Weekly Beats First Installment

I’d wanted to start sooner. One of my earlier memories is confidently telling a friend of mine that I was going to learn the drums, only to then hear my mother hold in a scoff. Then, turning to my friend’s mom, “He’s going to take piano.” I didn’t hate piano, but the excitement that would come with my first drumset and lesson was certainly not included. I finally got my chance at the end of 6th grade. Since then I’ve studied rock, funk, R&B, jazz, marching band and drumline, hip-hop, steel drums, Latin percussion, Ghanaian drumming, taiko, electronic and experimental music, and others.

What has always grabbed my attention were the areas where these worlds cross over. How certain principals are tied to certain types of drumming, while others permeate throughout the world of percussion. Every new discipline I’ve learned has taught me something about drumming as a whole.

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One of the last disciplines I learned in college was from my last drum set instructor, Bill Carbone. This was a lesson that had been preached one way or another for more or less my entire musical career, but one that didn’t stick until more recently. Bill showed me how to discover and absorb great drumming through recorded music. Not that I had never paid attention to the drumming in songs before, but Bill pushed me to actively listen to the parts. To think not only about the part itself, but why the part is being played that way. And most importantly, that 90% of the time, less is more.

A tool Bill used through my final year of instruction was an ongoing Spotify playlist called “Drummer Trax.” All of the songs that Bill assigned students to study are on it, and many more besides. Bill also pushed me to make my own playlist. To find the songs that inspire me as a drummer, and figure out why.

I never had a chance to complete it with full satisfaction, but now my vehicle exists. This is to be the first of a weekly installment (if you did not surmise that from the title). Each Friday I’ll bring you three songs; one new, one old, and one you might not have heard, like below. One theme will tie the three together. There will be an ongoing playlist that grows every week. It will be groovy as hell.

The New One

Last week New York based Darwin Deez came out with their third album, titled Double Down. A full review of this album is in the works, but for now we’re going to focus on the second track “The Mess She Made.” The song starts with a wet smack and the whole band is immediately into the groove. What follows is often referred to as a break beat, an eight/sixteenth-note centric groove that the entire Drum & Bass genre is built on top of.

Deez’s drummer (who after what should have been more than enough searching, is only credited as “Greg”), has his own application though. The song is a little more ambient than typical Deez fair. While the busy layering of guitar tracks is still present, the parts are more spacious than usual, as is the vocal melody. What really pushes this song forward is the driving drum beat. It’s a nice juxtaposition; the intensity of the drums against the more reserved nature of everything else. Greg does a very nice job of pushing the song forward tastefully, without overpowering anything else. There are a few tricks he uses to accomplish this.

Firstly he plays very few fills, which could become very distracting very quickly in this type of song. When he does fill, they tend to be steady streams of sixteenth notes, keeping the momentum of the song going. What Greg usually plays instead of fills is… nothing. This is a super powerful technique. The drum track all-of-a-sudden stops. The listener is left hanging, leaning in, waiting for the beat they KNOW should be happening. It’s used all the time in hip-hop beats. You’ll hear the beat, or even just certain parts of it dropping in and out, creating tension. In those split seconds, the listener is begging to have the drums back, and when they finally do return, the same beat that you were just listening to is now fresh and exciting.

Greg combines these things with something else inherently tied to break-beat drumming: hitting off beats. Off beats drive things forward. They push toward the next step in the pattern that your brain is anticipating. Most frequently Greg will drop out on the “and of three,” or 75% of the way through a measure. This feels like a jarring halt; the drums hit a wall. When he crashes back in on the downbeat it’s the damn breaking, everything suddenly back in action. He does this almost every chance he gets throughout the song, and every time it’s awesome.

Listen for the guitar hook. You’ll know it when you hear it, just Darwin and Greg, guitar and drums. The two parts lock in perfectly, playing off each other while the band plays hits. A guitarist with a super-ear for pop hooks, Darwin Smith knows good drums when he hears them.

The Old One

Now, to find where Darwin Deez got all these great ideas, you really only need to look in one place. It is place I will likely go often in this column, as it is not only a major tenet of my drumming education, but a foundation, a pillar for most modern music. That place is the wonderful world of James Brown.

For those that don’t know him, first of all shame on you. He created funk. And not the goofy, boppy, jammy funk you hear across college campuses nationwide. He was playing hard funk. Real funk. One defining aspect of James Brown’s style is straight ahead feel of the drums. Syncopation didn’t come from a “funky drum beat.” It came from Brown’s two drummers, Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks, laying down time with all the rest of the band playing off of it. What’s important is feel of the song, not whether or not what they’re playing is considered cool (even though it definitely is).

Today we’re looking at a Stubblefield groove, 1968’s “I Got The Feelin’.” Again, a major driving force of the song is the drums. Also using the “wet-smack beginning,” the tempo is not that fast, but the song feels quite upbeat. Part of this is that Stubblefield almost exclusively emphasizes off beats. In between these hits you hear him pattering out streams of sixteenth notes, essentially the same fill that Greg uses in “The Mess She Made.” While “I Got The Feelin’” does not feature the super-frequent drop-outs like Deez does, it does drop out for a bridge section. This allows Brown to pull the listener in with his “Baby, baby baby’s” before the whole band is right back into the groove.

Listen to how the horns interact with the drums. When do they line up? When don’t they? Why is it so freaking cool? Now go back and listen to the guitar riff breakdown in “The Mess She Made.”

The One You Might Not Have Heard

Now listen to these concepts on fleek. “Uh Ah Brrr” by Calibro 35. This contemporary Italian funk band cranks up the tempo and cuts loose. Like The Meters on speed. A slick opening fill leads in to a steady stream of quick parts and melodies, always coming back around to the “Uh” “Ah” “Brrr” grunts that make up the chorus (something else pioneered by James Brown). Lots of off beats. The drums periodically drop out. All of the things, just more-so. Also flute.

So check ‘em out. FOLLOW THIS PLAYLIST. Check back next week for another short list. And keep it feelin’ good.

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