Rashid Williams

John Legend and Jill Scott’s Rashid Williams

Deep in Spirit,

Deep in Soul

Story by Ken Micallef

Photos by Paul La Raia

Rashid Williams has always been attracted to powerful people. When he was seven years old and attending church in Jersey City, New Jersey, the drummer with the best groove nabbed the drum chair, whether it was Rashid or the other drummers in his family—who happened to be his mother and father. Now twenty-nine, Williams is still lodged between powerful male and female figures, the R&B giants John Legend and Jill Scott, who’ve employed him for eight and five years, respectively. 

Like many musicians in the sample-addicted worlds of hip-hop and R&B, Williams has recorded relatively few albums. But his serious presence has been felt on the bandstands of Alicia Keys, N.E.R.D, Diddy’s Dirty Money, Eric Roberson, Goapele, and J. Cole, and perhaps most notably with Scott, with whom he’s employed as both drummer and musical director, and Legend, where his surging pocket proclivities turn the singer’s sample-filled hit songs into rousing gospel-worthy anthems. And once you see any of the widely viewed videos he’s done for Vic Firth, Toca, or Zildjian, it’s easy to understand why. Williams’ full-set fluidity, powerful beats, and startling dynamics are conveyed with an effortlessness that is inherent in many natural players—this man was obviously born to groove. But he also shows technique to spare, roaring around the kit, ripping off complex figures and over-the-barline extensions with incredible grace.

Williams is largely self-taught, with no formal training—but the persistent and curious drummer hardly views these facts as barriers. The title of his recent PASIC clinic, “No Theory, No Problem: Developing Musicality Without a Theory Background,” certainly makes that clear. “That describes my life!” Williams says, then reemphasizes, more seriously, “You can have a career without heavy formal training.”

An avid soundtrack collector whose trick bag extends to rock and jazz in a pinch, Williams recently completed the recording of his debut album as a leader, Another Side of Me, which at press time was in the can and awaiting mixing and mastering. Featuring tracks that at times recall the music of one of his heroes, Phil Collins, but also ambient late-night journeys and serious instrumental soul, Another Side of Me reveals a major talent that deserves to be heard far beyond the drumming community.

MD: You’ve been with John Legend for eight years. What keeps that gig challenging, assuming it is?

Rashid: Oh, it’s definitely challenging. It stays challenging because John plays piano with us, so he needs to be fed on more levels than simply “John Legend, the artist.” He’s also a part of this band. So he knows his album loops, he knows all the drum parts. The challenge for me has always been to cater to him as an artist, give him all [the drumming that’s on] his records, and make sure he hears the patterns and loops, but also cater to him as a musician and give him that onstage energy. He still wants to feel like part of the band, so we have to connect as piano player and drummer in the rhythm section.

MD: Can you stretch and improvise on the gig?

Rashid: Yes, there are a few tunes where we watch for his cues as to when to stretch. With John we definitely have a lot of freedom. He’s a musician; he wants to feel the stage. “I Can Change” is a big one in our live show for stretching. “Green Light” was and still is the song where John really allows me to express myself and fill in the gaps. That was also one of my audition songs.

MD: What was the audition process?

Rashid: I’d just come off the road with N.E.R.D. John called and set up an audition for a week later at SIR in New York. He sent me five songs. In the audition it was John playing piano, his MD on keys, and his bass player. I walked in; John called out “Show Me.” Then he asked to play through a couple more songs. Then he said, “I want to hear you solo over ‘Green Light.’ Show me what you can do.” We finished and he said, “I’ll be in touch.” The “Green Light” solo became the way we ended the show on my first tour. I added some stuff during the audition—I’m big on setting up changes. I wanted to make sure John knew that I knew every change in his music. I still keep the foundational patterns, but I always add a little bit. Two days after the audition John called and said I had the gig.

MD: How has your drumming changed over the years with John?

Rashid: I like to think I’m a little more polished. Your creativity grows the more you play a gig, because it has to. Even artists who you’ve been with for a long time want it to sound new. John has to feel like I’m continually showing him new things.

MD: Do you play with a click or sequenced tracks live?

Rashid: Jill Scott’s gig is completely without a click. Alicia Keys’ gig is entirely to a click. With my being Jill’s musical director, doing away with the click track and Pro Tools came from her desire for a free stage where everyone could be themselves. She hired us to play. We play from the heart all the time. John’s show is integrated—some tracks still run with click tracks, some songs are just the band. With John, on some songs album sounds are included in the live mix, often the tracks with heavy samples. It’s often down to time limits. You want to stick to a specific set length, and that’s hard to gauge without a click track.

MD: The drum tracks on most R&B records today are loops and samples. Why is that?

