On The Cover
The requirements of rock and rap might seem poles apart, but the lines of separation evaporate in the hands of Jack White’s beatmaker.
Story by Robin Tolleson
Photos by Rick Malkin
In forging his style on the kit, Jones combines a love of rock and fusion-era drummers with a deep knowledge and respect for hip-hop and R&B producers. Whether he’s backing rapper Talib Kweli or rocker White, or producing tracks for his own Brooklyn-based label, Rusic Records, Jones is always making beats. Switching from traditional grip to matched as freely as he crosses up genres, he’s in a constant state of producing as he plays, always shaping the sound, not simply making it.
Jones’ mother and father are both church organists, which might help explain the palpable conviction of their son’s playing. An admiration for the refrains of Andraé Crouch, however, would make room for a focus on secular music, as young Daru began immersing himself in the drumming of Tony Williams and the sounds of a new Detroit. J Dilla and Slum Village were now merged with Smokey Robinson and D’Angelo—Voodoo was this generation’s What’s Going On—and Jones studied his rudiments and mastered the art of broken beats, reflecting those aesthetics.
Jones eventually left Michigan for Pittsburgh, and later settled in New York City. Today he spends about half his time in Nashville, where White has his studio and record label. “My career seems to be shifting into country,” Jones tells MD, only half joking, right after doing a session with Nashville singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson. In reality, recent work spans the retro garage rock of Olivia Jean to Jones’ own jazz/hip-hop hybrid the Ruff Pack, featuring bassist Stephan Kondert and guitarist Matt Loescher. And the breadth of these projects shouldn’t surprise anyone even remotely familiar with Jack White, who’s made a career of zigging when the world expects him to zag. We spoke with Jones about the full scope of his arts and crafts as he was preparing for a spring tour in support of White’s Grammy-winning Lazaretto album.
MD: When did you begin playing the drums?
Daru: I started at the age of four, in church. I had cousins and uncles that played the drums, so I was fascinated. I would watch them, and I wanted to do that as a young shorty, so I just started picking up the sticks. The type of church that I went to, they had a service every night. So I was able to get inspired and also get on the drums. I grew up in Michigan, outside of Detroit, Church of God in Christ.
MD: It seems that gospel music has crossed into fusion now.
Daru: Yes, a lot has changed since I was a kid. When I was coming up, one of my influences was Dana Davis, a drummer from Detroit who played with the Winans. He was known for having a pocket. And when I came up that’s what it was all about, having a pocket and being able to play toward people to worship. It wasn’t about doing the fastest lick—it was all about playing a pocket and being a team player so the spirit can come and take over. When it was time to play little fills or whatnot, I would, but it was more about playing a pocket. That’s one of the things that I admired about Dana, and also Bill Maxwell, who’s a producer and drummer.
MD: Playing in church, you have to pay attention to what’s going on with the lyrics and the whole sense of the thing. Do you think that might have translated into your playing?
Daru: One of the most important things I’ve learned is how to play with my heart and soul. Also, being in tune with what the lyrics are saying, because it’s a dynamic. We’re not just banging, we’re listening. When I was young I didn’t understand a lot of that, but I learned quick. It was all about listening to the lyrics and playing from the heart, playing with feeling, which is energy. So yeah, that definitely helped shape my drumming.
MD: When did you start becoming the beatmaker that you are now?
Daru: My mom put me in organ lessons when I was around fourteen. She was like, “Son, I’m going to need you to sub for me.” I thought she was joking, but she was serious. One day when I came for a lesson, my teacher brought a drum machine to use for a metronome. I was fascinated with that drum machine. It was the old-school Boss machine. He showed me how to work it, and eventually my mom took me to a music store and I purchased the Roland R-5. Once I got that I started programming drum patterns. Teddy Riley, the New Jack era, some of the producers that I was into at the time were using drum machines well, so basically I was trying to emulate my favorite producers—Jimmy Jam, Eric B., and the Bomb Squad.
