Lil’ John Roberts’s name has been popping up more and more here at MD – in interviews with other artists, in conversations with people in the drum industry – and, most importantly, in mail from fans. It seems everyone is talking about Lil’ John. And after seeing him play, you’d know why.
By Billy Amendola
Not long after moving to Atlanta, Lil’ John became a favorite among the hottest producers in that city’s R&B scene. Prior to touring with Janet Jackson behind her Velvet Rope album, Lil’ John funked it up with Monica, En Vogue, Xscape, and Goodie Mob. When Modern Drummer recently caught up with him, Lil’ John had just completed touring with George Duke and Al Jarreau and finishing up new recordings with Duke and Jonathan Butler.
MD: How was the tour with George Duke and Al Jarreau?
Lil’ John: Very cool. I played with Rachel Farrell too. Rachel is from Philadelphia. We’ve got a lot of cats in Philly – especially younger drummers, who have watched us through the years. Now they’re all playing with the major artists on the scene, like Jill Scott, Jaguar, and Kindred. There are some bad boys coming out of Philadelphia. Some of them are eighteen years old or younger.
MD: It’s scary how some younger players absorb so much at a young age, isn’t it?
Lil’ John: Tell me about it. There’s a young guy in Philly now, his name is Spanky. Nobody really knows about him yet. I think he’s going to be the next phenomenon. He’s just playing all kinds of drums.
MD: Who else is on the cutting edge?
Lil’ John: Eric Tribbet with Jill Scott. Man, watch out for him! Chris Dave, who plays with Mint Condition, is bad, very underrated. And Tommy Pridgen is already killing. When he gets that seasoned thing down – when he goes to school and learns all that – he’s going to be sick.
And of course, Tony Royster Jr. has already proven himself. [Among Tony’s accomplishments is his knockout performance at Modern Drummer’s 1997 Festival.] He reminds me of when I met John Blackwell at Berklee. John came in young and enthusiastic and just ready to play. I see a pattern of all these cats and how they’re growing up, because I saw how John grew up. I was watching him the whole time at Berklee’seeing his style change and just start blazing. And now I’m seeing these younger cats coming up the same way. Just like Dennis would watch us grow, that’s how we’re doing it with the next generation. I stay in touch with all of them. They call me sometimes just to see what’s up. Sometimes we don’t even talk drums, we just talk about life. I feel like I’m like a big brother to all of them.
MD: How did you hook up with Wynton Marsalis?
Lil’ John: My professor at high school introduced us. He was putting together a band for The Duke Ellington Orchestra. When I was growing up in Philadelphia I was in a trio with two of the guys who were playing in the high school jazz band at that time – bassist Christian McBride and keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco. And Wynton pulled the three of us into the rhythm section for The Duke Ellington Orchestra. We traveled a little bit. It was about twenty members from different high schools.
MD: You’ve obviously got jazz & R&B influences. How about rock?
Lil’ John: At Berklee you couldn’t help but go through some rock. I hung out with a lot of guitar players at Berklee. And the rock cats were all listening to Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Vai, and Jimi Hendrix. So I learned some things just by hanging out. I didn’t play a lot of it, though I’d like to. I like Blink 182, Tool, and Fuel. And I love The Foo Fighters. I got a chance to see them in Atlanta, and they were blazing.
MD: Who are some of your influences now?
Lil’ John: The younger cats we spoke of. I really like hearing their ideas, because – you know how every five or ten years there’s a different groove? Like back in the ’70s, we had disco and the more upbeat stuff in the clubs. Then we started gearing more towards hip-hop, and then some different beats, like Timbaland. He has a different approach to beats, which means the musicians have to change their whole approach playing-wise, because you can’t keep playing the same old beat for the next ten years. You have to change up and be able to make people dance. The younger cats are more open to what’s going on in the clubs and the music that’s out now. They’re learning how to play Timbaland beats – which aren’t easy to play. So a lot of these younger players can play all these fast beats.
MD: Who are some of the artists you’re refering to?
Lil’ John: Timbaland produced Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. He incorporated the jungle approach to R&B. Jungle music is really fast – it’s 300 bpm. Timbaland took that jungle style, split it in half, and made it into what they are using now as part of these hip-hop grooves. You’ve got this fast beat playing in between, but it’s really half of the jungle groove. You hear those beats overseas in London and throughout Europe.
A lot of players coming up now are learning that stuff first. The other stuff is easy for them, because they’re used to playing all those fast, double-16th-note beats. When it comes down to just playing a little quarter-note groove, it’s like, “Oh, that’s nothing.” [laughs] But remember, there’s something to say about just laying down a quarter-note groove and making it feel good.
MD: One of your first records was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (Will Smith).
Lil’ John: Yeah, from Philly of course. They weren’t used to using live musicians in the studio at the time. I brought a whole other idea to them about using live musicians in the studio, instead of just programming stuff. Now Jeff has been using a lot of the live sounds, like on Jill Scott’s record. We’re getting back to the old-school style. Everybody is kind of tired of drum machine sounds. It’s consistent and it’s cool, but if you want to get the soul of a real drummer playing and bass player?. It’s about emotion. Drum machines don’t have emotion; they’re too mechanical. They’re not going to do anything other than what you program them to do.
MD: Do you think programmed music has hindered drummers?
Lil’ John: Well, the technology is so much more advanced now. Even if you’re not a great timekeeper, in the studio you can just throw it into a computer and fix it. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in Pro Tools”‘that’s another can of worms. [laughs] You can hear somebody and think, “Man, they sound good,” but you don’t realize what took place to get that going. The truth comes out when you play live. That separates the boys from the men – when you’re out in front of thousands of people and you’ve got to do what you did on the record.
MD: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Lil’ John: I don’t know how much drums I’ll be playing in ten years, because I’d like to do more on the production side. I want to take the ideas that I come up with as a drummer and take them to the other side of the board. There are lots of artists that I’ve worked with who respect me as a musician, not just as a drummer. It’s a whole other level when you’re thought of as not just a drummer or a bass player or whatever, but as a musical director or producer.
MD: You’ve worked with some of the best producers in the world. What have you learned from them?
Lil’ John: How to make a record. Producers usually can’t play the drum parts they hear in their heads, so they call Ricky Lawson or JR Robinson. That’s what producers do: They hire the cats who can paint the picture they want to paint.
For more on Lil’ John, check out the May 2002 issue of Modern Drummer.