Rashid: Jill Scott’s new album has a lot of live drums, played by Chris Dave, Lil John Roberts, and others. You have drummers like Chris who thrive on session work. Most of the major R&B records with live drumming, it’s Chris. He had a lot to do with Maxwell and Adele’s records and the early Mint Condition albums. Producers call the drummers they know best. That’s how I got on the Ledisi record The Truth. A friend called me to play on some tracks, which they then submitted to Ledisi. But hip-hop drumming is a lot of sampling. Kendrick Lamar mixed it up on To Pimp a Butterfly; he had Robert “Sput” Searight on drums on some tracks.

MD: What does it take for a drummer such as you to break into recording more albums?

Rashid: The live world and the studio world are very separate. The live event is a translation of the studio event. The producers have the guys they call, just like the musical directors do. I spend ten months of the year on tour, which leaves me little time to create relationships with record producers. I’m not that frustrated about it…yet. I always remind people that they can trust me in the studio as well as live. I always speak to the producers at shows. I did a session where the song began as a John Legend track and ended up with Jennifer Hudson. But that particular song didn’t make the cut for either of their records! When it’s time for you to collect, you hope they remember your name.

MD: Has all of this made you more business savvy?

Rashid: For sure. These transactions that come from working within R&B…you learn so much. It never stops. When Jill was recording, she’d let us hear the tracks and I’d wonder, Who is this drummer? Is it a sample? Or did someone play, then they sampled that? So I get exposed to both sides of the business, live and studio. You have to know both in order to survive.

MD: How is your groove different when you’re playing with Jill Scott as opposed to John Legend?

Rashid: They want what we call “the live translation”—for example, when we play Jill Scott’s “Hate on Me.” The recorded version of the song is mid-tempo, energetic, but very radio friendly. On stage, Jill wants to feel more aggression. She wants the drums to heighten the experience of the lyrics. It’s the same with John when we do “Green Light,” which was one of his biggest hits and was recorded with sequenced drums. John wants the energy, the feel that people need to dance, but he wants the drums to accent more places in the arrangement and get busier in certain spots, because that brings extra excitement to the music. John lets me play, and even he starts dancing.

MD: Does one artist want you to sit more behind or ahead of the beat than the other?

Rashid: Jill definitely likes me to sit in it a little more than John does. She wants me to make it feel really good. If that means lay back, I do that, or if she wants more aggression, I give her that—whatever it takes to make her feel good about the groove. John’s thing is to play the tempos on the record. And he likes me to push the beat a little bit more, a smidgen ahead of the beat. That keeps his excitement going. But they both give me a lot of freedom to do what I do.

MD: In one online video, “Rashid Williams in the Toca Studio,” you’re playing very clean, over-the-barline note groups, with great feel and fluidity. What did you practice to achieve that level of clarity?

Rashid: My practice regimen as a kid was to play for hours and hours, as long as my family could stand it. I’ve never had formal training, so part of it was being hard on myself and being a perfectionist. I focused on being clean. I don’t like anything sloppy, from my closets to my drumming! I want everything to be felt and heard, from the ghost notes to the snare drum crack. I want it to be spic ’n’ span.

I practiced a lot of repetition. I videotaped myself practicing as well as playing at Brown Memorial Church in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in my dad’s church, Share the Love Ministries. I grew up in a church environment, and both of my parents played drums in church. My dad would push me off the drums in church so he could play! But I developed a habit of listening to the band more than to myself. I like music, not just drums.

MD: What did playing drums in church give you?

Rashid: Ears. Church developed my ear more than I could ever have imagined. A lot of drummers who play by ear now grew up playing in church, where many of the band directors don’t necessarily have formal music training. The leader, who usually plays an instrument, might direct you with a body motion to give you a signal. Now, certain chord changes will direct me in regards to a turnaround in the music. I know what that sounds and feels like because of playing in church. The old hymns and gospel songs are standard, and they lead you; once you learn to hear that, playing R&B music is a breeze. It all comes from the same source.

Rashid Williams

MD: Did you study from any instructional manuals?

Rashid: I didn’t know about that until I was much older. I remember sitting with some guys from Mapex in Frankfurt, Germany, when Dom Famularo—who I love; he makes you want to do great things—started talking about calluses. “If you have calluses,” he said, “you’re doing something wrong. Maybe you’re gripping the sticks wrong.” Those acted as lessons for me. My technique changed after that. I started warming up more with the rudiments. And I paid attention to my grip. I was using a smaller stick then. Now I hold the stick more loosely and I play a heavier and longer stick. The Vic Firth [American Classic] eStick I use is meant for electronic drums. It’s like a thicker, longer HD4. That stick, along with Dom’s remarks, created a big change. I had to reevaluate my drumming and make sure I don’t get carpal tunnel from playing with the wrong technique.

MD: So you learned all the rudiments.

