Chicago-area native Darryl “Lil Man” Howell holds down the drum chair for three artists at the top of their genres: gospel singer Jonathan McReynolds, rap star Nicki Minaj, and R&B crooner Maxwell. For his work as a record producer with McReynolds, Howell has earned a Grammy nomination and won a Stellar Award—one of the top annual honors accorded to members of the gospel-music community.
After cultivating his skills in his local church, Howell gained the respect and trust of his peers, indie artists, and music lovers around the country through the work of his band, Shocking Truth. Now, at only thirty-one years of age, he’s already held down the drum chair for Maxwell, McReynolds, and Minaj for five years or longer, while also finding time to sub for other killer players, like Rex Hardy with Mary J. Blige and Chris Johnson with Camila Cabello.
Lauded by McReynolds for “adding color and bringing feel to the passive listener,” Howell has become a master at his craft even as he continues to grow.
MD: Music director and keyboardist Omar Edwards [Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna] describes you as having an impressive work ethic. He discussed the fact that you often put in hours of extra work outside of band rehearsals, running tunes again and again. What’s behind that approach?
Darryl: I do it to keep up. When you’re on tour, if you’re keeping up musically you won’t have to overcompensate by hanging out and kicking it because one thing isn’t right. I figure if everybody else got it perfect, then it might take me a little longer, but I’m going to just outwork everybody.
I don’t want to depend on talent. If I want to be able to live life and think about other stuff, then arrangements and music on a tour need to be automatic, in my blood, and flowing out of me. If I’ve got to do it that many times to get it to that level, so be it. I might be dealing with other things when I’m trying to be focused on playing a show from night to night. I need to know it so good that I can be dealing with whatever and the music is the least of my worries. My focus needs to be that and only that for that period of time, because life happens. When it’s time to focus on music, I focus on that. When the rest of the band goes home early, I need to stay. Because tomorrow I don’t know what can happen. I might have issues or a family situation, or I might have to be on the phone a lot, but when we run the music, I’m going to know it already.
Also, you want to sound good to your peers. Them sounding good pushes you, and then you want to push them. Preparing for a tour, all you do is listen to the music you’re going to play for the next three months. But when you love music, you’re going to get tired of listening to that so much. After tour rehearsals are over or the tour is done, it feels good to listen to music again. I’ll put my thing on shuffle because now that tour music is committed to muscle memory. It’s in my spirit at this point. Anywhere I am, I’ll always remember it because I played it those thirty extra times after rehearsal or when I came in early. I’ve gone to sleep to the music while everybody else was hanging out. I’m a good multitasker, but I don’t know if I’m a great music multitasker. With production I need to be. So if I get the live part down— that’s making me a living right now—I can venture and still create and not worry about other music being in my head, because I know the show. I put in the extra work on the front end so that I can have that freedom.
MD: How does that process continue once you’re on the road?
Darryl: I’m real hard on myself. I’ve got a grading scale where there’s little things that to the band don’t sound like I messed up, but that I know I missed. I listen back so I can correct any mistakes, so the next night I don’t make that same mistake. I might make a new mistake, but it’s not going to be the same one from the night before.
Either you keep getting better or it’s nothing. Even if it’s something simple like a fill I played that the guys liked and said, “Keep it.” What if I don’t do it the next show? Maybe it wasn’t in the arrangement, so it’s not going to make or break the show, but I make that hard on myself because they liked it and I forgot. So say I did it Monday and they liked it, but I forget to do it Tuesday. Wednesday I cannot forget to do what they liked that I did Monday. It has no effect on the show, but it affects me and my guys that I’m playing with night to night, because they liked it.
MD: Are you recording yourself every night?
Darryl: I get the house mix every night in Dropbox within two hours of getting off stage. That’s how I’m able to tell those little mistakes. Most bands that I’m in, especially Maxwell’s band, we used to listen on the bus ride to the next city every night. We’d listen to the show because those guys all want to sound good. They want to kill it every night. That’s what made me a better drummer, just critiquing myself to no end—“That’s too much hi-hat, that’s too much ride…don’t play 8th notes here, just play quarters…” that kind of thing. I never want to grieve the listener.
MD: Can you talk a bit about preparing for tour rehearsals? How much do you know about song selection or other details before leaving home?
