The life of the professional musician is rarely what it seems. People on the outside imagine stars lazing around with family, friends, and adoring fans. While that image has certainly been furthered by a million music videos, there’s a ton of isolation to contend with, and ton of work too. It takes effort to make something look easy.
Benzel Baltimore, a.k.a. Benjamin Cowan, the son of Parliament-Funkadelic trumpet player Bennie Cowan and a long-time veteran of the funk institution himself, thinks a lot about the work involved in being a professional musician. Well, maybe “thinks” isn’t a strong enough word. Cowan just seems to exist for the job, for the opportunity to improve as a player. “Coming from Baltimore city,” says Benzel, “I’ve been around some of the greatest drummers in the world: Lee Pearson [Spyro Gyra, Chris Boti], Dana Hawkins [Esperanza Spalding, Evan Marien], Dennis Chambers [P-Funk, John Scofield]…. Then there’s people who are coming up— they come to the shed, and, whoo, you’re like, As soon as I break my drums down, I’m going into the basement to practice THAT.”
This kind of enthusiasm can’t be faked, and given the fact that it comes from a drummer who’s played some of the most iconic and mind-expanding music in history, in front of millions, it’s exemplary.
Somehow, after half a century at the forefront of R&B music, and despite his plans for retirement, George Clinton is as popular in 2019 as ever. With the parallel bands Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton largely defined the multifaceted world of 1970s and ’80s funk music. Since then he’s remained musically vital and universally hip, providing an authentic blueprint for the groovier wing of the alternative nation and a never-dimming beacon of inspiration for hiphop acolytes. Like a cross between Frank Zappa and Art Blakey, Clinton has acted as mentor/ bandleader/cultivator to dozens of musicians over the years, and he kept his eye on his trumpet player’s precocious son from early on. He even gave junior the opportunity to—at fifteen—play drums in front of the gargantuan crowd at Woodstock ’99.
Benzel did have to go back to high school the next day, but he never strayed too far from the P-Funk orbit, and after a long initiation of sorts, he took over the drum seat.
When we spoke to Benzel, he was packing for an Australian P-Funk tour opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a package made in heaven, and no doubt the party of a lifetime for hundreds of thousands of Aussie fans. Predictably, Benzel was focusing on the job ahead. When asked what he’s most looking forward to on the trip, he replied, “Well, the first thing to focus on is playing well. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing every day….”
MD: So, what are you working on lately, in advance of this tour with the Chili Peppers?
Benzel: I started doing something that I really didn’t want to do. But it was a challenge. And once you do something and see a result, you have to do it again, and then again the next day. It’s basically playing double-stroke rolls at 120 bpm for twenty minutes. The only change is that you go lower or higher.
MD: Where does a challenge like that come from—just messing around on the drums?
Benzel: I’m on YouTube every day. Part of your practice is listening. Another part is watching. Another is applying. You should have your own sound. Sometimes people don’t like to hear that. Sometimes people tell me, “Horacio Hernandez does all this stuff , but when you do it it’s not the same.” And I’m thinking, Are you just mad because I can do it but you can’t? Or are you saying that I should bring it down because I’m not him? I hate that. Apply things that you know, but in a way that you would do it.
It all adds to the mad balance of being a drummer. The difference between playing how you feel and playing what’s on the record, for instance. If it’s a praise and worship group, the worship leader says, “Don’t play any pocket.” What does that mean? That means play churchy, play everything, like gospel drummers do. But when I’m with George, it’s “Give me pocket.” Then with George, there are songs that are boombap, then there are songs that are more Chili Pepper-ish. And there’s a difference between the Parliament songs and the Funkadelic songs. Funkadelic is like live jams, taking it to a Jerry Garcia level. Parliament is more Motown, straight pocket, like “Flashlight” as opposed to “Super Stupid.”
MD: What’s it like playing in P-Funk?
Benzel: First off , I want to say that it’s such a blessing to be with George my whole life. It’s an honor that he’s seen something in me since I was very young. Regarding the music, George wants it to cover a whole range of sounds, from 1969 to 2019. And now we’re doing brand new music, and it’s hip-hop and trap. And to go further, now his grandson is in the band, and he’s a rocker, so we’re doing a punk-metal joint in the middle of the set.
