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The ubiquitous Alan Hawkshaw was the best-known British composer you’d never heard of

·4-min read

Alan Hawkshaw’s late-life status as a funky hero to American hip-hop producers came as something of a surprise to him. “I remember getting an email asking for clearance for a piece,” he told me a few years ago. “And I rang my daughter asking who ‘Jay Zed’ was.” Jay-Z was not alone: whosampled.com lists 205 tracks that sample Hawkshaw’s music, right back to the dawn of hip-hop, when the Sugarhill Gang used part of Here Comes That Sound Again, a track by his project Love De-Luxe, in the intro of Rapper’s Delight in 1979.

Even then, Hawkshaw – who has died aged 84 – was something of a veteran. His music career began in the early 60s when, as a member of Emile Ford and the Checkmates, he played on bills with the Beatles and the Stones. In the 70s, he joined the Shadows. But the vast majority of his work was undertaken away from the stage. As a session player, he appeared on more than 7,000 tracks, often playing Hammond organ. And as a composer of library music (compositions written and recorded to a brief, to be later licensed for commercial purposes) his music travelled the world over the opening credits of TV shows – though not always in the expected manner: what was written as a news theme might (and would) appear accompanying a sports broadcast, for example. Library composers had no control over where their music went.

Hawkshaw worked for most of the big library music companies but is most closely associated with KPM, for whom he produced theme after theme after theme, all written and recorded to tight deadlines and budgets, with minimum fuss. In later years, he and other KPM writers were able to form a band to play live, the KPM All Stars. But even within the strictures of producing music to order, Hawkshaw found freedom.

Robin Phillips, who ran KPM in its heyday, would encourage his musicians to get through eight tracks in a three-hour session. If seven of them closely fit the brief – which might be music to accompany a car chase; or domestic comedy mishaps; or anything on TV that might need a soundtrack – he would let the musicians do what they wanted with the eighth. It turned out Hawkshaw had a gift for funk, and his early 70s work for KPM would later become cratedigger heaven for seekers of new samples. KPM albums such as Speed and Excitement (1970), Music For a Young Generation (1971) and Move With the Times (1973) don’t sound like the funk that was coming out of America, but they have an irreverent, inventive unpredictability that makes them a delight.

Hence the man who was responsible for the music for the Milk Tray ads on TV, for the Grange Hill theme, for the themes to Dave Allen at Large, Channel 4 News and Countdown was also responsible for what is often held to be the most sampled instrumental break in history: the organ refrain that opens The Champ by the Mohawks (1968), an ineffably electric and irresistible burst of colour. “People think that’s a black group from Detroit, but it was hashed together by session musicians in Yorkshire,” he said.

Related: Grandstand, Countdown, Ski Sunday: the unsung heroes behind TV's greatest tunes

The Champ’s continued popularity baffled Hawkshaw. “I much prefer my orchestral stuff,” he told me. “I can never understand why anyone goes ape about three notes I play on an organ for The Champ.” That day, it took his KPM colleague Brian Bennett (and, yes, you’ll know lots of his work too) to explain to him: “They’re the three right notes, 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. Altogether, The Champ appears in more than 700 other tracks. Nevertheless, Hawkshaw maintained he would have preferred to write a West End musical.

Becoming so heavily sampled was pretty good for Hawkshaw’s bank account. But what really pleased him about it was the way it drew attention to the catalogues of the libraries, and how it pushed this remarkable music, defying all genre conventions, back into the limelight. “What it generated was respect for this music,” he said, “and that’s just carried on since.”

Hawkshaw’s music will continue to be heard all over the place, every day. The TV themes remain in rotation and the samples will keep on coming. The best known composer you’ve never heard of will be staying that way for a while yet.

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