Every once in a while you stumble across someone who is articulate and personable, and who will talk about drums and drumming ’til the cows come home without becoming boring. Ollie Brown is such a person. Big in size, he is a friendly, unpretentious person with a low-key sense of humor and a great love for his craft. Ollie has such presence that, when he enters a room, you immediately become aware of this friendly giant.
Ollie could brag about his accomplishments and musical credits, but that’s not his style. He has worked as a drummer and percussionist with many artists, including Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Ray Parker, Jr., Billy Preston, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, Sly Stone, Barry White, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, The Jacksons, The Pointer Sisters and Blondie. The list seems endless.
Ollie now resides in the Los Angeles area, and has added songwriting and production to his resume. His company, Brown Sugar Productions, has been a successful venture with Brown producing records for such people as Ray Parker, Jr., LaToya Jackson, Firefox, Syreeta Wright, Gloria Gaynor, Billy Preston and Raydio, to name a few.
He has now expanded into the field of film soundtracks, and his first production work in this area has been a smashing success. Breakin’ has gone platinum—a fact which Ollie is quite proud of. He also performs on three of the tracks with partner and singer Jerry Knight under the name of Ollie & Jerry. But I’ll let Ollie tell you his own story.
SA: Breakin’ isn’t your first soundtrack work, is it?
OB: This is the first one I’m involved with this way. I’ve been involved with soundtracks as a drummer and percussionist. I’ve been really trying to get more involved in it. This past year was the year where I said, “I’m going to go after it,” and then really did. I was working on a dance film and I had a song that I didn’t use. Meanwhile, I called Russ Regan at Polydor to try to set up a showcase for a heavy metal group that I have. I spoke to his secretary, and she asked me if I had any break dance music. I had this song, and they had a scene in Breakin’ that it fit. That’s what started my involvement with the film in the first place. It was really a fluke.
I overheard them talking about the title track being pulled from the soundtrack. They had some legal problems with that. The scene was already cut when I was called to come in. All the choreography was done to a different song when I saw the title track, as well as the finale song. That’s when I asked if I could write for those two scenes. I went in the studio and, in a matter of days, I had to write, record it and put it together in a finished state so that it could be presented. I didn’t have the six singers that I normally use. I just had to use Jerry’s voice. Fortunately, he sings. I originally called him in as a songwriter, because I figured I could write faster if I didn’t try to do it all by myself. I knew Jerry through Ray Parker, Jr. So we got a studio and put it together.
Jerry and I had spoken about being a group. I said, “Jerry, let’s get together and write. I’m about ready to go back out now.” 1 had been doing session work, and playing drums and percussion on albums. Also, I had stopped doing live work, except for special events. Then, I got into producing.
I had a solo album on Polydor Records back in ’75, I think, called Ollie Ba Ba. When it didn’t really hit big, I kind of got discouraged. I had a manager who didn’t place my material. So I went through a period where I didn’t want to be a solo artist as much as I had. I got into doing production work.
SA: Getting back to Breakin’, you said that the dance scenes were already done.
OB: That’s right—to another song. They weren’t just dancing while counting fours. Then, the finale song, where we wrote “Street People,” was a song that was there just for temp, tracks to dance to. That scene was cut into three different parts— jazz dancing, break dancing, and then the combination of the two. They had three different songs, which I never heard. The director decided he didn’t want to have different scenes, so he made it into a big finale number. I played the music to a dance scene that was done to three different tunes. Do you know how hard that was? Goodness!
I had to tailor my music for what they were doing visually, which worked out really fine because I changed the mood of the music as they danced. I had the tape to work with and I had a friend of mine, Don Peak, go into the studio and help me arrange it because he does scoring. He’s really into that, technically more so than I am, even though I had some experience with it in college. I knew a little bit about how to make music sync up with frames when you have to deal with post-production. It’s very different from making records where you just write a song and create from nothing. Here was a situation where there was a body and I was putting clothes on it.
SA: It sounds like you’ve been very busy.
