From The Church To The Shed
by Billy Amendola
We continue our conversation with R&B’s Fantastic Four–Gerald Heyward, Aaron Spears, Cora Coleman-Dunham, and Nisan Stewart, who appear together on the cover of July’s Modern Drummer magazine and on DW’s new Kick Snare Hat DVD. Let’s begin with the “godfather” of the group, Gerald Heyward.
MD: At one point you were touring with Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige at the same time. How was that experience?
Gerald: I did both of them for a year and a half. It just worked out. I have a rule in this game, and it’s called say yes to everyone, no to no one. Mary wasn’t upset that I was playing for Beyoncé. And Beyoncé wasn’t upset that I was playing with Mary. Beyoncé came to a Mary concert to see me play, and she wanted the same band. So that’s why I always say you’re only as good as your last gig.
MD: Rob Thomas’s debut solo CD, Something To Be, was one of the first times gospel and R&B crossed over into the pop mainstream. How did that gig come about?
Gerald: Coming from my world, I didn’t know who Rob Thomas was. One day I’m home and I get a call from this lady in NYC, and she says, “I’ve been looking for you for over a year and a half.” At this point I’m with Beyoncé for her Ladies First tour with Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott. We were on a break, and this woman, who had gotten my number from one of Alicia’s background singers, said, “Rob Thomas, the lead singer from Matchbox Twenty, wants you to play a song on his solo record.”
In the back of my mind I’m like, Who the heck is Matchbox Twenty and Rob Thomas? [laughs] So she says, “I’ll let you know the date you’ll have to be in the studio. Can you do it”? So I said, “Yeah!” And as soon as she hung up the phone, I called Teddy Campbell: “Hey, have you ever heard of this group Matchbox Twenty”? And Teddy goes, “Yeah!” I said, “Well, they just called me.” He’s like, “Do they want you to do the gig”? I was like, I don’t know. They want me to play on a record. And he’s like, “Take the gig!” He tells me to just say yes to everything they’re saying. [laughs]
So I get off the phone and I start looking up Matchbox Twenty and Rob Thomas, and I hear the Santana song he did [“Smooth”], and I’m saying to myself, “This is rock music. I can’t play this.” So I call Teddy back: “Man, these dudes are rock.” And he’s like, “You’ll figure it out, just go for it!” So I get to the Hit Factory in NYC, and my drums are there and everything is good. I recognized the engineer from Timbaland, and he goes, “Hey, Gerald, what’s up, what are you doing here”? I say, “I don’t know, what are you doing here”? We go outside and we’re talking and he’s saying that he’s so out of his league. And I say, “I’m out of my league–this is rock music. I don’t know what to do.” [laughs]
So Rob comes to the session and he says, “I heard you play with Mary J. Blige, and it was incredible. I loved what you were doing, and that’s why I wanted you here.” As soon as the song came on and I heard the drum machine I was like, Okay, that’s a sigh of relief–I know I can play with a drum machine, so I’m good. So while we’re waiting for the producer, I go in and fool with it so once the producer gets there we can cut it. I go in the room and I start fooling with the track, and I come back out and Rob’s like, “That was great, man. It was the best I ever heard it. We’re going to keep it!” I was like, What? “We were recording you…you didn’t know”? [laughs] So that became, “We want you to do all twelve songs!” I was sad that I had to miss his tour, but I was already committed to Destiny’s Child.
MD: Any advice you can you offer our readers?
Gerald: To all the young cats, please stay humble, learn your history, and know who created certain things and who opened up the doors before you. Read all the information in MD and other music magazines. Get DVDs and know what people are about–really listen to the people you’re idolizing. YouTube is cool, but go in depth and go see these cats perform live.
MD: There are so many great parts in the Kick Snare Hat DVD, but one of my favorites is when you say, “Bring the camera closer.”