Darryl: Music is always last, especially with an artist like Nicki. When they first called me, I got an email with over a hundred songs because she had so many features that year. She was brand new. There was stuff that went viral and stuff that fans wanted to hear. Then the list goes down to sixty. Mind you, this was 2011. At the time we were an opener, so it was only a forty-five-minute set. So the list goes down to twenty and then sixteen—four acts. You learn that music, but as they cut the list down you have to dump those songs out your mind and focus on what’s left.
MD: But you’d already invested the time to learn that material?
Darryl: Yeah! And if they call and say you’re not doing a certain bunch of songs, that’s what it is. Later down the line, if they put that song back, you already know it— because it’s going to come back.
But the time-wasting thing is real. We can put a whole show together, and Nicki can come in after having listened to it at home, and she might not feel the same and might want to scratch it. The songs may not be scratched, but the order may be different, or we may have to take out an intro. The songs are going to stand alone. But that jars your mind a whole other way when you switch up an order, because you’re memorizing things in this particular space.
So it’s about never getting comfortable. But before you leave home, there’s not a lot you know about what’s going on musically. All we can do is run what we have, run what we know, present it to her the best way possible, and either she asks for minor changes or she’ll say scratch it. Minor changes are always a win versus scratching it. It’s tough.
But again, before leaving home, there’s not much you’re going to know—especially in that genre of music. They’ve got to see how stuff is going to feel; they might have new records coming out that we’ve never heard. Maxwell is famous for coming into rehearsal…we’re playing all this stuff, and he plugs in an aux cord with a track for us to hear, because he wants to do a different version of a song and he’s just vibin’. By the end of the night we’re expected to have it or come in the next day and at least have the spirit of what he just brought to play. You never know much. All you can do is study what they have.
MD: Are there other changes that happen once you’re out on tour?
Darryl: Sometimes. Especially when you’re going through a particular artist’s city that you know has a feature. Chances are they’re going to come out. For example, we were in Long Island doing “Monster.” Kanye’s verse is twenty-eight bars. One time Omar came in the talkback like, “Lil Man, ‘Ye is here. He’s gonna do his verse.”
MD: Wait, so you found out about that the day of?
Darryl: I found out onstage! [laughs] It was, like, three songs before his song. And we didn’t plan for this man to come, so now there’s all this brain-wracking going on. If you know the pattern to the song, you’ve just got to count the bars until he’s done. I knew “Monster,” but we’d never played his verse, so it’s like, “Okay, is there a special drop in the verse?” It’s like you know it, but you don’t. Hip-hop is a lot of drops and breaks—out on the hi-hat, or out on beat 3 on the kick drum…. It’s complicated.
MD: There’s a perception that with some major stadium or festival shows, with twenty to forty thousand people in attendance, the band is sometimes just used as a stage prop to be seen but not heard. How much is everything the band plays really heard?
Darryl: That’s up to the artist and the front-of- house guy. There’s an artist I’ve heard about who doesn’t like cymbals. So if the drummer just has to have the cymbals, that becomes a conversation between the artist, the musical director, and the front-of-house guy to say, “Bring the cymbals down in the mix.” That’s what turns a six-hour day of rehearsal into a fourteen-hour day of rehearsal. Because you literally end up A/B-ing every piece of music, where you go onstage and play it and record it, then go out into the front of the house to hear what it’s going to sound like to the audience, and you keep doing that. That’s up to the artist. They might say, “Take all the drum stems out and just let ‘Lil Man’ play it,” because they like the live vibe. As the drummer, it’s your job in that situation to sound-match as closely as possible, but the mix is out of my hands. In my experience, especially on hip-hop and pop shows, the live band is normally mixed right under the stems.
MD: Sometimes your schedule takes you through all three of your main gigs in a short amount of time, or with overlap. What’s that like, and how do you switch gears mentally to play each show?
Darryl: I just had a run like that. The Nicki tour was happening in February and that whole time Jonathan McReynolds was on his tour. They were getting ready for the second half of his Make More Room tour. So all through February, March, and part of April I was with Nicki. The last few weeks of Nicki’s tour, I was on the bus doing programming, arranging, and setting up Jonathan’s new show for the second half of his tour. I was making sure they were straight for rehearsal, because I’m working with that group even though I’m not going to touch a drum for another month.
After sending them [material] to rehearse with the drummer who’s filling in for me, I listen back to what they’re doing, because I’m making the arrangements but not committing to memory. I’m just working off the list of what they need. It’s like, “We need an intro, we need an outro, and we need sound design for this,” and I’m just putting it together, knowing that I’m going to have to hop on that tour for the last two weeks.
