Mark Colenburg sat in a St. Louis church congregation with his family—around the age of two or three, by his recollection—fascinated by his cousin’s playing behind the kit during a service. “I was in the audience, and I wanted to go up there and play,” he explains. “Someone walked me up to the stage, and I was sitting next to the drums. I was super excited. My cousin put me on his lap and had me hold the sticks. He kind of guided me, and I played the song. And I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m the drummer, and I’m playing right now. After the song was over, he sat me down on a chair next to him. And I was just on cloud one hundred because he let me play. From that point on, I was gone.”
It might be hard imagining, or flat-out remembering, where we were as drummers around the age of two or three years old. But Colenburg’s experience—and curiously, his passion for a specific instrument as a toddler—started him down a path that would include jazz tutelage at New York City’s New School university, a breakout touring gig with the hip-hop artist Common, and numerous recording credits with established rap and R&B artists such as Maxwell, Q-Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest, among others. The drummer has also toured and recorded with the Robert Glasper Experiment, appearing on the genre-pushing, crossover-jazz group’s ArtScience and Black Radio 2 records and a 2018 DVD compilation of select international performances, Robert Glasper Experiment: Live. Most recently, Colenburg released his first educational book and video package, The Beat Matrix Unlocked, which offers his perspective on modern hip-hop and R&B drumming. Considering the drummer’s enviable feel—which treads between a Roy Haynes– and Elvin Jones–inspired swing and the dirty, lilting drum patterns you might find on a J Dilla or D’Angelo record—it’s no wonder his work is in demand on stage, in the studio, and in the shed.
Colenburg grew up in St. Louis, and he sang and played violin and saxophone in school music programs while maintaining his drumming passion in church. Once drums became available to him in his eighth-grade program, his opportunities burgeoned. “I did everything I could get my hands on,” Colenburg says. “I did jazz band, concert band, symphonic band, marching band, drum corps, and All-Suburban and All-State competitions. I actually won All-Suburban and All-State. I was all the way in.”
While steadily ingesting a diet of gospel drumming game-changers including Gerald Hayward, Michael Williams, Mario Winans, and Joel Smith, a curiosity bloomed that would eventually lead Colenburg to jazz. “I wanted to learn more about the sound I heard,” he explains. “When I heard Joel Smith and Mike Williams play rolls on the hi-hat, I was trying to figure out their sound and technique and where they got it from. Everything I’d already learned, I had gotten from somebody else. So where were they getting it from? That thought process led me to drum corps.
“But it wasn’t enough,” Mark continues. “Drum corps was so orchestrated. I thought, Music can’t just be that, because that doesn’t help me learn how to make decisions. So it led me to jazz. Jazz drummers would be playing something, and then suddenly they’ll do some slick roll or pattern. So I went through those channels in school, and once I got to eighth grade, that’s when I really transitioned from a gospel guy to a full-fledged jazz player. In my mind, I was supposed to be a jazz musician. And that’s what I eventually went to New York to strictly do.”
We pick up with Colenburg as he explains his transition from New York–based jazz hopeful to hip-hop guru.
MD: In New York, how did you break into the professional world?
Mark: It was happening while I was at the New School. Everybody was there—Robert Glasper, Casey Benjamin, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland…. It was just a huge hang. But I was doing gigs here and there and was working too.
But starting off, I didn’t work with any “names.” It just went from doing these gigs, and then my first big break was the Common tour. That was out of left field for me. At that time, I’d heard hip-hop and was familiar with the music. But I’d never played it on the drums.
MD: Wait, what?
Mark: Yeah, I’d never played any hip-hop or played for a rapper. I never did anything like that. When I got to New York—and keep in mind that my history was playing for church—jazz was everything to me, and I even went through this fusion period. I wasn’t just limiting it to a straight-ahead style. I was open to whatever—the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Vinnie Colaiuta, John Scofield…anything.
