

KL: Europe was interesting. In the States, if you’ve got a hit record, you can just walk up on stage and people go crazy, but that doesn’t happen the same way in Europe. I think the first place we played was London, and the record wasn’t really huge there yet, then we went to Holland. I remember that the band used to have to play for 20 minutes before the rappers even came out to do their bit, because the audience wouldn’t just go for one record; even though it was a hit, didn’t matter to them. European audiences were a lot tougher, we had to really play for them. Which we – the band – really enjoyed. I remember a promoter telling us ‘oh, you’re gonna have to play for these people!’

What year was that, the Europe tour?

KL: That was 1979. I remember in England we played what looked like an old, run-down resort – after I lived in England for a few years I realised it was a run-down resort! And one of the guys in the band talked to the wrong girl, next thing you know there’s a fight going on with these punk guys – or skinheads I should say, I didn’t even know what they were at the time – big gang of them. So before the gig started, we had a huge punch-up in the lobby – it was like something out of the Wild West – and we wouldn’t let the biggest guy in the group hit anybody, which really pissed him off. We retreated upstairs, and the promoter assured us the guys would be gone, but when we went to play they were all in the front row! So I remember that being pretty wild. It was crazy because we had just been fighting with them and here they were in front of us cheering us on! [laughs]

So you were having all these experiences, but you’re saying people didn’t really know ‘Rapper’s Delight’ all that well –

KL: Not in Europe.

Right. Was there a lot of money behind the record then, to push it worldwide?

KL: No. I don’t think the record company did anything, the record just did it by itself. It was rumoured that it was a hit in over 57 countries all at once, and we just shot around the globe playing all these non-English-speaking countries, and people went wild for it. So it was definitely a phenomenon, the record itself.

What do you think it was about ‘Rapper’s Delight’ that people particularly responded to?

KL: I guess it wasn’t a real true rap record; it was kind of a bubblegum top 40 version of a rap record. The guys in the group weren’t real rappers – they were just put together by Sylvia’s son [Joey Robinson, a member of West Street Mob] – so they didn’t live the whole thing, they’d just been kind of put on a record. The raps were more accessible to a wider audience, so everyone could hook onto it, not just kids who were into rap; the stuff that was going on in the city was a lot deeper, and you had to be a certain age group to even want to hear it, really. And of course they used the Chic track, which was a hit anyway, so everybody recognised that. And it was the first of its kind. So I think the combination of those things made it work.

Do you think that Sylvia Robinson, in putting the record together, made a calculated move to make something that was palatable to a wider audience?

KL: Uhm no, I don’t think she…basically the record company was dying; they had trouble even putting food on the table. Sylvia went to the clubs a few times; her son told her there was some stuff going on, so she went and heard guys rapping to the beat and everything. Before anybody had put it on a record yet, she saw that it had a chance to be something, so she decided to try and do a record of it before anyone else did. And she did succeed with that, but I don’t think she set out to have it meet a wide audience or anything; I don’t think she thought that deep about it, she was just trying to get a good representation of what was going on in the city.

Do you think, in general, she and the record company were mainly focussed on the music or the business side?

KL: Sylvia handled the musical part and Joe Robinson [her husband] handled the business part. Joe couldn’t even dance to the beat, you know, so Sylvia was definitely the musician in the family. And there was a good work ethic in the studio; I mean the tunes that Universal’s putting out [on the compilation] is probably the best representation of that musical run on Sugar Hill, where they had a full band, in the studio recording everything live. And that day will never come again. I’ve seen other box-sets of Sugar Hill music come out but they’ve been all mixed up; this one’s actually pretty interesting because it’s got all the main really good recordings that were done in maybe a four or five year period, when they really had a roll going, before Planet Rock [Afrika Bambaataa album released on Tommy Boy] came out and everything started changing.

The compilation works really well too, as a chronology; the story of the label comes through nicely.