Fast forward, I finish the tour with Nicki and fly to the States and go straight to rehearsal. I flew into Atlanta for a one-off show with Maxwell. I landed on Friday, rehearsal was Friday night, and then the show the next day with Maxwell, who I hadn’t played with in months. So it’s rehearsal Friday, show with Maxwell on Saturday, and then another show in Atlanta with Jonathan on Sunday. That part just worked out by coincidence. Mind you, I’m doing this jetlagged and all. But this is where all that muscle memory kicks in, from when I first got the Maxwell gig and was drilling that music in my basement. It never leaves you. Coming from Nicki’s tour and having to go straight to playing with Maxwell, I just put the music on repeat and listened to it on the plane, and it was there.
MD: What about gear? Does your setup change depending on the gig you’re playing?
Darryl: The cymbals change the most. The drums are more on the mixing engineer. But I’ll say this: Maxwell and Jonathan both have very soft voices, so my approach to playing with them is more accompaniment than stomping. Sometimes with Maxwell the groove gets good and the vibe is like a block party, where you want to get aggressive. But I still have to consider his voice. His falsetto and his regular tone, it’s different from a rapper like Nicki or even Camila, who’s belting out pop ballads. It’s more soulful R&B.
The drum setup sticks more than the style and the dynamics. Sounds and sizes might change a little bit, but not much. With Nicki I play an 18″ gong bass drum. With Max I’ll take that away because I don’t need to knock that hard. With Nicki I might have some nasty, trappish 12″ and 13″ hi-hats, whereas with Max I’ll use 14s on one side and maybe a set of 15s on the other side.
Also, with cymbals you’ve got loud ones or you’ve got soft ones. With drums there’s loud and soft ones, too, but so much of that is controlled by your playing style. You can’t manipulate cymbals as much. With Jonathan I had cymbals that were cool for churches and the House of Blues. With Nicki I already have my stuff out there for bigger stages. With Max they know what sizes I like for backline, and I just deal with it like that. In terms of drumheads, usually I like coated heads on Max’s gig for more control and uncoated heads for everything else.
MD: How about electronics?
Darryl: It’s the same idea. The sounds may change, but not my setup. For example, on Max’s gig I have a trigger just for chimes, and I use it a lot for transitions, but I don’t need that sound on a rap gig. I still use the same gear, but I have a Nicki backup, a Camila backup, a Maxwell backup, and so on. But overall my station is my station.
MD: As a Christian musician, what’s it like moving through the diverse environments you work in and finding time for that part of your life?
Darryl: The routine might change, but the worship doesn’t. On the road I’m only responsible for a few things—lobby call, soundcheck, and playing the show. There’s really no excuse for not being able to connect, because on the road I don’t have the same amount of distraction. There’s so much dead time, especially overseas, because it’s seven hours ahead.
It’s not about the environments changing. The environment is going to be the environment. With Jonathan, I’m grateful to have that extra accountability and the opportunity to worship while we play the show. In that situation, it’s expected that you can connect spiritually. At the same time, on other gigs I’ve seen people smoking their weed and lifting their hands to worship music and I’m with it! [laughs]
So every day I’m talking to God like I’m talking to you. When I wake up it’s, “Lord, thanks for another day. I need help with this; thank you for this.” I’m myself everywhere I go, and I’ve learned people will respect you when they see you’re consistent. Sometimes you end up having an effect on the artist. Maxwell knows he has a bunch of church guys in his band. We’d been listening to Andrae Crouch’s “Let the Church Say Amen,” and one time Max heard it. Later we were onstage and he started singing it, and it ended up being a part of our show every night. People in the audience were standing up and rejoicing. It was cool.
MD: That sounds like church at a secular concert. Can we talk about how you started and your experience coming up in church?
Darryl: First, both of my parents are music lovers. From the time I was a toddler I beat on everything. My dad had a band as a kid, but no one in my family plays drums, writes music, or sings. They saw me being rhythmic and kept it around me. The church I came up in, my pastor’s mom babysat me. My mom worked with the pastor’s wife, and she was looking for a babysitter. My pastor’s wife was like, “Take him over to Mother Reed’s house,” and she started taking me over there. So from six months to five or six years old, every single day I was with the Reed family, who were a very musical family.
