On The Cover

Chris Dave

The iconoclastic rhythm auteur is readying his hotly anticipated new album. MD contributor Ken Micallef got an early listen, and, transfixed by its contents, presses its creator for explanations and looks for clues to his self-expression.

Photos by Alex Solca

Is Chris Dave the world’s most wanted drumming superweapon? From populist recordings with Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, and Ed Sheeran to jazz grooves with Kenny Garrett and Robert Glasper to formative rule-breaking days with Meshell Ndegeocello and Mint Condition, Dave has transformed how we think about the drumset and the beat-making maneuvers that follow.

Chris “Daddy” Dave is a product of Houston’s church scene and Howard University in Washington, D.C., and his greatest contribution may be his mad-merriment beat. Taking a cue from the late producer J Dilla, when freed to his own devices Dave plays musically demented patterns that shake up notions of contemporary time, timekeeping, and drum tonalities. Of course, one drummer’s notion of where the time lies is another’s idea of chaos and metamorphism. Dave embraces it all.

And artists have embraced him: Adele, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Sonny Rollins, Toni Braxton, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, A Tribe Called Quest, Michelle Williams, Dianne Reeves, Geri Allen, Mary J. Blige, Blue Man Group, Cat Stevens, Derrick Hodge, and many more have enlisted Dave’s “four-way brain way” on tour and in the studio.

On Nihil Novi, the 2016 album by saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life, Dave plays time that flows like a restless river. Seemingly pulling ahead and dropping behind the conceived center pulse, Dave measures out syncopated bass drum bumps and hyper snare drum spurts while projecting forward-flying cymbal pulses and explosive tom fills. Dave scorches Strickland’s grooves like a pilot pushing the ejector-seat button and laughing while his million-dollar jet explodes in a fireball.

When asked what constitutes his main work these days, Dave replies, “Drumhedz, Drumhedz, Drumhedz!” Chris Dave and the Drumhedz is Dave’s epic dissertation on the state of the funk/jazz/R&B/hip-hop groove, circa 2017. It’s a soulful, beat-heavy pleasure, start to finish. Dave, who’s joined by core Drumhedz Isaiah Sharkey on guitar, Marcus Strickland on sax, and James Poyser and Cleo “Pookie” Sample on keyboards and electronics, plus Pino Palladino on bass and Keyon Harrold on horns, also enlisted a fifty-member cast of cowriters, instrumentalists, and vocalists to document his surreal sonic ideas. The album is designed as an outer-space journey turned radio station, with the Drumhedz as your guide through their universe of musical pleasures.

Chris Dave and the Drumhedz begins with countdown to liftoff, the band landing on a planet that recalls a P-Funk-style movie soundtrack. Strings sway, Dave’s drums groove like bossa nova bumblebees, and rhymer KRNDN speaks though a megaphone. The album matches weird interludes with serious music making. “Black Hole” launches a thrilling African pulse adorned with muted trumpet blasts, heavy riffing guitar bleats, and an irresistible drum groove that percolates like a nimble panther. It recalls the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” transported through modern sensibilities. Dave’s arsenal of drum sounds continues in “Sensitive Granite,” a deep snare drum firing sparks of bongo rolls, cracked cymbal interplay, dancing rhythms, and playful effects.

Dave bam-bams more deep snare drum tones on “Clear View,” its pitter-pattering rhythm dancing under spoken-word vocals and reverberating instrumentation, the song quickly turning into a full-throttle rock bash. “Job Well Done” rages like punked-out Muppets for a moment, then backsteps into romantic territory, with Dave’s popping snare drum as sweet as a Nestlé Crunch. “Lady Jane” features a clattering jazz cymbal pulse, segueing to an arrangement that’s equal parts Canterbury progressive rock, metric-modulation experiment, samba sendup, and drum solo madness. “Trippy Tipsy” closes the album with a watery ambience, as hooting tenor saxophones and herky-jerky rhythms lead us into the unnamed planet’s sunset.