OB: Yeah. I turned in another song just the other day that I did called “Revenge Of The Nerds,” so I’ve been getting calls from the movie companies. It’s good; I wanted to do the movies and it has opened up doors. I think it’s going to work out well because it’s really helping album sales. That’s why you have all these albums out there with the collaborations of different artists. You have the big soundtrack albums now like Footloose, Against All Odds, Endless Love, and Saturday Night Fever. These are serious-selling records. The film people can see that it’s helping the records. Everybody’s looking happy right about now. It’s definitely helped me because my record is doing fairly well. We didn’t have to take that route that new artists usually have to take, where they have to get on the radio stations. It’s a real slow pace, even though the record might be good. But with soundtracks you have the help of the movie, which breaks out the excitement. Of course, if what you’re turning in doesn’t hold up, then you don’t necessarily have to happen, too. Some people might say, “Well, if the movie’s selling …” but I’ve seen movies that had soundtracks that didn’t do anything, as well as soundtracks that did great but the movie flopped.
I’ve been calling it the giant video. That’s why videos are so big, because it’s the visual association with the music. If you have a successful movie, you might have a successful record, depending on how heavy the music is placed in the soundtrack. A lot of movies are not music oriented, but the movie industry is seeing the success of the ones in which music is being heavily played. They are even seeking out name artists, such as my friend, Ray Parker, Jr., who was called to do Ghostbusters. That was not a musical film, but the director wanted a hit song to go along with it for advertising, actually. And it’s working. I mean, the record flew up the charts. That kind of thing will help the movie industry continue to be involved with the record people.
It’s going to be a nice marriage and it’s definitely going to be the new thing. I’m glad I’m getting in there on a good foot so 1 can get some of the first calls [laughs], instead of having to wait until all the big artists aren’t available and they have to call me. That’s what will usually happen. You don’t usually get a crack at the real big, going-to-make-it films. You have to deal with the ones where you’re always sitting out there biting your fingers, thinking, “I hope this will kick in.” So I’ve been getting good calls from major film companies. I’m negotiating something now.
SA: I’d like to discuss a little history. How did you get started playing drums?
OB: I started playing drums when I was in elementary school. I used to love the way the band sounded. I said, “I’m going to learn how to do that.” In elementary school they had a Christmas program every year. The band would perform and that’s when I was exposed to seeing bands perform live. That really drew me into it. I even have a baby picture of myself in diapers sitting behind a drum with the sticks in my hand. I don’t even know how old I was. It must have been meant for me to play drums. [laughs]
I started off on the drumpad in school. When you take up an instrument in school, you start with private classes. Then, they put you in ensembles, then they have what they call beginner’s band, which is C Band, then B Band which is the next best, and then the A Band, which is advanced. I went straight from the drumpad to A band. I was just gifted. I mean, some people are gifted in things. It’s one thing to say that you have people who play drums well, but you also have that person who has just that extra gift.
People say, “Do you practice a lot?” Well, I would be lying if I said I practice a lot. I don’t. I never did. 1 did work diligently at it, but that was from enjoyment, not from not being able to get a certain thing together. Anything I tried to work on, I was always able to play. I just was so involved in my playing that it appeared as if I practiced a lot, but I was just really into playing that much.
I did a lot of percussion things when I started getting into studio work. I would see someone walk into the studio, after I got through doing a session, and make just as much as I did by throwing on some cowbells and tambourines. I was always taught to learn your family tree. Woodwind players should learn all the woodwinds; the brass players should learn all the brass, and drummers should be percussionists. Play all of it. So I took up little things in school once I went to college.
I got my first drumset when I was about 13, and I started playing in the basement. I had one small drum, a bass drum, and a cymbal, which hung from the ceiling. I would just continue to add on from different people giving me stuff. Finally, my mother got the money together to buy a drumset and I got a couple of sets together. They were different pieces because I couldn’t afford a new set at that time. Then, fortunately, things got better.
