From Dayton to Sugar Hill and music history

Guitarist helped shaped groundbreaking rap records.​

Dayton native and legendary guitarist Skip McDonald, aka Little Axe, will return to Ohio on Saturday to participate in the Electric Guitar in Popular Culture Conference at Bowling Green State University.

Born Bernard Alexander, the 65-year-old McDonald, a 1967 Roosevelt High School graduate, has carved a path encompassing many musical styles and numerous international performances. In 1979, along with bass player Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith LeBlanc, he notably formed the house band for the groundbreaking rap label Sugar Hill, which revolutionized black music and the pop culture landscape, thanks to pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, known for “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It).”

“During my time with Sugar Hill I took away so much knowledge of the music industry and particularly studio procedures,” said McDonald, speaking by phone from his home in Ramsgate, England, two hours outside of London. “When you’re in the music industry sometimes you don’t necessarily understand all of its phases. I don’t do a lot of gigs anymore, so I spend most of my time in the studio doing executive production. It’s been great deciding how to mix the elements of background vocals, drums, bass and mastering.”

McDonald, a member of the 1970s group Wood, Brass & Steel, learned to play guitar at age 8 from his father, a guitarist he describes as a “weekend warrior” who enjoyed playing blues.

In 1994, he released his first debut album as Little Axe, “Wolf That House Built,” a mixture of blues and dub. In 2006 he released his sixth album, “Stone Cold Ohio,” a CD with a gospel influence and the second record released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label. In the span of his career he has worked with George Clinton, James Brown, Robert Plant, dub reggae musician Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sinead O’Connor and many others and continues to work on his own music.

“Trust me, I’m still on the front line of trying to get a hit record, but I’m not moaning,” McDonald said. “I’m very glad to have worked with so many great people. I’ve worked with African bands, South American bands and Japanese reggae bands. Right now I’m having fun with African music, which is cool when you consider hearing a tune first heard in a part of Africa 1,000 years ago that sounds like B.B. King. But I’m quite proud of the work I’ve done and the many collaborators I’ve worked with. I’ve learned something from everybody, and more importantly, I’m still in contact with many of them. I consider them friends.”

“Skip’s history is amazing in reference to what he has contributed in terms of electric guitar and his style,” said conference co-organizer Matthew Donahue, a Bowling Green professor of popular culture. “Wood, Brass & Steel was one of the first funk/jazz fusion groups. Even Skip’s Little Axe repertoire, which some people regard as world blues, is historic, because it was sort of the first blues/hip-hop crossover, which goes back to his roots with Sugar Hill. He performs solo and with a band, but he’ll be performing solo at the conference.

“We’re thrilled to bring him in, because we really want to represent Ohio. Ohio is sometimes overlooked as far as its musical contributions, and there is a lot going on here. There is a lot of history here and a lot of amazing things that have happened here musically,” Donahue said.

“For anyone who enjoys playing guitar,” McDonald said, “I really encourage them to just turn the amp on, plug in the guitar and practice. Playing music is a gift, and I’m thankful for it.”

Contact this contributing writer at rflorence2@gmail.com.

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