It’s all in a day’s work for Chris Dave’s inventive drumming head and the band that bears his name.


MD: What tools, be they mental or physical, do you take to every recording session?

Chris: Just making sure the music feels right, that I’m prepared and that I know the material, or whatever the session calls for, and go from there. It depends on the music—EDM, country, hip-hop, rock….

MD: What are the misconceptions about studio work at your level?

Chris: The studio is a lot of hard work, and it can be very detailed. There’s a misconception about how long you have to rehearse with an artist to get it right before you actually record, the process of getting a song perfect for what the artist is looking for. There are many misconceptions.

Snares, Toms, and Cymbals…and More Snares, More Toms, and More Cymbals

MD: You play an assortment of setups. And you endorse only three brands: Sabian, Remo, and Vater.

Chris: I don’t endorse drums, because I like the variety of being able to play whatever I choose to play when I want to. I have a lot of drumsets, and I could never find one company that could give me everything I wanted.

MD: For the MD cover shot you set up Fibes, Tamas….

Chris: And Firchie Drums—they’re like vintage drums. And Innovation Drums, they’re a custom manufacturer from Detroit. I use a lot of Innovation drums.

MD: Do you always set up in the same way?

Chris: Nah. I experiment all the time. If I’m at a festival, then I’m not really traveling with my stuff, so I make up a kit from the backline. But as far as my personal setup, it changes every day. Me and my tech are still trying to figure stuff out.

MD: If you’re using three snare drums on different days, will they always be in the same place within the kit?

Chris: No. Even on the last D’Angelo tour, I had five snare drums, but I used them in different ways every two or three days. Just to switch things up I put them in different positions. I might use one for a floor tom, then the next day I will use them in other positions.

MD: Is that to make you approach the set differently?

Chris: Just to keep me thinking. I’ve always been like that. I’m still trying to figure it out until I get completely comfortable, so I keep switching things up.

MD: You’ve added multiple floor toms to your setup, when initially you didn’t use floor toms.

Chris: I’ve always played toms on all the records. Live, it began with Erykah Badu; her gig called for a lot of different snare drums. I didn’t want to use triggers, so I would tune the five different snares to replicate the album sounds. I like to collect snare drums, so it all went together.

MD: Are you playing any mounted toms on the new Drumhedz album?

Chris: On some tracks, one of the interludes maybe, but it’s sporadic. There’s not so many toms, more like deep snare drums used as floor toms.

MD: What snares did you play on the new Drumhedz record?

Chris: Everything from old Rogers to custom prototypes. I went through everything on the album.

MD: You get many different sounds from each drum. How did you tweak the various drums used on the album?

Chris: That’s part of studio finesse, just understanding the tones that the song needs. Certain snares might sit better or sound better in a particular song. Maybe a certain wood or metal snare drum will sound better with brushes on a particular track, depending on how hard you have to hit the drum. It depends on the room and so many different factors. All that plays a part in the sound, especially in the studio.

MD: Do you modify the drumhead with tambourines, metal pieces, or rings cut from old drumheads?

Chris: We’ve done all those kinds of things. Those ideas began with gospel drummers fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s not new, it’s just things that people forgot about or they didn’t know how the sounds were made. It’s trying to add more sounds so you can sound bigger and fuller.

MD: In the cover shot for your previous MD cover story, one of the cymbals was set at an extreme and odd angle.

Chris: I try whatever I can think of. There’s no limit on anything. We used six cymbals for this MD cover shoot: two Zildjian Spirals, a cracked Sabian Fierce ride, and the rest were prototypes that don’t have names.

MD: If some of your cymbals are set at standard angles, how are the other cymbals positioned?