A guy who was very helpful in my drum- ming career was a drum shop owner named George Hamilton. He was very nice to my mother about getting me an account so I could have good equipment. A kid can be talented, but not have the goods financially; some people are held back only because they can’t mature with today’s technology. I didn’t have proper drums, so George Hamilton allowed my mother to pay a little bit on a drumset. That made it possible for me to have the equipment to be heard right. I could play, but I had that big, old, school bass drum that looked like a cannon, and I had the cymbal hanging from the ceiling that was torn up. I was doing my best but my mother just didn’t have it. Things got better, and I was able to earn money and get the things together. Fortunately, I got to where I was playing so well that companies came to me to endorse them. As I got older, I was able to get with name artists. Once I got with name artists, the endorsements started. I got my first endorsement—Hayman drums—when I was with Stevie Wonder. Then I endorsed Zildjian, Remo, Slingerland drums and Duraline percussion. I’ve been very fortunate to play drums with a lot of people, because I did heavy studio work when I got here. I played from bar mitzvahs all the way up to hard metal. You name it; I did all kinds of acts.
SA: Did you ever take lessons, or are you self-taught?
OB: The school was the thing. And then I took a few private lessons when I was sort of advanced enough in school that I could just do it and it was like nothing. I was getting bored, almost. That’s why a lot of times the teachers let me be in charge; they could see that I could cut the cake.
I had the same problem when I started giving kids lessons. I gave private lessons to a little boy who was nine years old. His mother called me up saying, “I’ve spent all this money on private lessons. Why is Daryl getting E’s in his music?” I said, “E’s!” I went up there and talked with my teacher, because I’d had the same music teacher. I said, “What’s the problem? He’s taking private lessons.” First of all, Daryl never told the teacher that he was taking private lessons from me. So the teacher said, “That’s it. He’s bored.” So I said, “Why don’t you let him help you in class a little bit? Let him give instruction to the drummers and just see what happens.” Sure enough, it was because I had him playing high-school level music and he was in elementary school. I even had him in theory. He was similar to what I had been. And sure enough, it changed. It was like night and day.
I took private lessons for a little while, myself, but my teacher discouraged me. I had to quit because he was not showing up and I was dedicated. I’d be all excited— geared up to play my lesson—because I knew I had it down. He would miss and I would be hurt by it. I took it very seriously. By the time I got to drumset, I taught myself by playing with James Brown records. It helped me because he was using two drummers. I was trying to lay down a drum part that was doubled. It caused me to try to do more things than I could do at the time. I was young, and I didn’t understand recording tricks. I just heard what I heard and I was playing what I was hearing.
Then, I put together bands. My first band was called Stingrays, which Ray Parker was in. My band consisted of all horns, [laughs] In those days, nobody really played guitar in school because they couldn’t afford to buy one or take lessons. But Ray saw the Beatles and he wanted a guitar. He had a tape recorder, and he would not let us record on his tape recorder until I let him play guitar.
I started playing with my teachers on the weekends when I got pretty good. I would do bar mitzvahs. I was making good money on the weekends. I was living with Mama and bringing every penny home. It was fun because I was making the kind of money that an adult man was making. I had no responsibilities, [laughs] It was great. In my neighborhood, instead of being popular by being the bad guy on the street, it was like, “Who is the best musician?” That’s how we had our fights. We had musical wars. I mean, on my street, if you couldn’t play, you couldn’t come outside. The girls were into the guys who could play.
SA: Did you study music when you went to college?
OB: Yes, I went to Wayne State University. At that time, you had to take music education, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher. It caused me to deal with different areas of music, which is great, especially for a drummer. I think a drummer should pick up a keyboard instrument immediately. See, drummers play with rhythms and don’t necessarily know anything about notes and chords a lot of times. They won’t reach out to do that. And that was the key to my success when I came to California doing studio work. I could read, as well as play the “streetlife.” There weren’t a lot of black drummers who were into that. A lot of them couldn’t read music because they were so hung up on playing so well without reading.
I played very street-like—what they called a real kind of funkish attitude. I had my little hip style, but I could still be technical when it was time to do that. So, I was busy. I was averaging so many sessions a day that I had to own three drumsets to work in the studios. Then I said, “Wait a minute. This is getting crazy. I’ve got to cut it out.” So I went up on my price. That cooled out a whole lot of people. But it got heavy even then. I think it was a combination of my street style, and being able to handle a technical situation when it came down to doing things like movies. I did The Klansman, which was the first time I experienced playing with a film running at the same time with a big orchestra, and everything going on the tape at once. That was my first experience dealing with a click track, as well. You see, they’re dealing with frames. The arranger has a map out, and you can’t play when you want or at the speed you want. In order for that drum cue to come up right, you’ve got to hit it when that comedian trips up those steps, or whatever.