MD: What about the sheer number of records that George has been involved in for all these years?
Benzel: It’s not necessarily about the old records, it’s about the newer things he’s doing that you have to be on top of. We’ve got a twenty-minute segment of straight hip-hop and it’s a nonstop medley. There’s the song with Kendrick, “Be Like George” [“Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You”]. Then you have “My Mama Told Me,” that’s like George’s new favorite song.
MD: When does he decide on the songs that are going to be in a set, and when does he add new ones, at soundcheck?
Benzel: There’s no set list. Most of the time we soundcheck on the new stuff . Then we might do “Flashlight” or something. George doesn’t always come to soundcheck. If you’re at soundcheck with George, you’re going to be there a while. That’s where he’s teaching you music.
MD: If you had to think of the skill sets that are the most important to this gig, what would they be?
Benzel: That’s a really good question. The first thing you need is stamina. You need to run some miles on the treadmill with some weights and punch for thirty minutes. Technique to a certain degree—but your technique will wear out after three hours of this. You’re going to find a brand-new technique, because you’re going to play 16th notes with your right hand for sixteen minutes—live. See how that goes. Other skills: dexterity, strength, impeccable groove, time.
MD: You teach. How do these things relate—are they priorities all the time when you teach?
Benzel: I always work with students on their level. But having the skill sets that I have… you can study all you want, but if you haven’t played long gigs, and had to do sporadic stuff like take a solo when your mind is blank and you don’t even have a solo in you, and you’re in front of 20,000 people, that just comes from your soul, you just block out everything you’re thinking.
You learn that you have to groove more, you have to breathe, and you’ve got to be able to explode when it’s time to explode. The adrenaline is pumping and you’re playing hard and playing one groove over and over again, being able to have the discipline to play a loop— that goes back to the twenty-minute double-stroke thing.
It’s like a Stick Control vibe; you have to play what you just played in the last measure again, and then do it again twenty times straight. That’s exactly what it’s like with George. Sometimes there’ll be all kinds of hits in the music, and he’ll look at me like, “Don’t do it!” and I’m like, “But it’s a hit!” Then the band members will look at me like I didn’t do it. But George is laughing, like, “That’s what I wanted.” So to complement everybody, you learn to hit other ways. Listen to the music. You can also just open the hi-hat on the hit instead of hitting the snare at the same time. Or play the accents on the hi-hat but not while playing a fill.
It’s like a war between me and George every night. That’s the fun that we have. Sometimes I’m mad at George after the tune and sometimes he’s mad at me. [laughs] This drum thing is such a high responsibility. You’re trying to play the greatest show of your life on your worst day. If you’re looking at him, you don’t want to get an eye cut at you. So if George looks at you and he does that thing with his fingers where he makes them really little, and you’re supposed to play small…or he’ll say, “Pocket!” and you’re like, I thought I was playing pocket. So then I just turn into, okay, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and… boom bap, boom bap, and I’m going to hold that joint and not even hit a cymbal.
MD: What was it like growing up with your dad being in George’s band?
Benzel: He instilled a lot of groove in me. In 1983, when I was born, he was doing George’s Atomic Dog tour and also playing with [go-go pioneer] Chuck Brown. He also played with the Gap Band, Rafael Saadiq, the Mel Lewis big band… But he was playing a lot of go-go. That whole [Benzel sings a quintessential go-go beat, a la Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb” or Rare Essence’s “Overnight Scenario”], I heard that so much, it had to become part of my playing. George liked that, because George liked go-go too. It’s funk! So now whenever we do “Up for the Downstroke,” he looks at me and says, “Go-go.” That means sticking to that bass drum with that big foot. You’re playing with your thigh muscle at this point—and it’s going to be a while. [laughs]
MD: Did you have lessons at school or outside of it?
Benzel: At eleven I was getting drum lessons from a guy named Frank Young from Baltimore. He plays with Carl Filipiak, a jazz guitarist from Baltimore who’s played with Dennis Chambers. He was my motivation.
