Up & Coming
She’s spent the past few years touring with the R&B stars CeeLo Green and Kelis. Now the drummer says she’s more than ready for the next phase of her career.
by David Jarnstrom
Drummers for hire typically have to pound the pavement in search of the really good gigs. But every so often, a dream job falls out of the sky when it’s least expected. Just ask Brittany Brooks. After spending the bulk of 2010 and 2011 on the road with CeeLo Green, the drummer was playing at her church in Los Angeles when Kelis (“Milkshake,” “Rumble,” “Acapella”) approached her after service and inquired about a drum lesson.
“It was so casual,” Brooks says over the phone from her L.A. home, where she’s relaxing after a month-long U.K. run with the singer. “Kelis and I went to the same church, and I was teaching her how to play drums. One day she asks, ‘Do you want to come on the road with me?’ There was no audition, no musical direction given. It was just her, a DJ, and me. It was like being on vacation, because the vibe was so chill and we were in Bali and Singapore and all these exotic places. I was like, ‘This is work?’”
The church has long played a serendipitous role in Brooks’ career trajectory. After teaching herself a few beats on the blue Tama Rockstar kit that her parents bought her—a reward for building a solid percussive foundation in school band—the Oakland native played her first gigs at Faith Worship Center in nearby Pittsburg, California, when she was just twelve years old. There, she blossomed under the wing of fellow congregant Angel Carrillo, a Filipino percussionist who would accompany Brooks on stage and sneak her into Bay Area clubs to soak up live music and participate in jam sessions. Brittany earned the nickname Little Sheila E and even became close with her nick-namesake’s legendary family, performing at an annual birthday celebration for Shelia’s father, Pete Escovedo, at Yoshi’s in Oakland.
At age twenty, Brooks enrolled at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, where she honed her craft under Fred Dinkins and learned music theory and how to read and write drum charts. Outside the school she took lessons with gospel giant Chris Coleman and networked. After a year of hitting open jams in L.A., Brooks accepted an offer to join an all-female band that had a residency at the Paris casino and hotel in Las Vegas. “It was good experience,” Brooks says. “But I didn’t dig the scene, so I came back to L.A. and took some classes in photography and graphic design [at Cal State Northridge]. I wanted to learn another trade—diversify my skills until something popped for my drumming career.”
A couple years later, Brooks was tipped off to an audition happening at her alma mater. CeeLo Green was assembling a backing band of women, called Scarlet Fever, to help promote The Lady Killer, his soon-to-be hit solo record. “I immediately thought, This is my gig,” Brooks recalls. “I just had a feeling.”
After making a favorable impression on the venerable L.A. talent scout Barry Squire during preliminary tryouts, Brooks was cool and confident during her official audition. While her talent and hard-hitting certitude undoubtedly set her apart from the competition, her choice of eyewear—rhinestone-trim sunglasses—may have sealed the deal. Brooks recalls how Green, an eyewear aficionado, took her aside immediately afterward: “He said, ‘Hey, glasses girl, you like shades?’ Then he leaned in and whispered, ‘I think you just got this gig.’ As I was walking out I was passing all these drummers still waiting for their turn, and I was trying not to smile, thinking to myself, Y’all might as well just go home.” [laughs]
Two weeks later, Brooks made her debut with Green on The Tonight Show. Told to clear her schedule for the next two years, the then-twenty-four-year-old drummer embarked on a whirlwind adventure, performing all over the U.S. and Europe and on nearly every major late-night show. Brooks quickly learned to steady her nerves, and her tempo, playing to massive audiences with a rigid click track blaring through her in-ears. That’s not the easiest thing to do when the lights go down and the adrenaline is flowing—especially when opening for Prince at Madison Square Garden or supporting the Foo Fighters at Wembley Arena.
Brooks was initially instructed to replicate the drumming on The Lady Killer but was soon granted the freedom to open up the playbook. “CeeLo was like, ‘Put some of you into it. Make it feel live. I want this to be a rock show.’”
It was decidedly that at the 2011 Hangout Festival in Alabama, when Green and the band were forced to arrive late due to a flight delay. The Foo Fighters, also on the bill, commandeered Scarlet Fever’s gear and tried their best to entertain the restless crowd. “We ran on stage with no time to set up our tracks or get our in-ears right,” Brooks recalls, “so CeeLo was just like, ‘Let’s hit it—let’s just play live.’ And it was the best. He’d yell out songs and stop them halfway through to go into another song. It was like a jam session, old-school rock ’n’ roll style. Everybody was just having fun.”
When the tour finally ended, Brooks stayed on with Scarlet Fever and hatched new projects, like DDMC (“DJ, drummer, MC”). She also studied up on Abelton software, began scheming a one-woman show with live drums atop sequenced loops—an idea that arose after multiple trips to perform alongside DJs in party-crazed Kazakhstan—and launched her own photography business. The opportunity to team up with an established artist like Kelis proved too good to pass up, however, and Brooks couldn’t be happier with her current gig. “[Kelis and I] are like sisters at this point,” the drummer says.
“It’s so comfortable.”
Firmly entrenched as a live powerhouse, Brooks is now eager to amass album credits. But in a genre where there’s a clear divide between touring and studio players (she’s absent on Food, Kelis’s 2014 release), it’s been a challenge. “Live drummers’ playing can sometimes be too busy for the studio, but feel I can do both,” Brooks says. “I can sit in the pocket all day without busting
out any fills if I have to. Cora Coleman-Dunham [Beyoncé, Prince] taught me the importance of being appropriate and intentional—how to play disciplined and strong, to serve the music first and foremost. I just want the beat to feel good, and I want to create a reaction. I want to give people goose bumps.”
Tools of the Trade
Brooks plays DW drums and hardware, including an 8×13 custom Edge main snare tuned high and a 5×14 auxiliary snare tuned low. Her Zildjian cymbals include 17″, 18″, and 19″ K crashes, a 20″ K ride, a 14″ Oriental China Trash, and a “luxurious” spiral cymbal. Her accessories include wind chimes and a Roland SPD-S sampling pad. Brittany uses Vater Phat Ride drumsticks.