SA: When you’re recording a soundtrack, what do you pay attention to the most?
OB: It’s a combination of everything. For a drummer, you listen to the click, but after you get the click, you kind of grab control of what’s going on around you. Everybody’s locking in on the drummer. The drummer is really the metronome for the other musicians. As much as they’re paying attention to their click, they’re also paying attention to you, so you and the click have to become one.
My first mistake was that I was trying to play with it. You can’t play with it too much. You’ve got to almost let it play with you. You use that for a guideline. The click is a steady thing, so it’s not going to catch up with you. You’re going to hear when you’re off, immediately. It will stay consistent. But at the same time, my point is, don’t focus in on the click so much that you’re not listening to what else is going on. It’s like driving a car: You look down the street; you don’t look over your hood. Try to stay with it, yes, but don’t focus in on it so much that you’re listening for it and you lose track of where you are. That’s what I did. Fortunately, there were several drummers there and I worked it out. They had somebody talk to me who had done it before. That was my first soundtrack band.
Stevie Wonder was my first big gig as a drummer. That made me very tempo conscious, because most blind people are very keen on tempo and sounds. They have that extra strength in other areas because they’re blind. Take people like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder: They are metronomes. Don’t even think about speeding up the beat on those guys. But it helped me. It made my studio work really popular because people would say, “Yeah, well, that Ollie—he’s a steady drummer for the track.”
SA: How did you get with Stevie?
OB: I was playing drums with a local band and we were doing a Sickle Cell Anemia telethon. Ray Parker was playing guitar for Stevie. That’s when I met Stevie and had a chance to talk to him. The guy who was directing the telethon noticed me playing drums earlier that day. He came backstage while Marvin Gaye was on stage singing with this typical house band, which he didn’t like. The guy rushed back and said, “Man, could you play for Marvin Gaye?” He slammed my drums right behind Marvin. Boy, did I have a ball when I went back to school the next day! [laughs] A lot of people saw me playing with him.
After that, things started picking up for me. I locked in with Stevie. I went on to do a lot of studio work and started getting with different artists out here. I would do live things that didn’t force me to leave my session circuit. But things got real funny when I went out with the Stones. I thought, “Well, I’ll go on the road with the Stones and make all this money. Then I’ll come back and get back into it.” Man, I lost more work by going out. At the same time, I picked up a new kind of work. I got my Eric Clapton calls, my Joe Cocker calls, and I worked with Blondie. It opened up some more doors, instead of just doing what you call the R&B circuit. I prefer that because I play any type of music. I love rock ‘n’ roll. I’m producing a heavy metal group now, called Black Diamond, that I have signed to my company. I have a lot of fans who know me from the rock ‘n’ roll area just as much as they know me from the Stevie Wonder era.
I’m into good music, good production, and I try to stay away from locking into a certain style. I have to branch out into films because I want to do movies. That’s my other thing. It’s working well for my artists, and it’s working for audiences. It’s keeping me from getting in a rut. My first release off my album has a mass appeal. It’s not a black album; it’s not a white album. It’s just good music and it’s on all the charts. It’s going worldwide like this. It’ll give me a chance to bring out my album without being stereotyped.
SA: When you first moved to L.A., did you find it hard to get into the studio scene?
OB: Yes. I understood that it was hard. I was lucky because I came out here with Stevie Wonder. Stevie draws a lot of people to his sessions. That’s how I first met Quincy Jones. He came by to say hi to Stevie, and listen to his song. I was introduced and I let him know that I was available while we were not on the road. The word gets out, and then the next thing you know, you start getting calls for a lot of studio work.
I had to leave Stevie. I didn’t like being on retainer. I couldn’t do studio work, because if somebody booked me for a four o’clock session and Stevie had me on call, I wouldn’t be able to make that session. I needed to be free. At the same time, I loved playing with him because I learned a lot about the studio and how to operate, as well as the drumming thing.
SA: Of all the people you have worked with, who would you say has given you the most inspiration?
OB: I have to name several people: the Rolling Stones as far as their area; Quincy Jones as far as production; Stevie Wonder as far as musical insight. Those are heavy people. It’s a pleasure working with them—just a pleasure. I respect all of those people. I also have people I respect who I’ve never worked with, such as Maurice White. He’s very, very good. The consistency shows with those people.