Dennis Chambers was another kind of motivation. It was inspiring just being around him, making me want to have some sort of excellence to what I do. He also had me listen to music, records you might not have heard of with him on them, some Billy Cobham records. He was touring a lot back then, so I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I wanted, but I remember a time when I was playing and he was like, “You’re pretty good, but you need more stamina. You have to be able to play fluid, clear, and for a long period of time.” He wanted to take me to a place. Coming from Dennis, I loved it and started working on it.
But Frank had me play to all these P-Funk records that my dad had. My favorite to play along to was America Eats Its Young, which had Tiki Fulwood playing all this single-pedal stuff and ghost notes. And Tyrone Lampkin too. Those guys were playing some crazy stuff on drums. Frankie “Kash” Waddy [and Zachary Frazier are] also on that record. And there were a couple drum solo breaks, and I’d learn them note for note.
Then they came out with this record Dope Dogs that had this song “Fly On” [“Dog Star (Fly On)”] I always wanted to play that song live, and I practiced it every day. So this is now 1998 and I’m fourteen, and we do it at soundcheck at a show. People heard about it, like, “Who’s that playing ‘Fly On’?” “That’s little Ben.” “What?” Word got to George, and he was like, “I don’t know about playing tonight….”
But that soundcheck was enough for me. But back to your original question about school…in every school, from fourth grade up, I played in the band, trying to turn it out. [laughs] Then I went to a high school called Archbishop Curley, which had a very deep jazz program. The teacher changed my life, like, “You gotta swing.” I didn’t want to swing at all. Then I started going to this summer program that was like a jazz job, which is amazing. You’d practice for like five hours and then go do a gig.
MD: What led to your performing at Woodstock ’99?
Benzel: So I’m in high school and starting to go to gigs with my dad. And I talked to George about sitting in—like for real sitting in, not just doing soundcheck. He’s like, “It’s going to be the hardest thing you ever did.” “Fly On” was the first song I got to sit in on. It was at the Warner Theater in D.C. in April of ’99.
MD: Then Woodstock was in July.
Benzel: I was on punishment that day. I was standing in the corner all day before we played. [laughs]
MD: What did you do?!
Benzel: I took a joy ride.
MD: Oh, no!
Benzel: [laughs] It didn’t go well. My dad was infuriated. He was on tour. That was the life. The good thing was I got to practice a lot. I also got to get in trouble a lot. But drums is what kept me balanced.
MD: What song did you play at Woodstock?
Benzel: I played “Booty,” which started with a song called “Something Stank and I Want Some” and eventually went into this long jam.
MD: In the YouTube video we can see that you were playing open-handed.
Benzel: It’s kind of how I started and was a bad habit I was trying to break. When you get tired, you want to take some other routes. You’ve never played in front of 100,000 people before, especially at fifteen. I was thinking, Please, arms, don’t fall off. But at this point I’m like, this is what I want to do in life. I made it through, though I wasn’t officially in the band until I was about twenty-four, in 2010, 2011.
MD: What circumstance allowed you to finally join full-time?
Benzel: At the time I had a band that would open for George all the time. Then I had another band that opened for George. Every band I had opened for George. And I’d sit in with him too. I also had a full-time job, but then it started getting crazy so I quit, and I called George and told him I wanted to come out with them. So I said, “Who’s setting the drums up?” “Nobody.” “I can set them up.” So I’m in the crew now. But George knows that he has me there to play if he wants. I’d play the first song and maybe the last one; he already had three drummers there.
MD: So there would always be multiple drummers on tour?
Benzel: George has always had multiple drummers, a minimum of two and sometimes four or five.
Benzel: He wants to play forever, and he has different preferences for certain songs.
MD: But only one drumkit set up?
Benzel: Yup. And this went on for years, Benzel being like Cinderella [laughs], the lowly servant, fixing your drums for you. But this is the boot camp that George wants you to go through, for five years. This is gonna make or break you.
In time I became the only drummer. I realized this the first time I went to Australia with the band. We flew about twenty-two hours and when we landed, soundcheck was seven hours later. You’re bent up for all that time and then you have to play for three hours. But I learned from that. My arms were like stuck straight. I had to try to play with fingers only. I’m using one arm at a time, playing the hi-hat and the snare, and I can’t even lift my arm up to play a cymbal. But what’s actually going on here? It’s not only being bent up in the chair for all that time, but also hydration—you have to drink a whole lot of water and Gatorade.