So when I got to New York, at the time there was a thing where if you play anything but straight-ahead, the jazz scene didn’t validate you. They didn’t look at you as being a valid jazz drummer.
MD: Around what year was this?
Mark: It was in the early 2000s. But that mentality still hovers to a certain degree today. It feels like if you’re not playing with the “jazz cats” and swinging, the jazz heads would still have that attitude.
But around the early 2000s, that attitude was even stronger. So I wasn’t trying to showcase my [gospel] side then. But people heard me and said, “He can play other stuff. He doesn’t just play jazz.” So people were asking me to play some other jungle or groove music. And I didn’t know that they were even thinking about hip-hop. The New School also had a gospel choir for a season, and I played in that. And it was the younger people who were hyped about the other music outside of jazz.
So because of that, when Common was looking for a drummer, there were a lot of people in the scene that said, “You should call Mark. He can play jazz, but he can play other stuff too. He’d be a good fit.” Keyon and Robert were already working with Common, and they recommended me.
MD: What was the Common audition like?
Mark: It was crazy. We got to certain songs and they said, “Play that Dr. Dre beat. Play this Jay-Z groove. Play the pattern that’s on the radio right now.” And I didn’t know it. I’d say, “Man, I haven’t heard it.” And they said, “What! How’re you going to play hip-hop if you don’t know these songs?” [laughs]
But I won the gig because I did my research. Before I auditioned, I needed to find a live drummer that plays hip-hop. I knew about Questlove, who I was a fan of, and he was the only person I’d seen play this music live. So I was listening to all of the Roots albums, and in particular their live album, The Roots Come Alive. I wanted to see how he translates a recording to a live hip-hop performance. And the record that I did on tour with Common was one that J Dilla predominantly produced, Like Water for Chocolate, and Questlove was on that too. So I was really studying that.
When I played, I think they could hear the vocabulary and thought I had a good feel. It might have been those two things that made me stand out. The other drummers were great, but I think some of the language’s aesthetics weren’t being translated.
After the audition was over, I felt horrible. When I got to the beats that are on the radio that I didn’t know, the drummers who were auditioning came up to the drums and sang the beats to me and told me how to play it. At the audition. [laughs] I was so embarrassed. I didn’t think it was going to happen. But when I got home, it was late at night, and I got a call from Common. And he asked me to go on the road with him. So that took me into an era of studying hip-hop intensely.
MD: You mentioned J Dilla produced Like Water for Chocolate, and you reference his name in the Beat Matrix Unlocked often. Would you consider him a main influence on your playing during this period?
Mark: I wouldn’t necessarily say “main,” but I would say huge. With the book, I wasn’t specifically trying to put the focus on him per se. I was just trying to highlight concepts that I heard from him, along with other producers. But overall, he’s definitely a huge influence. He didn’t have any musical limits, and he paid so much respect to all the different ways that music is expressed. He could take any genre or nuance and keep it in its element and turn it into a creation. And that’s what I learned from him—how to be creative. I look at him as a jazz musician.
MD: How do you learn from different producers’ feels or vibes?
Mark: When people think of a producer, they might not think about the actual person. They think of some board or drum machine. You say “producer,” and they think “studio” and “technology.” But those things are just the medium. That’s not the core of what’s happening. It’s literally a person and their ideas, mind, and vibe. You do hear the technology, but I was hearing the vibe of the person. And every producer is different. To pick up on that, I kind of step out of my vibe and try to hear and feel what’s being presented to me in its most honest form.
If you watch a producer listen to their own music, and you watch how they move their body and nod their head, you’ll see how they feel it. Some producers have more of a round movement; some have more of a quick staccato, short-fast movement. But you’ll see their vibe and see how they think it should feel musically. Dilla had his vibe. Kanye West, you’ll see him rock to music, and he has a certain kind of style, and it feels a certain kind of way. Q-Tip, you hear his stuff and it feels a certain kind of way. It all starts from what they’re hearing and how it feels. The whole vibe just comes from being able to relate to different feels, being able to know what you like, and being able to see how someone else vibes to things.