SA: How did you get with the Rolling Stones?
OB: They remembered me playing drums with Stevie because we were the opening act. We did a whole tour together, so we were friends. After that, Billy Preston went out with them for the ’75 tour. They heard Billy’s album, which I played drums and percussion on, and they said, “Billy, we’ve been auditioning drummers and percussionists, but we can’t find anybody. Who was that playing percussion on your album?” He said, “Ollie Brown.” They said, “We thought he played drums”— you know classifying. They called me up and asked me if I wanted to play. They flew me to New York and I played for them one night. They decided that they wanted to use me right there on the spot. It worked great. A lot of people felt that I seemed to give Charlie Watts a different style of playing. I caused him to do things that he normally wouldn’t do. He even felt that way.
SA: How was it playing with Charlie Watts?
OB: It was different because of his style of playing. A lot of my percussion was built on things that I did, and I play totally different from him. I hadn’t played rock percussion before. It caused me to adjust, and caused him to adjust to me as well. So, we both came out on the best end of the stick. People would say, “Man, I never heard Charlie play like that,” because I was driving him. It caused me to play a different style because he was such a steady kind of drummer. He’s never too fancy; he does the job and does it well. That’s what I like. A lot of people say, “What do you think of that drummer?” You don’t classify drummers by how fast they play or how many licks they can think to put in four measures. It’s about what they do to complement whatever they’re supposed to be doing. If the drummer is playing a solo, maybe that’s different. But I think what makes a good drummer is someone who’s versatile, can fit any situation and enhance it, and who holds the tempo down and makes it feel like a unit. That’s my definition of a great drummer.
SA: What was it like working with Quincy Jones?
OB: Great, because the guy knows what he’s doing. I’ve been working with a lot of people who have made hits, and a lot of people who are known for giving good advice and have a respected position, but never someone who, when he had an opinion, I could really take what he gave me and say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s about.” He didn’t make the cliche comments like, “Uh, that sounds pretty good, but there’s something missing and it’s not happening.” It wouldn’t be that; it would be, “The drums don’t lock in here and, therefore, I would suggest that it should probably go like this.” It was always really good criticism when he gave it.
He gave me the ropes when I worked on things he did. He also let me produce at his label. I thought, “There are a lot of people he can call who have been more successful in doing production than me.” I was complimented by it. So, I love him. He’s a good person, too. He’s the type of person I’m surrounding myself with now—genuine people who are not just in it for what- ever. They personally like you when you’re on the scene doing the studio work, as well as when you’re not working. It’s real—no back stabbing. They’re just down-to-earth people.
SA: That’s hard to find in this business.
OB: It is hard to find, so you end up getting hurt a lot of times when you’re that way and they’re not. I’ve had it happen to me several times. But I’m not going to let that change me, because I know I’ll win in the long run and I can face anybody eye to eye. I don’t have to duck into corners when I’m at clubs or parties. I can walk with my head up. It’s important to me to have that peace of mind.
SA: Of the people that you have worked with, who do you think has taught you the most?
OB: Some of the same names again. Growing up with Ray was a good thing because we’ve bounced off each other since elementary school. We’d always help each other in music. He always had something that he could tell me about music and I had something to tell him. I started off pulling him up. Next thing I knew, he had a record deal and he was pulling me up. He’s a success; I’m a success. We work together in the studio on each other’s projects. He plays when I need him and I play whenever he needs me. We learned from each other and we’ve been strong that way. Outside of Ray it was Stevie, Quincy Jones and, when I was doing a lot of work for Motown, Berry Gordy.
SA: What drummers would you say you have been influenced by?
OB: Not a lot. I think it was more the people that they play with and particular records. I used to like to listen to Herbie Hancock. He worked with Harvey Mason, and he’s a good friend of mine. I like what he did on Headhunters. I liked Billy Cobham when I would see him play on television. I liked the way the drummer played in James Brown’s band. I wish I knew his name, because I would give him a lot of compliments. I liked the drummer that Stevie had back in the Motown days. I think his name was Pistol. Those drummers in the Motown era were influences on me.