KL: Yeah. But really, we’d cut a record on a Friday night, then drive back to Connecticut and then go back up on Monday to record some more, and then we’d hear it on the radio! It was that kind of thing. Sugar Hill was a very small operation, so the big companies couldn’t do anything that quick; and they didn’t know where to find a rapper anyway. So Sugar Hill had a clear field for maybe 4 or 5 years, before anyone else really started making any noise. I mean there were other records out there at the time – and rap groups – but there was no one putting it out as consistently as Sugar Hill at that particular time.

In those early records, a full band was used to re-play the breaks that were popular at parties. Why was the decision made to use a band, rather than get the DJ in to record these sampled breaks?

KL: My view on it was that you couldn’t get a DJ to cut a record and then change the arrangement. You couldn’t get a DJ to replace a sax with a trumpet, or a kazoo. And also, if you use someone else’s record you have to pay them publishing; I think that was a big concern too. At the time, I think I played to a click track – that was the newest thing going on – so we were using the cutting edge technology to record the stuff, but there was no such thing as samplers. I mean, the closest thing to a sample record was what Flash did with 3 turntables in the studio – ‘Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’ – so we [the band] were kind of the human samplers.

Sylvia hired an arranger – Jiggs Chase – and he would go and get the raps from the rappers and find out what tune they were rapping over, and he’d do an arrangement of that. He’d come in with bare bones arrangement charts, and we’d do our own thing to it to make it as good as we possibly could. Usually we knew it was an arrangement of someone else’s song, so we would try and do it better than the original. We knew there was a lot of skullduggery going on in the place, but we were just there to record the music, and we kind of escaped all that nonsense that was going on with the different groups; we were like Switzerland in the middle of that, we chose not to get involved!

From ’82 onwards, drum machines and synths started to come in to use. There’s a quote about this in the booklet for the compilation release, from Skip Macdonald. He says: ‘I can remember when Keith would walk round with a pitcher of water so he could pour it on the drum machine and the computer, because the drum machine was actually taking his gig’.

KL: Oh, that was a joke!

I thought it might be…

KL: I never poured water on a drum machine. I mean actually I’ve always been interested in technology, so my main thing was trying to get my hands on one, because I figured I could program it a lot better than any of the engineers – the guys that were programming it at the time. So I set out to get myself one, once I realised this was going to be a force for a while. When I did ‘No Sell Out’, I specifically used a drum machine because that was the sound at the time.

I think the first time we were exposed to it was when our old road manager got a hit record using an OBX and a DMX – the band was called System, the track was called ‘In Your System’ or something like that. It was by Michael Frank and David Spradley. They came out on a few gigs with us, and when we saw the audience reaction we kind of knew what was coming before it happened. Being where we were, we actually saw things before they even hit the street sometimes.

You mentioned ‘No Sell Out’, which is a seminal record of yours. Was that your first piece of production work – rather than being behind the drum kit – or had you done other production before that point?

KL: That was the first time I did a real production. Basically, Marshal Chess financed it for me; he thought it was a good idea. And he helped me along with it, giving me his opinion and everything, and his knowledge, but I wanted to use the newest gear I could use, and it was an idea that I thought worked. I wasn’t thinking ‘oh this has never been done before’ or anything like that, I was just trying to do something I thought was good. Then when I got press calling me from all over the world, all pissed off, I thought ‘OK, maybe this was a little bit cutting edge!’ [laughs].

But it was all about the work and just trying to do something good, and a lot of times when you’re in that situation where there’s a lot of cutting edge stuff going on, to do something that’s noticeable and good in that environment, it’s got to also be cutting edge by default. So yeah, it was just an idea I had; I heard Flash playing a record and playing a Dirty Harry tape over the top of it – you know, ‘do ya feel lucky punk?’ – and I just thought the combination of a beat and music and spoken word over the top of it was pretty magical to me. I found some Malcolm X speech records from the record company – they’d put them out a long time ago – and I started listening to them and experimenting with them over a drum beat. I played it to Marshal and he said ‘this is a great idea, we should do this’. That’s how that happened really.