MD: Live with Robert Glasper, you occasionally play longer, one-handed ride patterns at fairly brisk tempos. Is there anything that you work on to develop speed or facility?
Mark: For speed, that’s repetition. It’s almost like lifting weights. But you have to keep pushing. And the more you do that, the stronger you get.
Facility to me is more about vocabulary, phrasing, and understanding sounds. When you get into that world of facility and phrasing, a lot of the technical stuff goes out the door.
My favorite drummers are the least technical, so to speak. Roy Haynes might say that he never learned rudiments. Or Elvin Jones, who didn’t do a lot of single-stroke rolls or stuff like that. Jack DeJohnette, who’s super musical and has chops, expresses it in a way that’s not coming from an analytical approach. But they all have so much to say.
I appreciate the fact that someone can play fast. But when I hear phrasing, facility, statements, and orchestrations, those things blow my mind. It really says a lot about the player and what they have to say musically.
So to work on that, transcribe and try to hear basic phrases. Then try to hear the musical conversation from a basic standpoint. Once that’s happening, try to expound on that conversation. The drummers I mentioned were masters at understanding basic conversation and expounding on it. They could play forever, and it’d never get old.
MD: Is there any specific exercise you work on to develop technique?
Mark: I use combinations of a bunch of techniques. It won’t be only my fingers or my wrist. My arms or back may be involved with how I’m doing certain things.
With a push-pull technique, I use combinations of that movement. Tony Williams had his way of doing it. And Jojo Mayer and Johnny Rabb have different ways of doing it. So I consider that and try to combine it all.
But it gives me so many options on how I can execute that technique. The whole thing for me is not just to be able to play fast. I like to be able to learn a technique, and then in a performance be able to play it and have it serve a purpose.
MD: Would you consider the book a summary of what you’ve learned since entering the hip-hop world?
Mark: Kind of. But when I look back, I literally look back at everything. When I got that Common gig, I was relating to hip-hop and jazz from a gospel perspective. In gospel there are a lot of shuffles. It’s not jazz in the traditional sense, but that was the feel. Once I started playing jazz, I thought, Oh, it’s like a gospel shuffle. So I just took that feel and applied it to swing. And when I first got to New York and started gigging, people said, “Man, you can swing.” But I was just thinking about gospel.
And the same thing happened with Common. I was listening to Questlove and J Dilla. But I remembered playing some of those grooves and feels in church. The way that I naturally hit the drums, I was still referencing it to what I played in church.
So the book is kind of a culmination of all of it, because from day one I was piecing everything together as I was going. There are musical connections between church and jazz, church and hip-hop, and jazz and hip-hop. And the book kind of culminates in how it all connects. You’ll hear Questlove on a record start playing some swing kinds of things in a hip-hop groove. Or you’ll hear J Dilla incorporate jazz elements in a hip-hop groove. They were kind of conceptually utilizing and understanding how certain kinds of languages merge together. So that kind of validated what I was picking up.
Colenburg’s recent book, The Beat Matrix Unlocked, explores concepts used in creating beats in hip-hop and pop drumming and programming. “There are musical connections between church and jazz, church and hip-hop, and jazz and hip-hop,” he says. “And the book kind of culminates in how it all connects.”
Drums: Yamaha Recording Custom
• 5.5×14 snare
• 7×14 snare
• 8×12 tom
• 15×16 floor tom
• 18×22 bass drum
Heads: Remo, including Coated Emperor X batters
Sticks: Vater Manhattan 7As
• 15″ K Special Dry hi-hats
• 21″ K Special Dry crash
• 19″ K Special Dry crash stacked on a 16″ Kerope crash
• 20″ K Oriental Crash of Doom
• 18″ Avedis crash
Electronics: Yamaha DTX sample pad, Native Instruments Maschine Mikro production system, and Arturia samples