Basically, I played with a lot of records. That’s how I got my thing. Thank God I created my own style somehow. People really were calling me, I know, for my style. That was a plus, because you can’t be just another drummer in the union book. I felt honored when I started reaching the stage where I could actually hear a cat in New York who was a heavy studio drummer playing a lick that I had played on an album. I became famous for a lick that I did on the Jacksons’ Triumph album on “You Are My Lovely One.” It’s a compliment to hear somebody play your riff, and everybody knows. I have people say, “Give me that feel,” and I know exactly what they’re talking about. That was like a high point for me in my drumming. I did some albums that drew a lot of attention to my drumming. That was like one of the biggest ones.
SA: At this point, I think we should go over your drum setup.
OB: Well, I use about a total of nine drums. Three on my top rack on the side, which are 8″, 9″, and 10″. Then I use 22″ and 24″ bass drums. It depends on what kind of work I’m doing in the studio. I have three sets. One set is for good, hard rock ‘n’ roll, one for the more tightly knit sound, and one is a good, universal-sounding drumset where I can reach a happy medium. I do have my extremes.
I’ve got a set that’s definitely for rock ‘n’ roll, with real deep toms starting off with a 13″ or 14″—you know, just big, solid, “doooom.” I’ve got my regular set on which, I think, the snare drum is 14″, and about five cymbals. I’ve also got my Chinese cymbal, Which I call the Ollie Special. You hear that on a lot of records. It was originally a Chinese cymbal that I dropped, and it left a crack which created this weird sound. I’ve actually had people ask me to bring that cymbal. It got to be a thing where people wanted me to have the Ollie Special. It became really popular on the Temptations’ album Living In A Glass House, on a song called “Happy People.” I’ve got to use it when I do sessions. People know I have it and they want it.
I’ve been fortunate to have my marks. That’s what makes you different from the other drummers because there are a zillion drummers. I think you have to have a style. You have to, if you want to make it seriously big. If you want to be a straight up, studio read-the-notes-off-the-paper musician, you won’t be doing too many of the creative albums. You’ll probably be doing the jingle circuit or some of the movies, which is a nice circuit to get. But there are only so many ways you can read it, so it doesn’t do any good to play it faster, because you’re going to play whatever the song requires. So why should they use you? Why would a producer use you, except for your technique of approaching a song. When you’re doing films and jingles, they’re not looking for that. When they’re looking for style, that’s when they call me. Seriously, I have to live in both worlds today. I get the movie score calls and I’ve done a lot of jingles.
SA: You use a lot of electronic drums. What is your opinion of these different tools that are on the market today?
OB: Electronic drums are new tastes of drums. What I always try to say to students is that you make a mistake when you try to replace the drum sound with the electric drums. I don’t think you should use it as a substitute for drums. I think Simmons are Simmons, acoustic drums are acoustic drums, and Syndrums are Syndrums. The minute you try to make a Mercedes a Volkswagon, you blow it. You should use it for what it is.
I mix up all my stuff. I might use a sock-cymbal overdub. I might use a Linn machine for just a foot. I might use an acoustic snare drum for my backbeat. I might use some Simmons toms for drum overdubs, and I might turn around and use some Syndrums for reinforcement of a snare drum. I try to create color. Half of the time, people don’t know what I’ve used on my tracks, because I don’t get caught in a rut, or caught trying to replace a tom-tom sound with a Simmons tom. If you’re going to play the tom, play the tom. You have to use and modify colors. Being that today’s sound calls for some of the stuff that I use, I go ahead and adjust, but not to replace the drums, or not to replace the Simmons. I think that’s where a lot of drummers make the mistake. It’s the same with the rhythm machines. I use the rhythm machines for coloring. Even on my single, “There’s No Stopping Us,” I’ve got all kinds of machines and stuff in there and drums. But it’s not just one of anything and it wasn’t because I was too cheap to use a drummer.
That’s another thing: Producers and writers, a lot of times, are too cheap to spend time to get a good drum sound with the engineer. So they use the drum machine for a scapegoat and they don’t program it the right way. That’s the biggest mistake right there. They’re using a drum machine when they don’t take time to make it really enhance the song the way a drummer would normally play. Some of these people use drum machines, and they’re lazy or they don’t know how to work it. They just let the beat go straight across, but the music has turnarounds and changes, and the drum part just goes “tick, tick, tick.” So that’s what I laugh at. But when you use those instruments properly, they’re beautiful.