You’ve since used spoken samples in a lot of later work – in Tackhead, and other projects.

KL: Well Tackhead was really… we were trying to use the studio like its own seperate instrument. The Tackhead stuff was all the stuff we thought wasn’t going to sell, and it turned out that’s what people liked! But we were always trying to push the envelope in the studio just for our own satisfaction; we weren’t really thinking about what it was going to do on the street. And I think as a result – I mean I can remember we did gigs where we’d have the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, Radiohead – all these bands in the front row. And our manager used to tell us ‘you guys better get a singer and put out a proper record, otherwise one of these little college bands are gonna steal your idea and make some money with it!’. And we watched a lot of people do that.

But we kind of pioneered that whole using samples live on stage thing; we did it way before anyone else had even thought of it. We got bored with it when other people had just started discovering it! But we used it as a separate instrument; I mean we always played the stuff in live, we never really had anything sequenced. And we never used it as an aid to cover up bad technique; nowadays it gets used for that! I don’t think anybody can really sing anymore, they all come out of a Melodyne box. It’s kind of disheartening…every once in a while you hear a bright spark, some bright music come along, but now, certainly within the rap genre, what’s important is the rap – the track is more or less disposable. And I think, back in the heyday of Sugar Hill, the track was just as important – or more important – than the rap. I think the music has gone out of it over the years. I mean they even call the tracks ‘beats’ – they don’t even call it a track any more!

So how did you get from New York with Sugar Hill to London working with Adrian Sherwood? That seems like quite a big turning point in your career.

KL: Well, I wasn’t from New York originally. I was doing a lot of work for Tommy Boy, and I was just working myself to the bone. And I remember Adrian Sherwood came over – and I didn’t pay him too much attention the first time – but the second time he came over he brought a tape of this thing he’d done; and it was something I’d been trying to do for months unsuccessfully, and he actually did it! So I was quite interested then, and we talked. And he said, ‘why don’t you come over to England and we’ll do some tracks together?’ I figured I’d never been to England, so I went over and we did some tracks, and I thought they were good but I said ‘listen, it’d be great if we could bring my two friends in [Wimbish and Macdonald], I think we could do something.’ So that’s how the whole Tackhead thing started.

As far as moving to London, it was a woman, actually, that really made me move there. That, and I was working more there than in New York; so I was paying rent in New York but I was never there. So I eventually moved to London. The last job I did in New York was that I produced Trent Reznor’s album [his 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine], and then moved to England – so I didn’t even know it was a hit record for about 2 years! I actually thought it was crap, to be honest with you! And I didn’t like Trent Reznor very much; he thought he knew everything about the music business and about recording. So it was not a fun time working with him. I did the best job I could, but I didn’t think the music was great. I thought it was like a copy of some stuff we had done ages ago, or some Mark Stewart stuff – I thought he was trying to copy Mark Stewart. So then when I saw what a massive hit it was, I said, ‘aw, I should have taken the publishing!’.

But then, years down the line, Trent used to call us up in England and have us make samples for him, and remix things, and I heard this soundtrack he did for the movie Se7en, and it was made out of all these samples we’d made him. I thought it was absolute genius what he did; I would have never thought of anything like that. So that’s when I really started to rate Trent, after he did that soundtrack with all the samples we’d given him [laughs]. You know, sometimes you don’t see things right away.

Going back to Tackhead: the band was known for drawing on a lot of different sounds. What would you say your reference points were? Was the electronic sound of later Sugar Hill an influence?

KL: Not really. I had just started doing stuff with drum machines when I did ‘No Sell Out’, so it was kind of a natural progression to use that for the Tackhead stuff, because it was such a new sound; that’s what we were looking for. Some of the stuff was live, that we did with Tackhead, but most of it was programmed drums; so I’d have to recreate that live and trigger samples off my drumset, and maybe have a drum machine playing a loop or something. And there was a click track so Adrian could dub it, so all the echo speeds would be right and everything.

