While performing as opening act on the European leg of Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic tour in 2016, neo-soul sensation Anderson .Paak got some advice. “Bruno told me, ‘Look, if you’re going to do this drummer stuff , you’ve got to really take it over, so that when they think of “drummer/singer,” you’re the first person they see,’” .Paak recalls. “‘When you’re on the kit, really be showing them that you can play. If you’re up front, really show that you’re a front man as well. Otherwise just get someone to cover.’ That’s when I was like, Alright, I’m about to really take this over. A huge part of the show is me on the kit, and it’s not just like I can pretend to play. They really see, Oh, you play drums drums.”
Anderson .Paak, thirty-three, needs little coaxing to jump behind the kit. Drums have been his musical constant ever since sixth grade, but as one of his generation’s most creative singers, songwriters, and producers, he’s always seen the big musical picture. His first release was 2012’s O.B.E. Vol. 1, under the name Breezy LoveJoy, and his duo with producer Knxwledge, NxWorries, birthed the critically acclaimed hip-hop record Yes Lawd!
Anderson .Paak grew up in Southern California, his parents of African American and South Korean ancestry. Four albums since 2014 with his longtime band Free Nationals and guests—Venice, Malibu, Oxnard, and Ventura—acknowledge his stomping grounds. His drumming skills became apparent to many on the Grammy-nominated Malibu (2016 Urban Contemporary Album), and he impressed even more on tour with strong live interpretations of programmed jams like “Am I Wrong.” On the Dr. Dre–produced Oxnard (2019 Grammy winner for Rap Performance), .Paak colors the dancehall groove of “The Chase” with ghost notes and flourishes, his beats pop under Kendrick Lamar on “Tints,” and he rocks large on “Brother’s Keeper.” His spring 2019 release, Ventura, is an organic blend of old- and new-school soul, with guests Andre 3000, Lalah Hathaway, and Smokey Robinson, and lots of live drums by .Paak peppering the tracks.
We spoke with Anderson .Paak right before Ventura hit the shelves, a mere six months after Oxnard’s release. These are remarkably heady times for the drummer, and the future looks no less bright. We begin our conversation, however, in the not-too-distant past, when the fire in his belly and in his hands was first lit.
MD: Have you always been inspired by drums?
Anderson: My earliest musical memories are watching Snoop and Dr. Dre crisscross on videos, and listening to Earth Wind & Fire and Frankie Beverly with my mom. I was drawn to the cool old funk and old soul. It was always the rhythm, the drums, always the grooves that attracted me. I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson and learn all the dances, so yeah, the drums were a super important part.
MD: Was drumset the first instrument you picked up?
Anderson: We used to dance back in the day at school, at recess, break-dancing, doing the robot and stuff. We used to battle, and I would sing along. A new rap song would come out, and I’d lock myself in a room, listen to it over and over, memorize the words, and then perform it at school the next day. They’d be like, “This song just came out. How does he know all the words?” That was my first love. When I got into sixth grade, I was tapping around the house all over the place, and my mom was saying I should play an instrument. I thought saxophone would be the shit, because I could pull up and be playing outside of a girl’s window, get the girls with it, but they didn’t have any more saxophones in the class. I saw a big bass drum, and I was like, Well, that looks kind of cool, so I’ll do that.
I wanted to quit almost immediately, because I didn’t want to read music, and my teacher was kind of mean. I was about to quit, but after a couple weeks my stepdad had a drumkit in the house, and I heard him playing it right when I walked in. He was tapping around, and I was like, Oh man, this looks pretty sexy; this is dope. He let me get on the kit, and that was one of the most natural things to me. In a day I could play a groove. My mom came out of the other room and started dancing. I had never seen my mom dance like that, so I was like, I want to play drums. I was sold on it. She was giving me songs like Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” like, “If you can play this, you really might be doing something.” That was one of the first grooves I learned how to play.
MD: You saw the power of the instrument to move people.
Anderson: Yeah, that was it. I could make people groove, change peoples’ moods. Once I’d seen that I could do that, I was practicing all the time. My godsister came to the house one day, and she was like, “Oh, you play the drums now? You’ve got to come to the church.” She took me to church, and my mind was blown. I saw the church choir; I was just like, “Aww.” The drummer was killing me. So I started going to church any time I could. I would sit right next to the drums. One service they were having offering, and the other drummer wasn’t there, and the bass player was looking around like, “Yo, any of y’all know how to play?” I hopped on the drums and started playing, and they immediately kicked me off. I sat my ass down, but they said, “You should come back; maybe we’ll let you play for the offerings. But you’ll have to practice.” The drummer that was there, Danny, he kind of took me under his wing, just let me watch him. Eventually they started letting me rehearse with the choir, then I started playing for offerings, and then they started letting me play a couple songs, and then eventually I was the lead drummer. But there were some embarrassing moments, playing in church.