Then I had a Casio SK-5 keyboard that had a sampler. You had less than a minute to sample, but I learned how. I would press play on the Roland beat machine and then press play on the sampler, and I would trigger the pads and then make beat tapes. By then I was into producers like RZA, Dr. Dre, and DJ Premier from Gang Starr, and I tried to emulate those patterns. Kay Gee from Naughty by Nature was another one.
MD: Did you play in school bands?
Daru: I was never really interested. I was kind of shy at that time about my drumming. My mom wanted me to advance, so she put me in chart-reading lessons. But I wanted to play gospel. I joined a gospel jazz trio called the Roger Jones Trio, and that gave me an opportunity to back gospel artist Kim Burrell and perform with a stage play that featured gospel legend Vanessa Bell Armstrong. Out of high school I joined a percussion ensemble that toured in France and played at the French version of PASIC, a lot of concerts and festivals. We played the Detroit Jazz Festival four or five times, so I got a chance to get my chops up and get exposed on that platform.
MD: Then you are basically self-taught?
Daru: I learned how to play by ear. A lot of my mentors and people around me said that I had a good ear and I was able to pick up and learn quick, and I had a good memory. I would get compliments about that, so that stuck with me. Then mentors put me on to jazz. So it was Tony Williams and then eventually Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta. I wanted to transcribe all the projects they were on and learn those chops. It got me in some trouble too, because I was trying to play in service, and I wanted to play these polyrhythms and Vinnie Colaiuta chops during worship. During that time it wasn’t in. Now it’s in.
Eventually it was Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Omar Hakim, Dennis Chambers, and all of those guys. I got exposed to those Buddy Rich Memorial Concerts. I had the first two volumes and would watch all the time—the ones with Dave Weckl, Vinnie, and Steve Gadd. I was mesmerized by their playing. The other one was Dennis Chambers, Gregg Bissonette, and Louie Bellson. And I wanted to learn all of that.
Basically, the church I came up in, everything outside of gospel was secular, and I was told not to listen to it. But I just felt that my talents were going to go beyond the gospel horizon, so I wanted to pursue that. I kind of went against the grain. One thing that I admired about drummers like Vinnie and Gadd was that no matter what situation you put them in, they seemed to be able to get the job done and have their style. I wanted to be a versatile drummer, and whatever situation you put me in I wanted to get the job done and also have my swag, or flavor.
MD: You blend the chops with a hip-hop/studio sensibility. I can hear that in some of Jack White’s tracks, as well as the Ruff Pack stuff.
Daru: I go into those recording sessions with the mind of being a producer: What would work? It’s not really about what I want to do. It’s like there are a thousand things you could do for the song, but only a couple will make the song jump off. I’ll be listening to pop hits and be like, Why do I like that song? It’s because they’re selective in their fills and also the groove. That’s my focus in being a producer, to help me to be more thoughtful. All of my influences, from the church to being exposed to hip-hop—all of that helped when it came time to get in the studio to work.
MD: You have an active production company, Rusic Records.
Daru: My sound, my style—I call it soul-hop. It’s a combination of hip-hop and soul. I wanted to come with the same aggression as hip-hop beats, but instead of producing rappers I wanted to produce soul singers. My sister Rena was one of the first artists. I started producing in
One of my friends began working with Phil Solomon from Guyana. He makes steel drums and is one of the top steel-pan tuners. They were in need of a drummer for a concert. I rehearsed, did the performance, and made an impression on Phil to where he offered me a position playing in his band, the Steel Impressions. That allowed me to move to Pittsburgh, and a lot of opportunities came from that.
Pittsburgh has a cool jazz scene, and I started mingling and people started getting into my work. I started playing in the house band of the then-celebrated venue the Shadow Lounge and with different bands like Eviction Notice and touring act Aaron “Ab” Abernathy, a soul singer from Cleveland who I first played for when his original drummer was a no-show on a tour stop in Pittsburgh. At the time I was the new kid in town and getting more popular. It turned out that Ab was the music director for one of my favorite hip-hop bands from Detroit, Slum Village. Slum Village wanted to perform with a live band, so Ab was like, “Why don’t you have my man Daru and me come in as your band.” So that was kind of a career change, being able to work with a group that I always wanted to work with.