Aaron: [laughs] Yeah, it’s funny, because if there was a secret, I think we would all be doing it–or would have done it a whole lot sooner. [laughs] I’m constantly getting hit up on Facebook and MySpace: “Hey, how do I get to that level”? I’m like, “Dude, honestly, it’s a chance thing.” For me, God just kind of placed me in a situation where I was able to play in front of people that gave me a shot. But there’s no surefire way, and that’s the truth. There are so many amazingly talented musicians and players that just never get the opportunity.
MD: Tell us what it was like playing the 2005 Grammys with Usher and James Brown.
Aaron: The Grammys is like the Super Bowl of music just because everyone is watching from all genres of music. So to be able to be a part of that is just absolutely amazing. For me, I remember the level of pressure–even in rehearsals. Just the name Grammy holds so much weight, so knowing that and performing on the air…. And then you add such a musical giant as James Brown to the mix. [laughs] Talk about pressure.
We rehearsed at Center Stage in L.A., and I remember when he walked in, it looked like something out of a movie, where everything just kind of slows down and the door opens and it’s a big bright light and you kind of see the silhouette of the person but you don’t see who it is. He just walked in real casual and was listening to us play. He was just jiving with us and added his input, what he liked or what he wanted to change a little bit. But once he got in there, he and I began working on that last part together. It was absolutely crazy.
MD: Was there a click track/sequencer, or was it live?
Aaron: Both. We did “Caught Up” with a sequencer and then went into “Sex Machine” live because there’s no way to sequence that–that’s got to be live. Especially since JB counted it off with the “One, two, three, four!” You had to follow that, so I think for me the pressure was just making sure the count was heard and that I was on it and once he counted off we just all locked in together. It felt great! I was really honored and thankful to be a part of it. Definitely another blessing.
MD: Did you practice to a click growing up?
Aaron: The organist in church was normally the person who was pretty much in control of everything. Your job as the drummer was to support what he was doing. He or she would always be the one to say, “Hey, you’re rushing,” or “You’re dragging.” So that was my click track and my metronome. It wasn’t until I got older that I started getting into playing with a metronome or a click. For me that wasn’t as fun as playing with music. So I would seek out programmed music, like a drum machine or sequencer, because the timing wouldn’t fluctuate. And I would also play to a bunch of different records–slow songs, up-tempo–and use that in addition to the metronome.
MD: How was it performing at that killer Super Bowl ’07 halftime show with Prince?
Cora: That was a high-energy gig with millions of viewers, and all the people in the stands, and on the field. Josh [Cora’s husband and the bass player in Prince’s band] and I were laughing because we were both in the marching band–he went to Texas Southern and I went to Howard. And we were in high school together and marched in band so it was kind of cool to be on the field again. It was awesome just to have that energy again but on a whole other level. The music was actually prerecorded except for Prince’s vocals and guitar.
MD: Tell us about your studio complex.
Cora: Our studio is called Vivo, and we set it up as a studio center with recording, private lessons, and shows. It’s basically whatever your need is as a musician on whatever level. If you need private lessons, a demo package, studio time, a photographer, a makeup artist, the cover of an album, or a place to perform, we offer all that. We’ve done Back To School Blast events, and it’s an alcohol- and smoke-free environment, so it’s a place where parents can leave their eleven-year-old and know that it’s cool. And it’s very diverse–Christian music, funk, gospel, classical, all types of music. But we had to put everything on pause because our tour schedule is pretty intense for the year.
MD: Do you and Josh have plans for working on your own music as well?
Cora: Yes. We’re still recording while working on other people’s projects, and we’ve been doing a lot of writing for some things we would like to do. And I’m actually at the end of writing a book.
MD: Tell us about it.
Cora: It’s all about learning. It’s called GAGU, which is an acronym for “gathering a greater understanding.” So the name of the book is GAGU, Gathering A Greater Understanding Of Life: A Guide For Young People. It’s all about options for young people after high school, whether they go to college or they want to go to trade school or join the military or go straight into the workforce. It breaks down the things that kids need to know about, like tuition, dorm life, how to save money. It’s about knowing what your options are and then making certain decisions.