MD: A lot of great drummers have come from playing in church.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s it, man. You’re talking about a lot of stuff that’s hard to teach. I don’t know how you can teach someone to have instincts or good reflexes, or how to pick up on the holy spirit. It’s a very spiritual thing, regardless of religion or anything. When you’re dealing with people that are being consumed by the power of the lord, and you’ve got to play music to accompany that, you’re not going to play like someone who was trained to read music. It’s all feel, and in church they teach you, this isn’t even you—this is God going through you. And you’ve got to really be humble. Every time you try to play a drum fill or get crazy, the keyboard player might get up and kick you off the drums or look at you like, “What are you doing?” So it’s about following the leader, knowing when to go and start chopping off, knowing when to speed up, slow down. You’ve got all these ensemble hits, and sometimes you might have four or five genres in one song. They might tell you to break it down; you’ve always got to be watching the choir director. It’s crazy, man. You might have to play with one broken stick, and you learn how to make the drumkit sound good with what you have. You’re always being exposed to some of the best musicians, singers, bass players. I’m proud that I was able to come up out of there, because that was some of the best schooling that I had.
MD: Where else did you study?
Anderson: At Musicians Institute. I was twenty-one, and I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I was struggling with how to do this music thing. I got an apartment in L.A., applied to Musicians Institute, and got in. I didn’t know how to read, so I was at the firstlevel entry, and I started really making a splash over there. I realized, okay, I’ve got kind of a gift on the drums. And they were exposing me to a lot. Before, I only knew a couple of drummers really, outside of Questlove, other gospel drummers, Chris Dave…. But going to school there, I started getting exposed to Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Mike Clark, Vinnie Colaiuta. These were dudes I’d never really heard before. The teachers there were showing me simple rudiments, and they were also breaking down my drum fills and transcribing them. There were times when we’d be jamming, and the drum teachers would be like, “Yo, how did you do that?” And I’d be, “I don’t know.” They were like, “Do it again. You should know how you did that.” They would transcribe the drum fill and the next day say, “This is what you’re playing.” It was real cool that people could hear it, and put it to paper as well.
That was where I got to really practice in a room by myself, too. It’s like, all that time that you have when you’re coming up, working on stuff, thinking, “Man, I should put practice in,” you’ve got to cherish those times. Because as you get into your career, with more gigs, you get less time to really practice.
MD: I heard an interview where you talked about the importance of listening to music and absorbing it.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s just me, naturally, like listening to trap records, all the nuances and the lyrics and the cadences. I wanted to learn exactly how that was, so I listened. I was always infatuated with that. And coming up in church, you had to listen to the music, or else they were going to know. I would go over stuff hundreds and hundreds of times, and I’d listen to it until I went to sleep. And then when I found new artists that I liked, I would just become obsessed, and I would have to hear it before I’d go to sleep. It was just going into my system.
That was something that I learned you have to do: stop and really listen to every little thing. Free Nationals is the band that I play with to this day, and we got our start playing in a lot of dive bars, cover bars, so we listened down to a lot of old records. Not just to learn the songs, but to get the feel. That’s what I became obsessed with. You go through stages, especially as a drummer. You want to emulate, you want to be like Tony Royster or whoever, you know, you want to learn all the fills and play like them. Carter Beauford was a big one for me. I love how Carter plays, his hi-hat style and how it jumps. And for a long time I was just sounding like that. Then I wanted to learn his drum fills, and it just became about chops. Then I wanted to learn groove, so I started listening to Steve Jordan. I wanted to learn how to play studio grooves. That really is the battle of the drummer now, for me, to learn how to keep that pocket, and to not want to go on to the kit and just chop off, or want to practice while performing or recording a song. Keeping that balance where it’s not too much and not too little. It’s like an endless struggle to not go too crazy, just keep it together.
MD: Do drummers make good producers?