Slum Village had one of my favorite producers, J Dilla. It was an amazing opportunity to play the Essence Festival, play Canada and several dates. Slum Village had an opening act called Black Milk, a producer-rapper from Detroit, and Black Milk liked what we did, so eventually I transitioned to working full time with him. By this time I’d outgrown the Pittsburgh scene and ended up settling in New York City. I began working with a friend from the U.K., Barry King, who believed it was time to take my career to the next level. I started meeting new people and getting an opportunity to work with hip-hop artists like Pharoahe Monch and Black Moon, as well as soul artist Bilal and classical violinist Daisy Jopling.
A good friend of mine, Ray Angry, plays with the Roots from time to time. He’s a producer and music director and is always putting musicians together, so he introduced me to this new band scenario with Talib Kweli called Idle Warship, featuring a singer named Res from Philly. I did a showcase with them and they were impressed with my playing. Ray was their music director for a couple gigs, and then it was handed down to me.
Eventually I started playing for Talib Kweli, and I became his music director. Then another opportunity came through a friend of mine, musician Brady Watt, with a producer by the name of Ski Beatz. Ski produced for Jay Z and was trying to fuse rock and hip-hop together. So I started playing with Ski Beatz, and the name of that band was the Senseis. My plate was really full.
MD: Speaking of Dilla, I hear essences of his “broken” beats in your playing.
Daru: Thank you, yeah. I’m always practicing on my own, just playing to some of my favorite producers, such as DJ Premier, Dilla, and RZA. I was training, not knowing that I was going to be playing in that scenario, so it just came automatic. I feel like you are what you eat—you are what you listen to. I listen to a lot of Dilla stuff—Premier and other producers and musicians as well—so it just comes out in my playing.
MD: It’s interesting how it comes out naturally.
Daru: Yeah, it’s funny because I was already doing that. Artists or different drummers kind of want to separate those worlds, the machine versus playing for real, but I was one of those guys that wanted to play what the machine is doing. I was all about trying to emulate what I heard, whether it was a machine or a live drummer.
MD: Sometimes producers stop machines or loops, and I like the way you do that with your live playing. You’re not afraid to stop and leave space.
Daru: Thank you. Yes, sir. When I’m playing or performing, I’m thinking as a producer as well. I’m listening to the lyrics and I’m actually producing the song while I’m playing it. I’m like, Okay, they didn’t have a drop on the record, but I hear a drop right here. That way whatever the artist is saying speaks out. That’s a lot of time what DJs do and producers do when they make tracks. They do drops just to highlight a specific phrase or word, so that’s what I wanted to do in my playing.
Another person I was big into was Questlove. When the Roots came out, they were like the only live band. I do remember the Beastie Boys doing some live stuff, and Pharcyde had some live things going on. But the Roots, I gravitated toward them, just trying to figure out who the drummer was. I remember seeing them on TV, and Quest…I was like, Oh, man, that’s pretty hip.
MD: How did you begin playing with Jack White?
Daru: That scenario came from Black Milk. Jack is a huge hip-hop head, for people that don’t know. Before we go on stage we’re listening to hip-hop. Jack was producing collaborations on his record label, Third Man Records, and Black Milk put out a project, Album of the Year, which I had the honor of playing on. There’s a song on that called “Deadly Medley,” and I heard that Jack got ahold of that and got excited, and wanted to collaborate with Black Milk. Jack offered, “Come to Nashville. I’m going to bring some musicians in.” But Black was like, “Well, I want to bring my guys down there, the guys that I take on the road with me.” So they flew us to Nashville and we recorded at Jack’s studio and performed at his label.
I knew Jack was a drummer, but I didn’t take it that seriously. During our performance there’s a song called “Losing Out,” and I have a drum solo in it. Jack was in the back of the room, and after that song he ran to the front of the stage and put his hand up, like, “Yeah!” I guess I did something that was cool. So a few months later he flew me to Nashville to work on a collaboration with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan. RZA canceled, though, and I was heartbroken, and I know that Jack felt bad. He didn’t want to just send me back home—he had also hired a musician from the Raconteurs—and we were in there trying to figure out what to do.
