Chaun Dupre Horton
The R&B and fusion vet, who’s put in time with Macy Gray, Natasha Bedingfield, and Tal Wilkenfeld, says it’s all about making meaningful connections—between song sections, between fellow musicians, and between past and future generations of players.
“I set up the 1 the way that I do because this is what the song means to me, but also because I want everybody in on it with me,” Chaun Dupre Horton says. “When we hit that chorus, I want them to be so doggone amped to the song, where it’s like, ‘Yo!’ That’s why I do what I do.” Gigs with the likes of Macy Gray, Natasha Bedingfield, Toni Braxton, Colbie Caillat, and Tal Wilkenfeld speak to Horton’s chops as well as his dedication to the music he’s a part of. His playing is, in a word, committed.
When not on the road, Horton is active on the L.A. club scene with his own group, and these days he’s sporting a debut solo album, The Journal. Though the disc is completely instrumental, Horton wanted it to be a mix of soulful styles, not just a jazz fusion record. “The whole ‘wow’ factor—that’s cool, they’ll get that,” Chaun says. “But I don’t want to keep them there. This is music, this is a journey. Music comes from improvisation, so if people don’t know what I’m doing, I want to usher them into it safely. I’m going to walk them through it, so once they understand what’s going on, they can groove to it and bob their heads and be into the music and not be wowed by all the doggone notes that I’m playing. They’ll know that the notes have purpose and mean a lot to the song. It’s not aimless playing.”
Horton’s father, Chris, was an organist and choir director at the Power House Church of God in Christ, in Rochester, New York, and his mom sang in the choir. “Both were very instrumental in my musical upbringing,” Chaun says, “from letting me play when the drummer didn’t show up to taking away my playing privileges if I acted up in school.
“As a kid, being the youngest of four, I would always sit behind the drums or watch whoever was playing at the time,” Horton continues. “There was a guy named Barry Dean. He and my dad were best friends, played together all the time, and they were like the top dogs in Rochester. Barry changed a lot of lives. He had a lot of finesse and an incredible pocket.”
Playing in church, Horton learned that drumming was about serving the song. “The chops thing has its place,” he says, “but I like to get into what playing the drums is truly about. It’s like in basketball—on a great team everybody has their role, everyone plays a part. Right now a lot of drummers are interested in playing drums rather than playing music. I like Steve Gadd, Buddy Miles—these are my guys. They play it soulfully. Seeing that Steve Gadd’s from Rochester, that’s my guy. Somebody has to pick up that torch.
“You have a lot of cats that have a lot of doggone chops. It’s fun to watch, but someone like Steve Gadd or Steve Jordan or Questlove—somebody who’s laying it down like that can really mess with your emotions, and that will stay with you forever. That’s why people love their playing. It’s so organic. People are just bobbing their heads.”
After starting on drums in Rochester, Horton was inspired by many of the musicians in Philadelphia, and initially wanted to study at the University of the Arts there. Instead, he opted to take advantage of an opportunity to attend a summer program at Los Angeles Music Academy, where his playing caught the ear of percussionist Mike Shapiro, among others. Shapiro introduced himself to Horton after a student showcase event.
“He starts schooling me in, like, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Ricky Dillard,” Horton recalls. “He’s talking about choir music, and I’m like, ‘What do you know about this stuff?’ That kind of softened me up, and we were talking it up like we’d been friends for years. He finally told me, ‘Man, listen: You need to be here, and we’re going to make it real easy for you to get here.’ The next week I received a letter from the school stating that I had a full scholarship, and the week after that I got the acceptance letter.”
The connections Horton made at school led directly to playing with Macy Gray and with Tal Wilkenfeld, and indirectly to his ongoing gig with Natasha Bedingfield. Today Horton continues to find value in the connections he makes playing in L.A. jam sessions, namely at SuperSoul Mondays at Couture in Hollywood, once-a-month Saturdays at the Hotel Cafe, and Tuesday nights at the Salvage Bar. “L.A. is a dope training ground,” the drummer says. “They call it the jam-session scene, and that’s cool, but I call it school. I see a lot of cats coming up in it the same way that I did, making the same mistakes, not really getting what the night is all about. Once you do get it, though, you can catch on to the artist’s vision.
“If you’re able to really rock it on a night like that,” Horton goes on, “you’re untouchable. If you can hold down the drum chair, playing with people you don’t know… This is the foundation that you need to be successful. You take what you’ve learned there onto the big stage, and the artist will love you forever.”