But it was never a conscious effort to do an electronic-ey sound. What there was a conscious effort to do was to extend dance music as much as we possibly could; that’s what we were looking to do, all of us. Just break new ground with dance music. We hadn’t really come up with any plan or anything. The political side of the band, that kind of just happened because both me and Adrian were into spoken word stuff over music. I think since me and him started the band, for a long time we were financing everything, so we kind of had the last word about the genre of it. So we really forced the spoken word in on it. Once the band became a democracy, everybody wanted to be a singer and do real songs, and that kind of changed it into something people didn’t like.

If the real focus with the Tackhead records was on dance music, do you think it was mainly a dance music crowd who were buying them? Or was it more across the demographics?

KL: I think it was a cross-section of everybody. I think probably the most groundbreaking record that came out of that period was – well, we were doing a Tackhead album at the time, and Adrian mentioned I should do a solo album. So I did my little drum album [Major Malfunction], and no-one paid much attention to it; I was having Adrian do mixes of this and that beat for me, and I was editing it all together. And no-one really heard it until I was done editing it, and then I played it for everyone and they went ‘this is brilliant man!’ [laughs].

I remember Future Sound of London came into my studio once when I was in London and wanted to pick my brain about that album and how it was done. I mostly did it with an AMS, a DMX and tape manipulation, and I felt sorry for the guys because they expected me to tell them about all this amazing gear I’d used! I was telling them, ‘no no, I was turning tapes backwards, editing them up and then flying them back in’. It wasn’t what they expected, because they were telling me that that particular album was their bible. When I did that album, I used to love how with the Beatles albums, a lot of times they would cut tunes together. So I made the whole album like that. And I think that was a real ground-breaker for dance music; it opened up the possibility for doing a lot of different things with dance music.

At the end of the day, everybody ended up calling that the first Tackhead album, but that was actually my album. I was really trying to do something different on that album, and I was in the right place at the right time to do it. And you know, the Tackhead albums weren’t the same genre all the time; we were just trying to push the envelope. The funny thing was, I talk to people that used to like Tackhead and they tell me they put up with the solos and everything that we did on stage just for the crazy bits that happened! [laughs]. That’s what they liked. And what we did, I don’t think anybody’s really done it since, having someone – you know cos there was one sound on stage and then out front there was a totally different sound going on, with Adrian doing the dub mix of it. It was like a 3-dimensional gig.

Do you think you were fortunate in having a fanbase that was happy for you to experiment?

KL: Yeah, I think that was what the audience expected. If it wasn’t wild and new, they would have been bored. It was definitely something new for the time, and we kind of set a template for how people were going to do things for the next ten years or so. We used to have a joke in the band, that we were always on the cutting edge and someone else always made the money off of it! I remember right after I did ‘No Sell out’ I worked with ABC, and Martin Fry was telling me how they had had dinner with Paul Hardcastle, and they asked him where he got his ideas from and he said, ‘oh, I was just trying to do a Keith Leblanc thing’.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but in retrospect we changed a lot of things in the music industry just by trying to have some fun ourselves. We weren’t really conscious about the money or the money-making potential of that; it was really a musical experiment. We only realised there was a significant dollar value attached to it once record companies started coming around. It was a great time to do something like that in England, because it was real grassroots; all the independent labels were going – you had Rough Trade going and everything. It was almost like the New York scene, where you could do a record, press it up, have it out and have it be a hit – if it was something people wanted.

You mentioned bands like Radiohead being in the front row at your shows. In music these days, do you hear the influence of Tackhead?