Anderson: Absolutely. You’re already someone that can make use of all of your limbs. You’re capable of doing a lot of things at one time. A lot of drummers are the ones that are running the Pro Tools tracks, making beats, doing a lot. As soon as you can play drums, your approach to production kind of has the one-up, because for modern music like pop, hip-hop, and soul, drums is a huge part of it. If you have rhythm and timing, then as a producer you already have that one-up. A lot of producers and artists just have no sense of timing—it’s crazy. And so drummers that are singers and also play bass or keys have a huge advantage. We have a different approach. When I’m writing music, raps or vocals or anything, I’m always thinking about cadence, delivery, and where I sit, like where my pocket is on the track.
MD: Where in the process of writing a track do the drums come in?
Anderson: It depends. If it’s just me and a guitar player, I can lay the drum track, and we can build from there. But we can’t go nowhere until I get the drums slapping into the middle of it. I’ve got to get the sound I’m looking for, or else it’s uninspiring. I’ve got to feel that first. When I’m given beats from a producer, that’s the first thing I’m looking for. Are the drums hittin’? Are the drums cutting through? Should we take the drums out on this part, wait so we can give them the emphasis on the chorus? I’m obsessed with how we’re going to make the drums cut through. People get fooled that the drums are banging, but it’s not really banging if it’s all sub and noise and your body doesn’t feel it—it’s just loud. Is the kick really cutting through? Is the snare really cracking? Or is it just noise in the way? Do we need a better-quality kick to cut through? When it comes to live drums, I’m always trying to get the driest kick and snare; the kick sounds like it’s filled with pillows, and raw, so you can get that punch. I love that sound.
MD: You pay attention to the details of every sound.
Anderson: Yeah, sometimes we’ll go forever on mixes trying to get the drums right. Songs will come out, and I’ll still be hearing it like, “Yeah, I wish we could have gotten the mud out of the kick.”
MD: I’ve read that you had an unstable home situation at times growing up. Was music something that you could depend on?
Anderson: Absolutely, man. When I was eight years old my pops went to prison for assault and battery on my mom. He went away, and I sought refuge in my hip-hop music. Tupac and Snoop, I just buried myself in it. When I learned how to play drums, my moms was always working, and the drums were the most consistent thing in my life. I was getting better, and so I was obsessed with just spending time with it. If I didn’t have that, I feel like I would have put that energy toward something else. In my town, Ventura and Oxnard, if you weren’t playing sports, doing track and field, playing basketball, there wasn’t anything else to do. I remember a lot of my friends and my cousins joining gangs, and all I wanted to do was play drums, so that was like my escape. I was listening to gospel and wanted to learn all the songs, learn all the drum fills, and play just like the people I was hearing. And then my senior year my step-pops and my mom got put into prison, and I started putting even more into what I was doing. I was making beats on the PC and writing off them, so I just went all in to it, and that was my therapy.
When people saw that I was a musician or that I could actually play, you could see the respect. Like, “Aw, you’re different, man.” My cousins were like straight gang-bangers, and when they saw me on the kit they were like, “Yeah, you need to keep doing that.” Like, “Follow that, you’re different, you’re special. You’ve got a gift.” I was just this kid that was all into his music. That was all I cared about—that, and food. I wasn’t going to parties in high school, drinking and smoking. I was just the class clown and doing music, playing my drums. Everybody was going crazy, putting their time into other things. People think they’re going to be young forever, so they don’t invest in their passion. Some people find what they’re meant to do very young, but then they get distracted. They feel like, “Oh, I could never do this; I couldn’t make a career out of that.”
We were moving all over the place, from apartment to apartment. My mom had her own produce company, but if we had a bad season, we were doing bad financially. But I always had a drumkit no matter what. If we moved to an apartment, I would keep my kit at my friend’s, or my mom’s office, and I would be able to practice there or at church. That was the thing that was always around, that I could always go back to. It saved my life, and I owe a lot to the drums, to music. It put me in a position to help my family, get my mom a house, get my own studio, help my friends be able to tour and do arena shows now, with the same band that we were playing bars with. I was blessed, and I just have so much respect for the power that the drums put in my life.
MD: There is so much programmed drums in hip-hop. Does that affect the way you play live drums, too?