Rashid: Yes, the Vic Firth rudiments poster was very helpful. I was a grown adult looking at that chart. I also learned the difference between French and German grip. And I began warming up, and I learned traditional grip. These were all things I practiced. Sometimes I use traditional grip, depending on the groove. Sometimes I’ll hold the stick near the butt end so I can accentuate ghost notes and make the most of the weight. The weight of the stick helps the backbeat too.

MD: How did you become adept at playing odd-note stickings, as you do in the Toca video? Does that style begin for you with Dennis Chambers?

Rashid: Dennis Chambers, Tony Williams, Vinnie Colaiuta. The guys I looked up to looked up to them, such as Erik Tribbett, Lil John Roberts, and Brian Frasier-Moore. John Roberts’ solo on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope Tour video—I watched that so many times, until I understood what he was doing.

As a kid I would practice doubles and triples on my bass drum for three or four hours. I play a single-pedal setup. I played everything equally between hands and feet. I would trade off hands: double on my left hand, double on my foot; double on my right hand, double on my foot. Then I would do the same thing with triples. Then quadruplets between limbs. I pushed my body to the limit. That’s how you get better.

MD: Did you practice slowly? And to a metronome?

Rashid: Yes, though I didn’t own a metronome until I was in my twenties. But I practiced as long as my parents would let me or until I got it. If I felt my foot was deficient, I would focus on that. I would start slow, work up to a high speed, and hold it there for a while or until I achieved my goal.

MD: In your Vic Firth Performance Spotlight video you play double-time 16th-note triplets over a funk groove, which Dennis Chambers popularized. How did you become proficient at executing that level of complexity over a groove?

Rashid: I listened to a lot of fusion growing up. I saw Dennis Chambers with Santana; he has so much finesse and control. I took note of that, and when I practiced I tried to replicate those ideas. Dennis made it look easy, but he accomplished so much. That made me realize I had to figure out how to play with more finesse. I had to learn how to be effective even when playing softly. So I practiced, practiced, practiced. The Vic Firth video is pretty much me practicing in front of the camera. I’ll push myself; I’ll see how long I can play a bass drum figure, or how long I can play polyrhythms between two hands. Constantly push yourself until you hurt or until you get it.

MD: What’s your ideal practice routine when you’re off the road?

Rashid: When I’m off the road, often I won’t touch my drums. I need a break. But I have sticks in every room. I’m playing rudiments on everything. The drums are always deep in my spirit; they’re always deep in my soul.

MD: You’ve had such a great career. Do you have any unmet goals?

Rashid: I’ve been working on my solo record, Another Side of Me, for a long time. The goal is not to sell a bunch of records but for people to hear what goes on with me outside playing the drums. There’s not one drum solo on my record. That’s how Phil Collins stands out to me. On “In the Air Tonight,” the drums are so heavy, but you almost forget that he’s a drummer. You just enjoy the vibe. But as a drummer I want to keep outdoing myself—and I want an alternative-rock gig!

Rashid’s Setup

Rashid Williams kir

Drums: Mapex Saturn V
A. 6.5×14 Black Panther
Sledgehammer snare
B. 7×14 Black Panther Phat Bob snare
C. 8×10 tom
D. 9×12 tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 20×22 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 15″ A New Beat hi-hats
2. 18″ K EFX crash
3. 10″ A Custom EFX splash/10″ Oriental China Trash stack
4. 19″ K Dark Thin crash
5. 22″ Medium K Dark ride
6. 14″ A Custom EFX crash/14″ Oriental China Trash stack
7. 19″ Kerope crash
8. 20″ Oriental Crash of Doom

Electronics: Roland BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad (mounted on Phat Bob snare) and SPD-SX sampling pad

Sticks: Vic Firth American Classic eStick

Heads: Evans G14 batter and 300 resonant on Phat Bob snare, Hybrid batter and 300 resonant on Sledgehammer snare, Black Chrome tom batters and Black resonants, and EMAD bass drum batter

Influences
Kim Burrell Everlasting Life (Doobie Powell), Try Me Again (Chris Dave, Teddy Campbell, Jeremy Gaddie, Jimmy Neuble) /// Phil Collins Face Value (Phil Collins) /// Sting Ten Summoner’s Tales (Vinnie Colaiuta) /// George Duke Face the Music (Lil John Roberts) /// Jill Scott Experience: Jill Scott 826+ (Erik Tribbett, Luke Parkhouse) /// Chris Dave And the Drumhedz (Chris Dave) /// Mint Condition Definition of a Band (Stokley Williams, Chris Dave) /// Sly and the Family Stone Greatest Hits (Greg Errico, Andy Newmark) /// Muse The Resistance (Dominic Howard) /// The Roots all (Questlove) /// John Mayer (any with Steve Jordan) /// Fela Kuti (any with Tony Allen)

Recordings
South Jersey Mass Choir Christmas With South Jersey Mass Choir///Jeff Bradshaw Home: One Special Night at the Kimmel Center///Ledisi The Truth