Chris: I don’t know how to think like that anymore. [laughs] I don’t know what a drummer would or wouldn’t do. I don’t play ride cymbal on the right-hand side, and I’m a right-handed drummer. Between all my friends we’ve tried all kinds of weird shit. I’ve done shows with a regular drumset where I’m also playing timpani simultaneously. Or I will split the brain to get in a creative vibe, like, Maybe I should put the second bass drum off the stage, because they have that new DW pedal where you can extend it or double extend it. It can get insane.

MD: Drummers throughout history have placed the ride cymbal on the right side and tilted it, but you’re trying to find a different way.

Chris: Right. Jack DeJohnette worked with singers a lot, so he would angle the cymbal and use his pinkie and forefinger so he could control the stick when it’s right on the cymbal. I used to play like that as well, using a four-piece kit with two cymbals. I did that with Kenny Garrett. Going through all the styles, you get to a point where you want to do your own thing within what you’ve learned through massive amounts of study and listening to all the different drummers.

MD: You’re still playing cracked cymbals?

Chris: More prototypes now; I’m designing cymbals with Sabian. They’re just different cymbals that sound nice and messed-up at the same time. The cracked ones…I was in the office and they had all these cracked cymbals, a ton of cymbals. Drummers had returned them. So I hit a few and took some. I liked the sound. I was with Zildjian when I played with Mint Condition, then Sabian made prototypes for me. That’s when we started getting into 16″, 17″, and 18″ hi-hats. I want to experiment with sounds.

MD: What do you like about Fibes drums?

Chris: Fibes were really loud drums. The attack on them is really cool for that loud, fast, aggressive, powerful sound. I could play those on a D’Angelo gig.

MD: What drums did you play with Kenny Garrett?

Chris: I would call out different sets every day from the backline. Like, “What’s the oldest set you have in stock? I want that one.” That’s the fun part about playing from the backline. I never wanted to play the same set every night, because I never got used to it. Back then it wasn’t about endorsements. I wanted custom gear. Then I never thought about having a drum endorsement.

MD: Some European drummers, like Paal Nilssen-Love, don’t have or pursue drum endorsements. He’s playing the same drums his dad played.

Chris: Exactly. If you went to Wallace Roney’s house and he gave you one of Tony Williams’ old sets, you’d play that. You probably wouldn’t want another drumset. Maybe you would, but maybe you wouldn’t. I understand why drummers want endorsements. I guess they’re chasing something. I just don’t know what it is.

MD: When it looks like you’re playing three floor toms, one is usually a snare?

Chris: Usually a couple of them are snare drums. Some of my snares are 10×14, some are deeper. If I had a gig that needed twenty snares, I would use twenty snares.

MD: Is one snare tuned to replicate an Akai MPC and another to sound like a drum machine?

Chris: Nah, an MPC is a sampler, so that could be a million sounds. I tune the snare drums based on the songs we will perform that night. Sometimes they’ll switch the set list, which allows me to use different drums. I’ll use the Craviotto snares we have, for instance, just trying stuff. For D’Angelo I literally had something new or different for every show.

MD: So playing multiple snares broadens your sonic viewpoint?

Chris: I’ll have the snare drum that matches the sound of a particular song. Then I might place the snare drums to make me think differently. Not in terms of what I’m going to play, but what I’m looking at visually when I’m playing the drums. If something is closer to a certain hand, you can get to it quicker. It’s like theoretics of how you want to execute certain things, and if the setup changes, how do you execute the same things sonically?

MD: Do you ever trigger sounds?

Chris: No, I tune the snare drum to the song. I like tuning, and I have a good soundman. It’s like a package—it comes with the tuning and the house engineer and the monitor guy. If ya’ll on the same page, it’s a win-win situation. I’m usually really close with the house engineer, because I’m a studio guy so we’re usually on the same page sound-wise. If I’m playing with an artist and I’ve recorded their album, more than likely I’ll bring the snare drums from those sessions. What’s a better trigger than using the actual drums used to record the album?

Technique

MD: As a student you played along with Tony Williams on Miles Davis’s “Footprints,” among other records. Did you ever try to sound exactly like Tony or clone yourself after a drummer?