Jack said, “Well, I have a couple solo songs that I’ve been messing around with. Maybe we could try those.” So I tracked for him for a couple days—we did about four tunes—and from what I was told that’s what started Blunderbuss, his first solo project. I played on “Trash Tongue Talker,” with the Spanish rhythm at the beginning and a bluesy honky-tonk type of jam.
MD: Jack seems to have a good rhythmic sensibility.
Daru: I feel like he hired me because he wanted me to do what I do, to bring my hip-hop background and influence to his playing. If you listen to the White Stripes, you can hear that it has that hip-hop undertone. I feel like people could sample that and use it, and I think that’s what he wanted. He evidently liked my style. He wanted me to bring my flair to the table, so it’s like a dream situation. It’s like, “Okay, I want you to learn my catalog, but I want you to play it how you would play it.” That’s the dream situation.
Any work scenario that I get in, I try to respect the producers of the music. I feel like the fans like the original for certain reasons, so even though he gave me that freedom, I still know that the White Stripes thing will need that foundation. So I didn’t go out too far, but when I had time I would add my flavor. That’s been my concept. If anybody wants me to cover their tunes, I want to play as closely as possible to the original but also add my taste.
It’s cool, because with Jack we’re on an adventure. We’re off the cuff. We don’t know. We’re on the same roller-coaster ride as the audience, and that’s how he wants it to be. There’s no set list. Sometimes he’ll come over and call the songs off to us, or sometimes you have to just listen and hear what he’s playing. And then sometimes he just plays stuff that we’ve never rehearsed before. [laughs] So it’s a cool situation.
MD: There’s a lot of personality in your beats, including your tom work. The beat on “Would You Fight for My Love?” from Lazaretto is kind of an updated Ginger Baker groove.
Daru: It’s funny how those tunes come together. I don’t want to give away the secret to how he does stuff, but with James Brown and some of the greats, it’s amazing how those songs come together. From what I was told, a lot of that James Brown stuff just came out of them jamming out, and then James would hear something and say, “Play that again,” and just tell them to loop it. Same as D’Angelo’s Voodoo—I heard that a lot of that stuff just came from jamming out, then they would find something they liked that was cool and embellish that.
A lot of times in the recording studio I’m listening to the music and I’ll be fumbling around playing something. Then the producer will be like, “What was that you just did? Let’s do that.” So that was…not a mistake, but just an idea that ended up being a part of the track.
MD: It pays to put those ideas out there.
Daru: I respect Jack’s production mindset, you know. It’s cool, because I’m a producer too, so even though he was picking stuff out, I was like, Yeah, I’m a producer—I would do the same thing. It’s cool to be in that scenario where my voice is respected, because that isn’t always the case. Sometimes they want you to know that you’re the sideman and you’re the work for hire, and I get it—they’re the star. But this scenario has always been about us shining and giving us a voice and letting us be heard, and I appreciate that.
MD: The track “Lazaretto” has a great live drum sound, like an old Jeff Beck track.
Daru: That track was totally inspired by hip-hop. It was inspired by…um, I can mention this because he brought it up in an interview. It was inspired by MC Lyte. She’s a rapper—I hate to say “old school” [laughs], but MC Lyte has a song called “Cha Cha Cha” with a similar rhythm, but we played it our own way and added our own power to it.
MD: You and Jack had good chemistry from the beginning.
Daru: Yeah, he just treated me like family. Another thing that sparked his interest…I remember us going to eat right before the rehearsal, and he asked me which drummers I liked and listened to. I said, “Well, Terry Bozzio.” My mom got me his first instructional tape. I don’t think Jack expected me to say that, but I think he was impressed, because I heard from one of the other band members that he was like, “This guy’s going to be my friend.” And we just clicked after that.
MD: That’s a real nice beat you came up with on the track “Hero” by Jaqee, from the album Yes I Am.
Daru: That came from my band the Ruff Pack. They’re Vienna based, and when we tour in Europe sometimes we’ll feature a rapper or a singer. One time in Germany the booking agent connected us together, and her producers loved my drumming. They sent me files from Germany and I recorded a few songs for her project, and “Hero” is one of those tracks. In those situations I feel like the music tells me what to do. They didn’t give me any instructions, so I had to put the producer’s cap on. When I heard the track, that’s what came to mind.