MD: It’s going on three years now that you’ve been with Prince. Did you play his songs before you joined?
Cora: No, actually I didn’t. I could sing the lyrics to a lot of his music, but I didn’t know the drum parts. I’m still learning because it’s always more music, and older stuff that he hasn’t played for years that he might just want to pull out. And then there are songs that he enjoys playing–Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. We’re all still in school in a certain way.
MD: You won the Guitar Center Drum-Off in 2002. Do you feel gospel drumming has become too much of a competition since then?
Cora: Funny, I recently had this conversation with Chris Hart [of Remo artist relations], and I think in a way, yes. We talked about the direction of drumming and how the focus has kind of gone off a little bit. You’ve got a lot of players that are out to just smash people. There’s nothing wrong with some competition. The thing that’s unfortunate about it is a lot of the cats are YouTube crazy, putting their video out. To some extent it’s cool, but then to another degree it’s kind of like, What is your motive with it? There is a part of drumming that is so much fun because it’s what people love to do and they can be creative and it’s their gift. But then when it goes to another level of unhealthy competition…. Some of these cats aren’t even gigging. Ideally you want to play to get better, in order to play with people.
MD: Besides being an accomplished drummer, you also serve as musical director on a lot of gigs.
Nisan: What happens is most of the artists that don’t use bands, the record label will call me or an artist will say, “Hey, I’m getting ready to do Jimmy Kimmel,” or “I’m getting ready to do Jay Leno. I need you to put it all together for me.” They know I can do it in a hurry. I’ve been playing with my guys–we call ourselves the Hundred Grand Band–since we started with Timbaland years ago, and they know we will deliver. The artists like to come in and rehearse it a few times and get out. They don’t want to worry, and they trust me to get it together and make sure they’re going to sound right. I’m also the music director on the BET comedy show called One Mike Stand.
MD: Do any of these shows require reading charts?
Nisan: When I was doing the Singing Bee TV show, we did have charts because we were playing records from the ’30s all the way up to now. We rehearsed about 800 songs in a matter of two weeks. And we had to know the whole song. Even though they were only going to pick maybe ten seconds of the song to play, you never knew where that was going to be. That’s where if I were a better reader it would have been good. It was actually tough to do that gig. The musical director on that show was Ray Chew, and all those guys, they all read. I always say I’m going to get back and take some private lessons on reading, but my schedule is so busy. But for right now what I’m doing is working for me. On One Mike Stand there’s no reading because we’re the ones creating the music that we’re playing on the show. Also, I’m working on a show with Diddy called Making Him Dance, where I’m going around the country with a couple of other musical directors, and we’re looking for a band to put together.
MD: Did you practice playing with a click growing up?
Nisan: I never really did. Playing along to records was my click. Even with a lot of gigs that I do now that have a playback machine, I still don’t use a click, because I was practicing it that way for over fifteen years. As long as I’ve got the music in my wedges the way I want it, I’m good. To me, it’s all in how you practice with it and how you approach it. When you can practice and play with those loops, or even if it’s getting a drum machine and creating the crazy loops and then deciding to play with it…. That’s another thing I did when I started producing: I would make my beats for records, then I’d be like, Okay, let me go and try to play with this. So it becomes second nature for me. And where I may not be as gifted with all the tricks and flashy chops, I’ve got the tools that’ll get you work.
MD: What mistakes do you see drummers making in the studio?
Nisan: I see a lot of bad attitude. And you see it not only with younger players but the older ones as well. And that attitude stops people from getting work. People always wonder why they always see the same people on gigs all the time. Some musicians have such a sucky attitude when it comes to music in general; they want to be the MVP, the all-star. I joke with Gerald, Aaron, and Teddy Campbell that we’re going to be playing these gigs until we’re sixty if they don’t start getting it right. [laughs]
MD: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?
Nisan: There are two artists whose catalog I would really like to play, and that would be Michael Jackson and Sting. But I love what I do, so I’ll play for anybody.