Chris: I just did the regular things. I bought all the albums, tried to learn all the stuff I liked about the album. I memorized it and tried to take little things I was trying to figure out. I was more of a fan of those drummers at first, then I would study, but I was never in the position to sound like them. I had ADD when I was young. [laughs]

MD: But you transcribed Tony Williams?

Chris: I did, but I was trying to understand how he and Ron Carter or he and Herbie Hancock related on those Miles Davis records. I would listen for hours and try to understand. I would get into the vibe of emulating, but I really wanted to use it in ways that I liked, personalize [the influence] to what I was playing at the time. Sometimes you might not be with a group of friends who are playing a Tony Williams type of song; you’re just trying ideas to learn.

MD: How did you incorporate your influences? I’ve seen you play left-hand ruffs, which Bill Stewart also plays, coming out of Roy Haynes’ concept.

Chris: It’s more paying homage. Certain stuff, it’s just part of who you are. I grew up playing a lot of jazz, and that comes from drummers like Roy Haynes, Max Roach, and those cats. They are very technical musicians. You need some technique to play that stuff, like really fast swing for a long period of time. At some point you have to learn about endurance and breathing and all these other things that come with playing relaxed. It’s a journey.

MD: How did you apply J Dilla’s beats to the drumset? Was it like transcribing a drummer?

Chris: Nah, I could hear what he was doing because I was friends with Karriem Riggins and all those cats, and I love the shit out of his beats. I was always good at playing breakbeats or any beat I can hear, kind of like Ahmir Thompson, who can play breakbeats. I’m coming from the same vibe. I don’t know a lot of drummers who can’t play like that who are hip-hop heads. But if you’re not, then you might not understand certain things as far as beats. It’s cultural, I guess.

MD: Are syncopated or delayed snares and bass drums a J Dilla trademark?

Chris: Nah. For me it started with four-way coordination and playing two or three different rhythms in my head at the same time in different tempos. I’ve loved messing with rhythms since I was little. When a drum machine quantizes, sometimes, depending on the person who’s doing the beat, they don’t hear that it’s not perfectly quantized. Like the E-mu SP1200 [sampler], it loops right, but it has a little space in [the beat] sometimes. I began emulating that. At that point we were heavy into hip-hop. People tried to figure out J Dilla: Is this ahead and that behind the beat? Or vice versa? It’s taking that apart and playing with it. J Dilla was influential, but he wasn’t the only one. A lot of people listened to his music because it was beat driven. It was so concise, and it had a Motown feel so the pocket was cool.

MD: Is Tony Williams’ concept of blurring the time similar?

Chris: Sometimes. The delay thing for me is more like seeing Elvin Jones playing something slow in 3/4, then when he comes around to the 1, and whenever he hits the 1, that’s where the 1 is. If you’re a stickler sitting there counting, you know they’re half a second off. I listen from both perspectives. So I’m thinking, This would be crazy if I’m playing a beat and it’s a half second behind and this is over here and this is over there. It’s beat placement. Drummers have been doing it forever.

MD: Does your placement of the beat depend on the artist and the recording? Sometimes your time feel is right down the middle.

Chris: Depends on what the song calls for. Some songs want a nice feel-good groove; some things are more hip-hop. Everything can’t be the same style, so you try to make it appear like an orbit of sonic shit! [laughs] So when they call you they don’t have to worry what you’ll sound like—they know it’ll sound right for the song with your [style] on it. That was always my goal.

MD: Did you study four-way coordination from the Marvin Dahlgren book?

Chris: Yeah, but more so from watching Jeff “Tain” Watts and people like that. Tain can take a Monk song and play the solo with his left hand while playing all this other shit, and it’s still swinging. You meet Brazilian drummers, Cuban drummers. Everybody hears things on different beats. It gets in your head and you’re hearing rhythms over rhythms that might not necessarily go together, and you focus on that.