MD: The Ruff Pack could be described as John Scofield meets J Dilla.
Daru: Our concept was pretty much fusing jazz into hip-hop. And sometimes in the midst of us producing our own compositions, we cover instrumentals from some of our favorite producers—J Dilla, Premier, Pete Rock, and so on. It’s cool to bring those two worlds together. That was our mission, fusing jazz and hip-hop, playing our own tunes. Sometimes we’ll do a Dilla cover and we’ll come back, so that’s one of my favorite work scenarios, just being able to play music that I’m a fan of.
The Ruff Pack has a special new project that we’re shopping around. It’s a tribute to Thelonious Monk, a mix of our vibe, hip-hop, and Monk, and it’s cool. And I want to continue to build my own brand, Rusic Records. I put out my first real project with my sister Rena, called Honey. I did all the production and electronics. I want people to know that I’m a producer as well, working with new artists and expanding with that.
MD: Your kit setup is unconventional, especially the angles of your drums and cymbals.
Daru: That’s been my setup for eight or nine years, and it came about from me just trying to be unique and have a voice. Playing hip-hop, that’s what it was all about—being original and having some way of standing out. So I started doing the “jazz tilt” with the snare drum first, and then I wondered what would happen if I tried the floor tom and then the cymbals. So it all just kind of came from me wanting my drums a certain way, and eventually I grew into it.
I used to emulate Vinnie’s setup, with the China on the left. So I’ve tried different setups, but eventually I wanted to have my own. Another reason was that I had a small car. [laughs] I started getting a lot of work, and I was trying to figure out a way to get all the gear in my car. I was like, Man, I’m just going to take a snare drum and a kick. It actually challenged me, because I had to learn not to depend on toms to be creative, and do fills with this simplistic setup.
MD: You also challenge the traditional “seated drummer” concept more than most.
Daru: I saw showmanship at a young age. Even Dana Davis and those pocket drummers, they all had showmanship, something that was uniquely special. Being a fan of Gene Krupa, I liked watching him, because he was real animated. Steve Gadd is very animated. I’m doing it because that’s what I feel. I feel like I become the drum. I want people to feel the vibrations that I’m feeling, so when I stand up and do it, I’m doing it because it’s coming from the heart.
Drums: DW in gold galaxy finish
A. 8″ LP Micro Snare
B. 5.5×10 tom
C. 4×13 snare
D. 5×18 bass drum
E. 6×12 tom
1. 16″ hi-hats (Signature Precision crash top/Rude Thin crash bottom; also uses 16″ PST X Swiss Hats)
2. 20″ Masters Dark crash
3. 22″ Signature Dark Energy ride Mark I
Hardware: DW, including 6500 hi-hat,
6300 snare stand, 6710 cymbal stands, DWCP9900AL Heavy Duty Air Lift double tom stand, MDD double pedal, and 9100 Workhorse throne
Heads: Evans, including Hydraulic Black snare and tom batters and Hydraulic Glass bottoms, EMAD Onyx bass drum batter, and Inked by Evans front head with Rusic Records logo
Sticks: Promark Select Balance Forward Balance 580 sticks and Hot Rods
Percussion: LP Jam Block, Cyclops tambourine, and Rock Ridge Rider cowbell
Accessories: LP Mini Everything rack, Maxonix Zero-G Anti-Gravity stick holder
Ron Winans Family & Friends Choir lll (Dana Davis) /// Kim Burrell Try Me Again (Chris Dave) /// Bob James One (Steve Gadd, Idris Muhammad, Ralph MacDonald) /// the Police Ghost in the Machine (Stewart Copeland) /// Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage (Vinnie Colaiuta) /// Chick Corea Elektric Band ll Paint the World (Gary Novak) /// Vinnie Colaiuta Vinnie Colaiuta (Vinnie Colaiuta) /// the Roots Do You Want More?!!!??! (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) /// Gang Starr Hard to Earn (DJ Premier) /// D’Angelo Voodoo (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) /// J Dilla Welcome 2 Detroit (J Dilla, Karriem Riggins)