The Journal grew during jam sessions with keyboardist Davy Nathan. “We have a studio, and we just go in and improv,” Chaun explains. “Forty-five minutes later we’ve got a full song, picking sections that work, choosing this and that.” After writing enough material for the album, Horton brought in bassist Eric Ingram and guitarist Michael “Fish” Herring to perform the material live. “You learn the song the way it is, the same way that we normally do with artists, and then you just play. You know the basics—cool, now play what you feel. That’s all I want to hear. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s talk. Let’s get real intimate.
“I didn’t want The Journal to be viewed as a fusion album,” Horton adds, “so every song on there is ultimately supposed to groove. It has some sort of hip-hop, funk influence on it. I wanted every song to feel good and to have some grit.”
Horton chose to open the set with the 7/8 workout “Freedom Walkers Evolution,” a multipart composition featuring a busy main groove dripping in tasty hi-hat barks and an exciting drum break showcasing hair-raising full-set chops. “The premise of that song is to grow and to keep moving forward,” Horton explains, “so even though it starts off a little slow and subtle, when you get into the track we’re driving hard. I wanted it to have a train type of vibe. Once a train takes off, it’s going to take a while for it to slow down—you have to slow down a couple miles prior to your destination. I wanted it to be a statement.”
Track two, a spirited tango titled “Arts Deco,” keeps up the heat. “I found my sound with that song,” the drummer says. “I was like, ‘All right, if this is the route that I’m taking, I want to have all of my musician friends playing with me, because I shine the brightest when I play with other people. And that song was the catalyst, because it’s very subtle. It doesn’t go too far out, though it starts to boil during the second half of the piano solo, when I start playing the snare drum. The water never spills over the pot, because we go right back into the chorus, but the energy is still where the piano solo left off. It’s not loud and obnoxious, but it’s still cooking.”
Horton suggests that the most effective drumming often occurs in the connections between sections. “Cymbal swells, fills, how you build, what fills you choose to set up certain sections—that stuff means a lot,” he says. “Playing fills that lead into certain sections…the old cats, man, they knew what they were doing. Leading something right into the chorus? That’s heavy. So I figured, if I start off a fill like a chop fill but end it like the old jacks do, everybody will know where the 1 is going to be. Everybody can feel confident coming in on that 1. Because I lead, I drive the bus, you know what I mean? So I’m giving them a fill, and they’re going to look at me like, ‘Hell, yeah,’ because they knew where the 1 was going to be. I’m telling you, the guitarist is going to want to jump off something because that 1 was set up so nicely.”
Beyond the notes, Horton identifies strongly with artists that he considers role models, like Soulive, Lettuce, Robert Glasper, and Snarky Puppy. “We’re responsible for the cats coming up under us,” he says. “So whatever we’re putting out there and people are signing off on, they’re thinking that’s the right way to go about it. We have to be careful, like: What’s your purpose? People are watching you, and they want to know how to get to where you are. So we’ll have to be better about explaining how, why, and what we’re doing, where we’re going and why we want to go there.
“Right now music is saturated with chops, speaking from a drummer’s point of view. And it’s dope, it’s nice, but that ain’t it. Do something that the old cats would be like, ‘Yeah!’ Because they’re looking at us like, ‘Are you guys going to do it? Is music going to be safe in your doggone hands? Are you going to take care of what we’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears for? Are you going to do it?’ And this is me saying ‘Hell yeah!’”
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom in twilight glass finish
A. 6.5×14 hand-hammered brass (main snare with wood hoops)
B. 5.5×14 or 6.5×14 matching (auxiliary snare)
C. 7×12 tom
D. 14×14 floor tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 16×22 bass drum
1. 16″ Twenty Masters Collection prototype hi-hats with rivets
2. 18″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials crash
3. 22″ Masters Dark Crisp or Dark ride
4. 20″ Masters Dark crash/ride (with rivets)
5. 16″ Masters Dark crash
6. 20″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials crash
7. 10″ Twenty Custom Collection splash stacked on top of 18″ Masters Swish crash
Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 electronic percussion pad and XP100T electronic tom pads
Hardware: Gibraltar G-Class and 6711S bass drum pedals
Heads: Evans G14 Coated snare batters, G12 Coated tom batters, EMAD Heavyweight bass drum batter, and EQ pad
Sticks: Vater Session and West Side models
Percussion: Toca Conga Cajon, cajon, shakers, tambourine, “and whatever else in the vicinity makes noise”
Story by Robin Tolleson
Photos by Alex Solca