MD: There are a few constants in your drumming, one being your touch. You get a beautiful, consistent sound on the snare drum when playing 2 and 4. Was that a focus for you?

Chris: It’s just a natural thing. Touch is part of your alter ego, your personality, whatever happens when you get on the drums. I think about sound, and touch and sound go together. After a while, it’s subliminal. I’m thinking like a producer sometimes, so when I get in that mode, I want the snare to sound consistent each time I hit it. And I want the hi-hat to be consistent because I want to get this groove across.

MD: Some drummers aim to sound like a drum machine. 

Chris: That is part of transcribing too. I transcribed everything from drum machines to the Time’s “777-9311.” I thought that was a drummer, but it’s a drum machine. I transcribed that and hip-hop beats, all the way back to Tony Williams. Certain beats are drum machines, and if you can play that song just like a drum machine, that crowd will be amazingly happy.

MD: When you play a drum solo, are you thinking of song form?

Chris: Whatever comes. With the Drumhedz, I play the song form or a special form for the solo. It depends on the music. But I don’t like to solo.

MD: Why?

Chris: I don’t know. [laughs]

In the Studio

MD: How do you typically get session work?

Chris: I’m Rick Rubin’s studio drummer at Shangri-La Studios, so that leads to a lot of session work. That gives me the freedom to do whatever I want, because Rick is like that. I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but I only work with five or six producers. They have a lot of work, and these projects actually get released. I just finished a lot of stuff with Blake Mills; he produced Alabama Shakes. We’re finishing up a John Legend album.

MD: Are you called in to replace drumming?

Chris: Sometimes they may only have a demo, and the artist or producer tells you what they don’t like about the demo or what they want to change. They usually want to make it more exciting. Sometimes the demo is old but the song is good. You start chipping away from there.

Chris Dave and the Drumhedz

MD: Is your new Blue Note album, Chris Dave and the Drumhedz, all live drumming, no loops?

Chris: It’s all live takes; I didn’t loop myself. Some of it has punch-ins, like if someone wasn’t there they added their part later. But all the bass and drums were recorded together live.

MD: Some songs have more than one drum track.

Chris: Yeah, like on “Lady Jane.” It’s like three different drumsets. There I played the whole song on one set and then did the next take on another drumset. I have a lot of drums at Shangri-La; we had the place for a month when we did the album, so I was able to have five setups miked in one room. I had my jazz set, my trashy-sounding set, my experimental set.

MD: How did you compose material for the new album?

Chris: Sometimes at the keyboard coming up with ideas, messing around with bass or guitar. Might start with a beat. A few tracks I was messing around in the studio with Pino Palladino. He’d start playing, and if we got into a vibe we’d start recording. “Let’s put a click up. Let’s map it out. Gimme a minute to come up with a bridge.” Just a real organic process, but still with form. We wanted it to be a cool vinyl album that sounds good. It’s like back in the ’70s: DJs would play the best parts of an album because it sounded so good. You might spin that part at a party. It draws you in to the different sound aspects of the music. It’s a fight for the musicians to be heard [now], instead of only the artists.

MD: Did you go for a unified drum sound on the record or more diversity of sound with the drums?

Chris: Just having the drums prominent and showing the different sounds the drums can be. There doesn’t have to be a drum solo; this album is more a feel-good introduction to the Drumhedz. The concept is that the music doesn’t take place on Earth. It’s like a space trip, like you’re going through a portal with us into our world. The music on the album is our radio station of the music we like. The ambience of the drums is not all my drums but a core sound of what I do.

MD: “Black Hole” opens with an Afro-Cuban feel, then turns into African highlife music.

Chris: The lyrics deal with all the crazy stuff happening today in America. Groove-wise it starts with some Fela Kuti stuff, but I wanted to do it with brushes and sticks. The beat is like Fela, but it’s not as fast. I wanted to have that flavor with a twist of what the Drumhedz do, but I didn’t want to take anything away from Fela or sample him. It was more like if Fela was in the room and we were chillin’. That’s the groove we would come up with to make Fela dance.