Another thing I learned in the course of doing this Parliament thing is playing loud accents with less arm movement. So now I need to work on just fingers by themselves. Or just the wrist. All these techniques.
MD: Tell us about your drums.
Benzel: I’m with 1710 Percussion, one of the top custom companies in America. They’re owned by Mike Caimona, who’s from Pittsburgh. He’s in Maryland now. At first he made me a 7×14 walnut snare with a Baltimore skyline finish. It had a crack that you would not believe. But then I needed a whole set. The shells are beech and birch.
MD: How about on the road?
Benzel: I have a 1710 kit out there as well.
MD: Even when you go to Australia?
Benzel: No, there I’ll just have my snare—my brand-new snare; it’s acrylic. [whistles] It looks good, it’s got that clean splat that I need.
I’m also glad to be with Paiste cymbals. My 22″ Signature Blue Bell Stewart Copeland signature ride is my favorite thing in the world. The bell is amazing, the ride cuts.
MD: On this tour with the Chili Peppers, are you going to get to play alongside Chad Smith?
Benzel: Yes, and I’m looking forward to seeing how to hit drums really hard. [laughs] Because he can definitely hit drums hard. And maybe by the fourth or fifth show I’ll be at that type of level.
I’m also looking forward to super high-capacity crowds every day. I mean, it’s always sold out, but this is like playing at a small festival every show. I think that’s an accomplishment. I’m very humbled to be in the mindset of preparing for something at that level. I feel that it’s only going to go up from here.
George Clinton Chocolate City London: P-Funk Live at Metropolis (“Friday Night, August 14th,” featuring Joss Stone) /// Parliament Medicaid Fraud Dog (“My Mama Told Me”) /// Bennie Cowan It’s a Horn Thing /// Coop DeVille Bat Funk Crazy /// Danny Bedrosian Endangered, Eightfinity /// Funkadelic Tales From the Tour Bus, Season 2 soundtrack
Drums: 1710 Percussion custom beech/birch drums
• 7×14 walnut signature snare
• 5.5×14 acrylic snare
• 8×10 tom
• 9×12 tom
• 15×15 floor tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 20×22 bass drum
• 14″ Signature Heavy hi-hats
• 16″ Signature Precision thin crash
• 17″ Masters Dark crash
• 18″ Signature Thin China
• 22″ Signature Blue Bell ride
• 10″ Signature Precision splash
Hardware: DW 5000 double pedal
Heads: Evans Hydraulic Blue snare batters, Evans EC2 tom batters, EMAD 2 bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth Extreme 5B and 2B; Vater Chad Smith Funk Blaster
P-Funk: Benzel Baltimore’s Essential Picks
While speaking with the P-funk powerhouse for this month’s feature, we asked him to pick four must-know Parliament/Funkadelic tracks to check out.
“Friday Night, August 14th” Free Your Mind… (Tiki Fulwood)
This groove, played by Tiki Fulwood, drills a barrage of organ and guitar swells and swoons through a deep tunnel of fat bass pocket underneath wild vocals. Fulwood’s heavy feel enters around the 0:24 mark at the start of the verse.
“(Not Just) Knee Deep” Uncle Jam Wants You (Bootsy Collins)
Don’t ignore this one’s feel, despite its seemingly simple pattern. Listen beyond the concrete accented four-on-the-floor foundation of this 1979 Funkadelic track to the space the famous bass player—who overdubbed the drums on top of a drum machine—places after the snappy snare on beat 4, devoid of the previous 8th-note hi-hat pattern that might normally trail the 2 and 4 backbeats. Collins’ jabbing groove results in a knockout.
“Super Stupid” Maggot Brain (Tiki Fulwood)
By harnessing both a power reminiscent of John Bonham and the solid yet slippery funk feel of Clyde Stubblefield, Fulwood places a resounding stamp on this track.
“Alice in My Fantasies” Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (Gary Bronson)
After a raucous and psychedelic intro, Bronson breaks into this killer, stuttering groove packed full with ghost notes around the 0:10 mark. Check out the snare accents on beats 2 and the “&” of 4 mixed with explosive crash ensemble hits.
Transcriptions by Willie Rose