(December 2010 Issue)
Growing up, Mary J. Blige’s drummer knew he was preparing for big things. Today his résumé features some of the greatest artists on the R&B and gospel scenes, including Chaka Khan, Kirk Franklin, Keri Hilson, and Marvin Sapp. In this exclusive online companion piece to his interview in the December 2010 issue of MD, Rex talks about some of his early influences and eye-opening playing experiences.
MD: How did you get started playing drums?
Rex: It was a gift. I started in church. My father had a quartet-type group called the Hardy Brothers, and I started sitting in with them when I was about five. That’s when I first got the itch to play. When I was six I started playing for the children’s choir, then the youth choir. Around the age of thirteen or fourteen I started playing for the adult choir, which is about the same time I became the permanent drummer at our church.
MD: Who were your early influences?
Rex: Most of them were people who were close to the scene I grew up in; some I knew personally, and some I didn’t. Early on was Donnell Vasser, who played for my father’s group; Clyde Davis; Kevin Brunson, who played with the Thompson Community Singers; Teddy Campbell; Oscar Seaton; and Calvin Rodgers. Calvin and I grew up together, but early on he was always a step or two ahead of me. He was hip to the different players that were on all the records, so I’d check out the stuff he suggested, which is how I got into Joel Smith and other players.
MD: How did you prepare to go from playing in church to being a full-time professional player?
Rex: When I was playing in church, I never looked at it like it was “just church.” Playing in church was always something I loved to do, and I treated it like it was a major artist’s gig. I started working with pads and electronics while I was in church. I was playing claps and finger snaps and different effects on the choir songs. From age sixteen to nineteen, I spent a lot of time going back and forth to Detroit. I had some friends there that were heavy into programming. I learned how to program from my Detroit friends as well as some of my friends in Chicago, like Kevin Randolph, Berris Bolton, and Freddie Moffett. I would program tracks and interludes on the MPC and let them run during offering in church. Sometimes I’d stop playing and just look at the audience to see how people responded to the music I’d programmed, which helped prepare me for what I do now.
MD: What early professional experiences helped you move from one level to the next?
Rex: One example is from my first studio session. I was on the drums, and the producer turned the click on. I had been playing with loops for years and was very comfortable with them, but I had never just played with the click. I ended up going down in flames. [laughs] After the session, the producer was like, “You’re a good drummer, but I work with ‘class A’ musicians; you’re ‘class B.’” I wasn’t offended. I just figured that was his opinion. My tracks ended up not making the record. After that session I stopped practicing with loops, and for over a year I practiced strictly with the click, which was good preparation for what I do now. Funny enough, the next time I saw that producer, he was asking me for tips about how to be successful in the industry, which just goes to show that you have to be careful how you treat people.
Another important experience I had was while playing with a group that was big in Chicago called Youth Edition. We played for an event called Unity Day in Grant Park. There were thousands and thousands of people in the audience. The bill included Youth Edition, War, Faith Evans, and Dru Hill, who was the headliner. I remember seeing Dru’s equipment pushed up against the wall. I used to get a rush from checking out different people’s setups, and I was looking at Jarod Barnes’ drums. The stage people were like, “You can’t touch that stuff.” I remember thinking, I’m not trying to play it—I’m just checking it out. The dude isn’t even here, and they won’t let me near his stuff? That’s the level I want to be at.
Jarod’s setup had a lot of the same things that my setup had at church, as far as electronics and things like that. Seeing that made me feel like moving up to the next level was within reach. It opened me up to the fact that things can get much bigger.
Playing-wise, there came a point when I started getting tired of being told, “You sound like so and so.” When you’re sixteen or seventeen, to be compared to someone you look up to is one of the biggest compliments you can get. When you’re twenty-one, it’s not sweet anymore. Growing up, I played to a lot of records and tried to mimic what I heard on the records. Once I started trying to develop my own sound, I still played with records, but I would play what I thought should have been played, instead of what was on the album.
MD: What do you practice when you’re not on the road?
Rex: I practice everything I don’t do when I’m on the road. I practice a lot of jazz, rock, and country. I don’t practice with the metronome much, because the click runs through Mary’s whole song from beginning to end. One of my favorite bands is Whitesnake. I play with their records and other records and brush up on my playing in other genres besides what I do every day.
MD: Besides continuing to tour, what’s next for you?
Rex: I just finished having my home studio built. I’m looking forward to doing more production and songwriting. It’s a studio studio. It has a drum room, a vocal booth, a control room, and a waiting room. Look for me to be more heavily involved in the production side of things.