MD: “Sensitive Granite” has a muted, dark, splatter-sounding snare drum.

Chris: A lot of that sound is outboard gear used during the mixing phase with Benjamin Kane. No plugins, all hardware. We had the analog gear—why use the plugin?

MD: On “Atlanta” you’re blowing over the top, and again it sounds like more than one drum track.

Chris: Just one drum track, and I’m playing with a lot of outboard gear again.

MD: “Clear View” eventually kicks into a groove, but it opens with a lot of interesting drum sounds.

Chris: That’s us having fun. We start quiet, then go to the moon. In the middle I switch to another drumset. I have the drums set up in the studio, so I don’t have to get up from the drum throne. I just swivel over. So in the middle of that song, instead of going for the big rock sound, what if it’s the same tempo but the stuff we play is a darker side of the same tempo? Some people might think it’s slowing down, some might think it’s a different song. All that is part of the art for us. But the tempo never changes. Then the beat goes into half time. But you’re still nodding. It’s two sides of the coin. We’re showing what musicians can do in creating moods.

MD: “Lady Jane” opens with what sounds like a four-way coordination exercise.

Chris: It starts with more of a Jack DeJohnette/Tony Williams type of thing. I guess it’s four-way, but I don’t hear it like that. I wanted the snare drum to rattle away from the cymbal—if that makes sense. I don’t even hear the split in the rhythms; I only hear the sounds. You get to a point where you can feel the rhythms without counting. Eventually it clicked where I could hear that. You just have to know where it is.

MD: Eventually it clicked?

Chris: It’s just a feeling. Once it locks in to your body or your soul, you just know how to play over the beat. You know where you are within the time frame. It becomes more of an expression than trying to figure something out. Why can’t you do something that has nothing to do with the other thing? The four-way brain way.

Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow

MD: What do you practice now?

Chris: I’m still practicing rudiments, four-way coordination, and trying to play the things I hear in my head but I can’t play. That keeps you going. It’s an internal drive.

MD: Do you take students?

Chris: I will in the future. I wouldn’t know what to say, though. Just practice and figure it out, because I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s about having the technique to play whatever you hear in your head. The journey is all the music you’re going to partake in, which at some point is going to develop into your sound and your style. It’s all a reflection of you.

MD: You attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and Howard University—you have a legit music background. Is that necessary for all drummers who want to achieve your level of success?

Chris: I don’t know a correct way to do it. Go with your gut. I had to read music at Howard, because I played with Geri Allen. Her gigs are hard. But with sessions today they don’t ask you to read unless it’s jingles. They want the feel. Or they might have the idea, and then you have to be on it so you can listen to the song once or twice and have the feel, hop on it, and knock it out.

MD: Can you set your pay rate now?

Chris: You can negotiate, for sure. But I’m also a producer; that was the point of this album, showing more of our production skills on a bigger scale as a group. We will tour the record, and we’ll be producing artists and playing on their records as the Drumhedz.

MD: There are still things you can’t play?

Chris: Of course. Man, I am inspired by my friends like Thomas Pridgen and Ronald Bruner. I might catch Bruner with Thundercat one night and he’s having one of those crazy gigs. You get excited. I never thought of that—that’s insane! What just happened? Maybe only three people heard it, but I’m always getting inspired by listening.


Recordings

Mint Condition From the Mint Factory, Life’s Aquarium /// Meshell Ndegeocello Comfort Woman, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel /// Maxwell BLACKsummers’night /// Robert Glasper Double-Booked, Black Radio /// Adele 21 /// Eric Roberson Mister Nice Guy /// Chris Dave and the Drumhedz Mixtape /// Lil John Roberts The Heartbeat /// D’Angelo Black Messiah /// Anderson Paak Malibu /// Kenny Garrett Standard of Language