KL: I know a lot of people were influenced by Tackhead, but…probably the thing I noticed most was people stealing drumbeats. I remember there was a time when we’d put out a record, and then Prince would have a record out two weeks later with the same exact drumbeat on it! Of course he’d have a song on top of it – but yeah, there was quite a while when we’d do something and we’d hear little bits…people even sampling our records and using it on their records. At the time we didn’t worry about it too much, we were kind of taking it as a compliment; at that point we were just happy that people liked what we did. But as far as blatant thievery goes, I don’t think there was any of that.

What people took from us, I personally think, was the fact that we were pushing the envelope and we were experimenting onstage. I think what they took from those concerts was the fact that you could experiment on stage and it was possible to do that. We just opened people’s eyes to that fact, and they went and did their own thing. Like, I would say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were at a lot of gigs, but when they came out and did their thing – it was on the funk side of things, and I know their drummer had definitely checked me – but they were doing it their own way. It didn’t sound like Tackhead at all. So you could hear little influences from what you had done in other people’s stuff but it was never an exact copy, you know what I mean?

Why did Tackhead come to an end – you’re not making music under that name any more are you?

KL: Well we’re actually getting ready to release an album! It’s called the Sharehead album and it was sponsored by people on the internet that wanted to hear another Tackhead album. It’s an album of cover tunes. It’s all live, and I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done; but it’s different. We’ve got a real old-style Tackhead part of the album that we’ve done just for the people that invested in it, and then we’re gonna have a longer full-blown album for everyone else. But the investors, they’re going to get a special little, you know, wildness of Tackhead!

But as to why it ended: we were the A&R people’s favourite band, but no-one wanted to sign us because we didn’t have a singer. So we set about to get a singer, and we tried to do what the record company wanted us to do, and that’s what really was the demise of Tackhead; trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. We went from doing albums for a thousand quid to a major, hundred thousand pound budget, and videos, and this person for this thing, this person for that; it just got completely out of hand. I think we probably could have kept it going a little longer if we’d just taken the money and built a studio and kept doing albums the way we’d done them, but as soon as we got the big deal everything changed, and that changed the whole perspective of what was going on. By the time we got a record deal we had kind of done it already, and we were all, in our own way, moving on to something else; that had a lot to do with it too.

Do you think there was pressure there that meant you couldn’t relax into it and experiment?

KL: Yeah. There was pressure to do a proper album that a record company wanted us to do. Basically the band was second-guessing itself instead of sticking with what got us to the attention of major labels in the first place. That always happens. Trevor Horn told me that; he said ‘the biggest mistake any band makes is that when they get the big budget they change everything. And then the band’s no more!’ He said, ‘the ones that last are the ones that don’t change a thing, as far as how they do the music; they just have a lot more promotion’. And he was right in saying that.

So alongside all the things we’ve been talking about, you’ve done a lot of production work and also session work with some big names. How do you balance that with the more creative side of what you do? Do you view them as separate things?

KL: Yeah, basically I do. Like the Chess Moves album I just produced – I guess that came out last year, or the year before last – I specifically used a drum machine on a lot of that, because I was in the production chair on it; I didn’t want to switch chairs. So yeah, if I’m producing something I pretend that’s all I do, if I’m playing drums I pretend that that’s all I do. Probably the thing I enjoy the most is playing live, because it’s instant. But I do enjoy production and technology, and it’s gotten a lot easier to do that now. I’ve enjoyed all the hats that I’ve worn, and I think it’s kept me from getting bored by just doing one thing all the time.

Do you find you need that balance to stay creative?

KL: Yeah, I mean I kind of look at the production as more of a hobby though, and I look at the drumset as more of a profession because I’ve put so much time and study into it. But the production side of things, it’s always exciting for me because I never know what’s going to come out. You can hope for certain things, but until it’s finished you don’t know, really, how good it’s going to be. And it’s great when it comes out really good.Chess Moves was a lot of fun to do, because I’d never really got into the blues that much, and I found out a lot about the blues from it – I realised Hendrix stole almost all his licks from Howlin’ Wolf – things like that became clear to me. It was almost like working with a rap group, working with those old artists – their samples anyway – so it was right up my street!

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