When I do drum clinics, these kids freak out because they see the drum machine. I say, “Hey, it’s just like when the horse and buggy were replaced by the car. You can’t freak out. You have to go with the flow and check it out. You don’t have to shoot the horse; there’s still something for him to do. Horses and buggies are still around. You just don’t put them in the streets any more.” [laughs] It’s the same concept. Don’t freak out. Know how to push the buttons. That’s why you’re going to have a lot of musicians go hungry. They’re freaking out instead of checking it out and seeing how they can do that, plus what they used to do. Technology and things change every day. Learn how to program so well that people want to call you to save time for programming. You play if they need you, and if they don’t need you to play, you just program. You have to adjust to today.
SA: Of all the things that you’ve done in the studio as a drummer, as a percussionist, and as a producer, what do you like to do best?
OB: I like it all because I like all the elements of all of those. I like playing drums because that’s my way of getting high, if people want to use the word “high.” I’m in another world when I’m on my axe. I can’t even begin to explain that feeling. I’ve been known to catch myself locked up in it. I mean, I get goosebumps on stage when I just know that I gave that audience a great show.
As far as producing is concerned, I like creating and making something build. When you produce, it’s like planting a seed and seeing a flower appear. You create this thing. I like making people do something they didn’t know they could do. It’s fun working with singers and knowing that you can make them sing better than they thought they could. Or working with people who call themselves good guitar or bass players but don’t know how to take a different approach, and being able to suggest something to them and get something out of them that they didn’t even know about.
SA: How did you become involved in production?
OB: Giving away all my ideas on other people’s work. [laughs] See, I was really happy in the studio, so I was in the studio a lot. They would always ask me to stick around after I played. They’d say, “Hey Ollie, what do you think about this idea? Have you got some ideas?” I’d say, “Yeah, man” because I was so excited and I liked doing the stuff. They were milking me for free. “Yeah, man, you should do this and go over there. Make the bass turn up here . . . “It would be a big, successful record, but I’d be lucky to get the session again. I got tired of doing session work and not getting called for the next big album. If you did the album and that album went gold, you’d think, “Oh man, the next time so-and-so goes in to cut an album, I’m definitely going to be called.” You’d be lucky to get the call. There was no consistency there. That steered me away from some of the trips that were going on as far as the studio biz goes. Not that I didn’t like playing drums—I could play drums right now if I could make the money I’m making producing and stuff. You have to find a musical way of dealing with things that bring in royalties—that have a future—so you won’t be a burned-out drummer. I never wanted to be only a drummer, as much as I love the drums; that’s still my first love. That’s why I still perform on many things that I produce. I will always play my axe.
I just got back from a drum seminar. I took Harvey Mason with me to be a guest speaker for the Detroit Drum School. Zildjian and Duraline sponsored me, and Harvey was sponsored by Gretsch drums. I don’t want the endorsers out there to think that these kids are not interested in white drummers in the black areas. They are really into those drummers, and it’s the same with black drummers maybe not doing enough clinics in some of the white suburban areas. I hate it when they get into a racial situation. That’s what made me try to get a lot of endorsers to back me in this first event, because I want to see more clinics in the urban areas. Those kids buy drums just like the rest. They are really interested and they’re very dedicated, as well. I think there has to be more of that. I’m definitely pushing for that situation.
I always try to take time for others like someone took time for me. When I was growing up, I would have loved to have attended a drum clinic. I never attended one in my life until I did one. Now that I’m older, I know that they were doing them back then; they just didn’t hit those areas. I had plenty of questions I wanted to ask. I would have learned that you do this and that in the studio—that you can lay a drum beat down and come back and overdub the tom-toms. I thought they did it all at once. I could have asked little questions like that, or asked how to approach the cymbals, or about the tuning. It’s so different when you have to tone down the drum in the studio, versus live where you have a lot of ring. I could have learned the technical things and how to approach drumming in general.