Anderson: Modern music now is programmed. Country, rock, Top-40 pop music…you can have a whole record that was programmed on a sequencer, that sounds real, drum breaks and all. When you do get in the studio, people want you to play like a program. The sound of the acoustic drumset, as far as kick and snare, that’s a dying sound now. Modern pop music and hip-hop are run by 808s, big basses, snares. Drummers that are coming up have to either know how to program that stuff or play to accompany that. So in hip-hop we’re pushing it. There’s never been a drummer/front man, out front and going off on the drums, and then you’ve got a full band, and they’re taking solos, the same band interacting onstage. So live I’m always trying to merge those worlds, and I want to learn how we can build something different without completely abandoning the live aspect. It’s like, ain’t nobody really letting the drummer go off , like, “Ooh, that was nasty; did you hear that?” We want to bring that back.
MD: When did the Free Nationals come together?
Anderson: We met in college, at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Jose Rios, the guitar player, Callum Connor, the DJ and percussionist, and I all went to the school. I met Jose first. He was dating a girl, and I was dating a girl in the same apartment complex. Eventually I broke up with that girl, and he got kicked out of his spot. I was like, “Don’t you play guitar? Come over here and stay where I’m at.” I didn’t even have a place. I was couch surfing with the other homies. We started writing immediately and started building from there. Then we got put on the same gig for another artist in San Francisco with Tnava [Ron Tnava Avant]. We had so much fun, and sounded so good, just as a three-piece. Ron was playing key bass and keys—no one could play the key bass like him. We were the funkiest trio.
And then I started doing vocals. I had original music, and I was like, “Do you guys want to hear my stuff ?” They thought it was dope, so we were making money playing cover gigs and then on the side, when we could, we would play my music. We played at bars, random gigs, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs—I mean, anything we could do, bro. We would play for food. We would get gigs where we would have to learn like fifty tunes for a showcase or something. [laughs] We’re playing for every artist, and we’re splitting three hundred bucks, you know. Whatever we could do in those early times, all we cared about was the jamming—playing and getting better. We wanted to be the cats.
Eventually we met our bass player, Kelsey Gonzalez. He was touring all the time, but he came to see us playing at Temple Bar, and he loved it. We didn’t have a bass player, and he was like, “Dude, I would love to play with you guys.” I was like, Damn, this dude plays for Miguel, and he runs tracks, he’s a real touring musician, he’s on the hit—and he wants to play with us! So, he started practicing with us and joined.
Callum joined when I started making my first album, Venice. He was doing all the beats for that, and he was that other side, the 808s and getting back to the heavier aspect. I saw that he was really good at that, and I was like, “You should come and DJ; you can run the tracks, and we can play over that.” That was it, dude. For the longest time, we didn’t have no click, didn’t have in-ears, nothing. We were playing with just basic stage monitors, playing over show mixes that we stripped. We would keep the 808s in, keep certain elements in the track, and then we would play over them. Depending on how bad the sound guy was, sometimes we would be on top of the track, or completely rushing, or behind. It was always a dice roll, but we got so good at that that there was no gig that we couldn’t do.
Then when we finally were able to get some good in-ears, playing to a click and stuff, it was like butter. Now our whole show is run on a click—the lighting, everything is connected. When I think of all of those years that we were just doing it raw, that gave us so much character. When people hear us, they can hear that we’re tight, and that we’ve been playing for a while. You can’t buy that, bro. So I think that’s part of the chemistry.
MD: You had different approaches to the drums on Venice and Malibu.
Anderson: I don’t think I actually played drums on any of the tracks on Venice. What I was trying to go for on Venice was a modern R&B, trap kind of sound. I wanted something that would bang in the clubs, like the song “Drugs,” or “Might Be.” With Malibu, I had a lot of songs where I was playing drums. On a lot of the album, I would play the groove with hi-hat and snare for like thirty-two bars, play the whole song through. Then I would take that loop and add the synthetic kick underneath, and it gave it a unique sound. That’s how “The Bird” and that stuff was done. You get that thump, but you then you have those live snares and hats.
MD: I love the fills on “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” and the stops you wrote in.
Anderson: Yeah. That was one of the first times that I’d used the V-Drums and written a song. DJ Khalil invited me to his studio, and he had some V-Drums. We just put up a kit, and I got on there and started writing at the same time.
MD: “Put Me Thru” has a live, rocking groove.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s another one where I played the hi-hat and snare, recorded dry, and then I went back and put the kick drum underneath it. I played the two grooves, and then changed the kick pattern up on the verse, different from the chorus. I wanted a sound like how Prince had his drums sounding on his first two albums, like records in the ’70s that have that fat snare and everything’s dry.
MD: Your new album, Ventura, seems to have even more live playing on it.