From what I’m told, I was a good mimicker. Someone could tap a rhythm 1-2-3, and I’d tap it right back. They bought me a little drumset and put it next to the main drummer at church. They would let me play every Sunday during service. Everybody was trippin’ out that this little dude was like three and could keep a beat. This family that was keeping me, there were ten of them. They were church people. All they did was sing. They had an organ at the house, and for them it was normal. They saw the gift of music in me, too, and my parents were supportive. The church was musical and had really good choirs. Church gave me discipline and respect for simplicity. Even to this day, I can still hear Vanessa Beatty saying, “Stay in the pocket.”
MD: How about formal training? Did you take lessons or participate in school bands?
Darryl: I never really took lessons. I remember Teddy Campbell was preparing to do a session at my church, Reed’s Temple. I was probably in about fifth grade at the time. He saw me sitting there by the drum and asked me if I knew my rudiments, and I told him I didn’t. He wrote me out my first rudiments. I think it was the paradiddle, the flam, and the five-stroke roll. He wrote the notes and the sticking pattern and told me to practice on my pillow at night. That was my first interaction with rudiments.
I went to Thornridge High School, and the band director, Mr. Eanes, helped reignite that again. By my junior year I was confident in playing the rudiments and implementing them in my playing. I didn’t want to play in marching band and symphonic bands. I knew I wanted to play the drumset and stuck to doing that for the most part outside of school.
MD: Practicing back then, were you counting?
Darryl: I was kind of counting because I was counting in church songs or counting sixteen bars with Mr. Eanes. With my father being a James Brown fan, I got a good understanding of the importance of the “1” and the whole funk thing and what makes that accent special. But I wasn’t counting quarters, 8ths, and 16ths. I was more playing to records and practicing songs and trying to visualize the sticking and see how it could fit within a piece of music.
MD: You’ve got a unique sound regardless of what style you’re playing. How did you develop that?
Darryl: If someone asked me to give them a certain vibe and named a drummer from here [Chicago], I could do it because I was close enough to study so many of those players who went on to bigger things. But you can’t make a career off doing that. That’s why I thank God for the internet, because I was able to listen to more than just the guys from Chicago. I was able to find Brian Frasier-Moore, Lil John, and Chris Dave, whose playing is smart and at the same time has this recklessness to it. I wanted my playing to have balls and have that same type of thing, where it was disruptive but also in the pocket.
MD: What are some of the milestones of your career so far?
Darryl: Madison Square Garden in 2016 with Maxwell. The Garden is such an iconic place, and I’d never even been in that building, let alone played with a headlining artist. My mom and my sister came to that show. I played Soldier Field with Camila Cabello opening for Taylor Swift, and my dad and my mom came. That was big for my dad to see my onstage where the Bears play, seeing as he’s a Bears and Walter Payton fan. It was cool because he’s not graced to come to other types of shows with foul language, nor is my mom. Any of those shows where my family has seen that this music thing they weren’t so sure about, but that they were supportive of, that it kinda worked out…that’s always big.
Another was when we did Lincoln Hall in Chicago with Jonathan and they presented me with my Stellar Award for Producer of the Year, and I was able to give that to my parents. And the morning and late-night TV shows have been big. Growing up in Chicago, we used to collect tapes when we knew someone from here was going to be on TV playing behind a certain artist. So to be doing that myself now, it might not seem like much to some people, but it’s a big deal to me. I’m grateful.
A. 10×16 Collector’s series maple Ballad snare
B. 4.5×14 Collector’s series stainless-steel snare
C. 6.5×14 Collector’s series maple Edge snare
D. 10×10 Performance series maple tom with HVX shells
E. 16×16 Performance series maple floor tom with HVX shells
F. 18×22 Performance series maple bass drum with HVX shells
1. 18″ CLS series Thunder crash
2. 15″ X series DRK hi-hats
3. 19″ X series crash
4. 19″ stack: AIR series Thunder crash on top of an MDM series crash
5. 20″ NDK series crash-ride (used as a ride)
6. 20″ MDM series crash
Hardware: DW 9000 series
Sticks: Vic Firth 1A, X55A
Heads: Remo, including Emperor Vintage Coated snare batters, Emperor Clear tom batters and Ambassador resonants, and Powerstroke P4 bass drum batter
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX multipad, RT-30HR dual-zone trigger on main snare, and two BT-1 pads
Percussion: LP cowbell, mounted woodblock, and mounted tambourine