I did a demonstration this time of how I combine a collage of percussion. I actually have to think of the whole meat pie at once. In other words, I’ve got to think about where I’m going to stick that cowbell before I put that tambourine down, because if I fill up all the holes, there’s no room left. In order to make a percussion track sound good, there have to be times where things are not playing on top of each other. A good percussionist can stretch it out so it fits like a glove when it’s all together—when a cowbell locks in with a Cabasa, and the Cabasa locks in with the tambourine, and the bongos have this space, and this whole big unit works as one. I showed them how I do that.
SA: You mentioned endorsements earlier. How do you feel about them?
OB: I feel that they could take what they’re doing a little more seriously. They’re a little bit into the money aspect of it. I stopped doing a lot of endorsements because it was like a turn off. When I was out there being very visible, the attitude was more or less, “If you’re in a hot group, we’ll furnish you with drums if you have our logo show up.” It was that kind of thing, as opposed to, “Ollie, why don’t we fly you down to the factory. We’re about to make this drum and we want to see what you’ve got to say before we put it on the market.” The companies that have done that are the companies that I’m still with. I work with Duraline. They are concerned. They are trying to make the players happy, and trying to come up with good things. You have drum companies that work with you like that. It makes their product good and it makes you feel proud to tell someone to play it.
A lot of cats take it just to get the free drums. With me, it’s a case of my playing what I can stand behind. That’s my main concern and I don’t need anyone to give me free drumsets, because I have enough money to buy drums. I don’t need any more of a warehouse than I’ve got already. I can only play one set at a time, so it’s not about that. I was young at one time and I wish that somebody had felt that way about some of the crap I played when I was coming up.
SA: What kind of drums do you play now?
OB: I’ve been playing on Pearl, Slingerland and Hayman. I’m not with any particular company right now. I’ve been talking to a few companies, but since I’ve been doing a lot of production work, I’ve just been dealing with Zildjian a lot and Duraline. I still associate with Remo because he’s concerned about his product and I like his stuff.
One thing helps the other if you concentrate on the right things in life. If you concentrate on the other goals too much—if you’re just out for yourself—you miss the boat every time. When you work with good people who like what they’re doing and they’re concerned, you come up with a good thing. They make money; you make money. Everybody’s happy. First things first—it’s that simple.
SA: What kind of tips do you have for people who are starting out playing drums?
OB: Well, the first thing in this world you have to do is get your basic. My basic is prayer. Surrender yourself to God and let God be your guiding light. I’ve been a Christian and I believe in Jesus, and I preach it because I know it’s the way. I’m not basing it on what my pastor might say, or what somebody else told me. I’m telling you what Ollie Brown experienced. Nobody can tell you about what you’ve experienced. You can have people tell you, “Well, you’re being brainwashed.” I’m talking about what happened to me.
I would say to get the basics first, continue to practice, learn all the elements, listen to what’s going on out there commercially, and get your private studies in. Then, you have to learn what the street is about. I had a drum student who was excellent. If a fly landed on the music, he would play it. I had another guy who was not a good reader, but he was hip. He knew the streets a little bit. If I had to listen to those two drummers, I would pick the street guy a little bit over the guy that read because he had something more to offer.
It’s like your Mama said, “Go to school. Get your education and you’ll make it.” I’ve got friends who went to school with me that know a zillion times more about music than I do, but who’ll never have a record out. So you have to get your rudiments and learn your basic elements. Then, you have to learn about life in general. You have to be a good person at heart and the other things will come to you.
I really preach that there’s no one certain way of making it. I talk about life as well as what I’m doing—how I approach it and how things have worked in my life. When I give my lectures, I have question and answer periods because the people in the audience need to know all these things. I go up there and tell them how I work in the studio, how to go about doing it, and if they’ve got their heads screwed up and they’re out there messing with drugs, the; probably don’t know about life.
It is very important to get an education and it’s very important to know what’s going on in the world. But that ain’t how you make it. There are a whole lot of thing: that go along with that. If there’s anything that goes along with any other thing, you should know about it. You can’t put a can together by just putting wheels on and the engine in. It looks good, but you jump it and there’s no steering wheel there. This steering wheel goes along with it. Okay it’s the same thing with making it. That’s why I talk about my spiritual belief, what do, and how I base it. It’s the whole pack age.