Anderson: Oh, yeah. I wanted to hear the contrast from Oxnard. I finished both records at the same time—one was supposed to be gritty, and one was supposed to be pretty. With Oxnard I wanted to make like the quintessential hip-hop Dr. Dre and Anderson .Paak album. Hard-hitting toms, bass, snares that crack, sensitive skits, risky song topics, still with the elements of funk and soul, but more based around hip-hop, and a lot of stuff to dance to.
Then with Ventura I wanted to go a little more organic, more soulful, and to challenge myself in making more straight-ahead love songs and working with other writers to help for better hooks. Also taking it even more creatively with the song structures, and really getting off on my drum ability, too. You know, there’s records where you can tell, “Oh, this is a drummer’s album.”
MD: “Reachin’ 2 Much” has some really hot drums, especially those flams you’re adding.
Anderson: Yeah, all that tension going on with the drums, but then there’s straight-ahead vocals and groove going over the top of it. The drummer is like on a different gig—I love that. That’s a tune I can just go off on, but it’s still got the groove.
MD: I’m enjoying those nice, crisp snare fills on “Come Home.”
Anderson: I was thinking about Motown drummers or session drummers back in the ’60s and ’70s that had to have parts, you know, showing that you were playing for the song. On the chorus, I’m doing the drum roll on the floor tom, and I’m thinking about these drum fills and stuff that complemented the songs and the basic grooves. Yeah, I really like how that came out. Soulful drums, like, what’s my dude’s name, Gadson.
MD: The “Linus and Lucy” Spotify single you released in December is a great drum feature.
Anderson: Yeah, we had a lot of fun on that one. Man, I met this brother Maurice Brown through Tnava, and he has really changed the whole dynamic of our sound. We added him to the Free Nationals. He’s an incredible trumpet player. I love doing trio stuff, so again, Tnava, Maurice, and I had the opportunity to do that Spotify session—eight hours just to have fun. They wanted us to do a Christmas song, and we were jamming, but I couldn’t find one that I liked. And Maurice was like, “Let’s do this one, and do it our way.” So we ran through it a couple times…I feel like that was the third take, and we jammed it out. I just wanted something that was an exciting delivery on the drums. Something that they could play during Christmas time that was different, and had some fire on the kit.
MD: I love your story about Bruno Mars. After he gave you that advice, did you take any specific action?
Anderson: We had to really take that in. I went into reformatting the stage set. I used to be over to the side, stage right, not on a riser or anything. And now I’m in the middle, dead center, I’ve got a big riser with LED under us, and more people realize, “I didn’t even know you played drums. You play drums and sing!” The biggest thing we have on the web is us playing the Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. It’s just us playing, and I’m on the kit the whole time. There were people that were just like, “Yo, you should get off the kit,” or, “You should stay on the kit and not do the front man thing.” But it was like not letting those people get in my head, and just doing what was true to me. What Bruno was saying was, “You’ve got to really take this over, bro. Your next album—it has to be a thing.” And when I was touring with him, I saw that. He’s one I have a lot of respect for. He’s one of the only other dudes that can play an instrument, dance, and is really an entertainer. I’ve seen how he puts his show together to suit what he does, how J. Cole put his show together to suit what he does, Kendrick, Beyoncé, everybody, to suit what they do, so there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same. It’s like, the drummer’s got something to say, too, you know.
Drums: DW Collector’s series acrylic, hand-finished with glass mirror tiles
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 8×14 snare
C. 7×10 tom
D. 13×16 floor tom
E. 18×22 bass drum
Cymbals: Sabian Custom Shop
1. 15″ hi-hats
2. 10″ O-Zone splash
3. 11″ O-Zone splash over 8″ Mini Holy China
4. 22″ ride
5. 19″ O-Zone crash
6. 20″ crash
7. 20″ crash
Hardware: DW 9000 series rack, MFG series MDD hi-hat and MCD single bass drum pedal; Porter & Davies BC2 round throne top on a DW 9000 swivel throne base.
Heads: Evans Hybrid-S batter and Hazy 300 snare side on 5.5″ snare; Genera HD dry batter and Hazy 500 snare side on 8″ snare; Hydraulic red tom batters and UV1 coated tom resonants; EMAD heavyweight bass drum batter and custom EQ3 ported bass resonant.
Sticks: Promark Anderson .Paak signature sticks
Accessories: PureSound twisted wires on 5.5″ snare, Super 30 wires on 8″ snare