Trey Songz tour drummer and musical director Antwan J. Thompson always had big plans for himself. You can consider the bold nickname he’s had since he was a kid as evidence.
It’s been quite a journey for thirty-three-year- old Antwan J. Thompson, aka Amadeus. Thompson’s passion for music started when he was a youngster growing up in the Bronx, New York, where he took drum lessons at his elementary school and later played drums and piano in school bands and at church. Soon he was known as Amadeus and began making waves in the community. “I remember seeing the movie Amadeus in school,” Thompson recalls, “and feeling that we were similar in many ways. I’ll admit that at first I didn’t really like the name. But when I heard people call me Amadeus, it had a ring to it that felt epic. And as time went on I learned it means ‘loves God.’ I’m big on spirituality, so it all made sense.”
Today Thompson can say that he’s contributed as a producer, songwriter, and musician to gold and platinum records by, among others, Trey Songz, Foxy Brown, 50 Cent and Fabolous, Justin Bieber, Bow Wow, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, CeeLo, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, and Jennifer Lopez. He’s been featured multiple times on BET’s Rap City and 106 & Park shows. In 2008 Thompson signed on as a member of the Hitmen, the production team for Sean “Diddy” Combs. Soon after that, he acted as a guest judge on Diddy’s MTV show Making His Band, doing double duty as musical director for the rap mogul’s Dirty Money band.
More recently, Amadeus produced two songs on a Chris Brown mixtape called X-Files, music for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and the title track of Jennifer Lopez’s latest album, Same Girl, which was co-written by Brown. Currently he’s working on Brown’s album X and on Tiffany Mynon’s The Angel of R&B EP and album.
We caught up with the soft-spoken multi-talent during a break from a world tour with Trey Songz.
MD: Let’s talk about how you got started playing drums.
Amadeus: I had the opportunity to attend Catholic school, and it was part of the curriculum to learn a musical instrument. I was home sick on the day I was to choose which instrument I wanted to learn, so I was forced to choose between the violin and percussion. They were the only two classes that had spots available. As a young boy I didn’t feel it was cool to learn the violin, so I chose percussion. I didn’t know what “percussion” meant, but I went with it anyway and eventually studied drums, xylophone, congas—basically anything that had to do with rhythm.
The more I took the class, the more I felt it was natural to me. I would catch on fast and be able to play the rhythm patterns the teacher played, exactly how he played them. And then before I knew it, I fell in love with the drums, always wanting to play, whether it was on the actual drumset or the lunchroom table. This was in the fourth grade, and after about two years drumming became a passion and I searched for it everywhere.
MD: What players influenced you early on?
Amadeus: One Sunday morning my mom took me to Faith Temple COTLG church, in the northern part of the Bronx, and I heard a drummer by the name of Steven White play. My life changed that day. I never heard drums played like that before. I thought my teacher was good, but I learned he had nothing on the dude I was listening to that day. [laughs] So I said to myself that night, If I practice, I can sound like that!
After that, I was full speed ahead with being a musician, and I never looked back. Wanting to learn more about my craft, I began to research all types of drummers who would have an influence on me, like Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta, Virgil Donati, and Chris Dave.
MD: When and how did you get into producing?
Amadeus: After about five years of learning and studying drums I decided to give production a shot. The minister of music at my church had just purchased a brand-new Roland XP-50 keyboard, and when I saw it I was amazed and asked if I could borrow it. To my surprise he said yes. So I borrowed the keyboard for months at a time, returning it to him on rehearsal nights and Sundays for church, and I stayed in the house not wanting to do anything but make music. The more I created music, the more it became a passion, and once I realized that I could make it my career, I did just that. Eventually I graduated to an Akai MPC2000XL, which is a very useful drum sampler, and by using that to the best of my ability I was able to create some amazing music that allowed me to produce so many artists.
MD: How did you get into drum programming?
Amadeus: I started at the age of fifteen, programming and sequencing songs on that Roland XP-50. It had a drum bank with hundreds of sounds. I wanted to pursue a career in producing hip-hop and R&B, and unlike rock and gospel, which used live instrumentation, hip-hop producers pretty much used keyboards, drum samplers, turntables, and vinyl to create music. Since I wanted to have that same style and sound, I learned not only how to create music but to program it using different pieces of equipment.
MD: What other gear besides the MPC2000XL did you use?
Amadeus: The Roland JP-8000 and Korg microKorg [analog modeling synths], the M-Audio Radium MIDI keyboard, Pro Tools 10 [DAW], the Digidesign Digi 002 rack and Avalon VT-737sp [interfaces], and Stanton’s CMP.800 CD player, SA.3 mixer, and T.92 turntable. As a drummer, it’s not as hard as you think playing with a machine or loops, because you have a click count, either in your in-ears or monitor, which pretty much keeps you in time. Constantly hearing a loud woodblock sound counting 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, it’s really difficult to lose the timing or count. I was comfortable playing to a machine the first time I tried it.
MD: What led you to hook up with Trey Songz and become his musical director?
Amadeus: At the time I was working on an album for a very successful hip-hop artist that was signed to Warner Bros. Records, Mike Jones. We created a song in the studio called “I Know,” and Mike said to me, “We need to feature a male R&B artist on this song.” So we bounced ideas off of each other and agreed that Trey Songz would be perfect. Trey being signed to Atlantic Records made life easy, because the record labels were both under the same umbrella. So we flew Trey to Houston and recorded and mixed the record. In the process of finishing the song, I noticed a drumset in the corner of the studio, and I mentioned to Mike and Trey that I played the drums. No one believed me, so I said to Trey, “One day you’ll need a band, especially with the direction you’re going musically.”
About a year later I got a phone call from Trey’s former manager Delante Murphy, asking, “Are you ready to put the band together for Trey?” “Absolutely!” That was seven years ago, and since then we’ve toured all around the world with me as his music director and drummer.
MD: How would you describe your playing style?
Amadeus: I’m blessed to be versatile, but I would say that gospel, R&B/hip-hop, and pop are my strongest genres. In gospel music I feel you’re able to open up more on the kit with various licks, fills, and band cuts. I do so much more playing in that genre. In R&B/hip-hop, I pretty much play the pocket, making sure that I basically re-create the feel of the original track from the album.
I remember when I first started touring and playing for Trey, a fan came up to me after a show and said, “What happened to the song ‘Missin’ You’? It didn’t sound right.” We’d rearranged some pretty nice band cuts and flipped the bridge, and to us in the band it was hot, but the song had become unrecognizable to the audience. After that conversation with that fan, I realized it was important to only add colors when necessary. Sometimes less is more.
MD: What’s next for you?
Amadeus: Trey Songz is currently working on a new album, so we’ll be hitting the road, touring the world.
MUSIC THAT ROCKS AMADEUS
Kim Burrell Try Me Again /// Dave Weckl Hard-Wired /// Gene Lake Cycles (especially the track “Steppin’ Up”) /// Mint Condition Definition of a Band /// Mutemath “Typical”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Amadeus plays DW drums, Paiste cymbals, Vater sticks, and Evans heads and endorses Monster Products, KRK Systems, Stanton DJ, and Akai Professional equipment.