The great drummer, known for his work with Santana, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Jackson, among many others, passed away on February 3. This interview originally ran in the November 1983 issue of Modern Drummer.
Ndugu. The name in Swahili means “Earth Brother.” In drumming, Ndugu Leon Chancler’s aura is that of a powerhouse, with his head in the stars and his feet planted firmly in the groove—the pulse of the earth.
Listeners in the ’70s may have heard Ndugu bounce from Herbie Hancock to George Duke to Santana, with stints in Jean-Luc Ponty’s band and Weather Report also increasing his visibility. He also briefly led a band of his own, the Chocolate Jam Company.
In the ’80s, Ndugu has become a top, high-salary session player in Los Angeles, performing on recent releases by Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and Kenny Rogers. He’s formed Ranee Productions with Reggie Andrews, and the two are producing R&B acts. They wrote the Dazz Band’s hit “Let It Whip. ” Ndugu’s production credits through the years include Flora Purim, Bill Summers, George Duke, and Santana LPs.
In 1983, Ndugu is doing some touring with a band called Stars of the ’80s, featuring keyboardist Patrice Rushen, bassist Alphonso Johnson, and reed man Ernie Watts. It is a return to jazz and progressive music roots for these players, and at their Berkeley Jazz Festival appearance, Ndugu threatened to steal the show.
At times he seems rocket-propelled, rising high off his throne to backhand a crash. He plays standing up. He dances out from his kit to high-step at a set of timbales. He leans back completely out of sight before straining up to ignite a song-ending explosion. And before the song is over, he has put sticks emphatically through two drumheads.
RT: You are one of the more visually entertaining drummers I’ve seen. Have you worked at putting on a good show, or is it natural?
NC: It started off being natural, but in the later years I’ve become conscious of it. After the modes of music I was playing changed, it was very important to become more visual. When a person pays money to go to a concert, it’s not exciting if they just hear what they want to hear. People go to a concert to get inside what you are, where you’re coming from, and get a feeling of you as a person, and whatever they see, they lock that into their minds and take that home with them. It’s important, since drums is an instrument that can never be in front, for them to at least get a feeling of what I’m really about. With the music changing to be more show-oriented, everyone on the stage has to realize that they are on a stage, and function in that light. Inside of it being a concert there should still be some show involved.
RT: How does a drummer go about working on the visual?
NC: I think a lot of what I’ve acquired has come from just practicing the craft itself. When you take tennis lessons, the first thing the instructor tells you is to get in front of the mirror and watch your motion so you are aware of what you’re doing. When practicing in my earlier years, I used to sit in front of a mirror, and I just got a mirror image of what I was doing. After gaining a little response from that, I started taking it further and further. Some of the other drummers were only doing things like that because of the reach of their drums. One thing that I had to do live was change my setup so people could see me. I gained consciousness of that working with Santana. When I first started working with Santana I had a lot of things in front of me, and it was pointed out to me that people are coming to see the band. They can hear you from anywhere in the house, but when you get good seats you want to be a part of what’s going on onstage. So I cleared out the front of my whole drumkit. I raised my cymbals up higher and took out all the tom-toms in front of me.
RT: The way your cymbals are set up forces you to be visual.
NC: Yeah. When you get into speed and comfortability, the closer everything is to you the more it’s at your reach—you don’t have to go anywhere to get it. But when you start talking about power, along with seeing a show, then I think it’s very important to utilize the distance of the area that I can reach all the way around the whole drum system. It’s very important for the rhythm section players to utilize the space that they take up on the stage in whatever way—spinning around, jumping around, or whatever. I think my most visual moments are when I’m out front at the timbales. I’ve got a little dance that I do, and I play and spin around. I do all kinds of tricks just to give people an idea that, yes, I’m a drummer, but I’m also aware that I’m on a stage and I come to get you off.
RT: You had amazing extension of your arms on some of the crash-roll combinations you were doing.
NC: Well, I’ve been developing this setup since about ’75. Once you become aware of what you’re trying to do, and mentally you get ready for it, then it’s just a matter of developing it. I know where everything is, so I don’t have to look. It’s just a matter of knowing what to play where, to get the visual effect along with complementing the music.
RT: Could we go back to your very beginnings?
NC: Alright. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, July 1, 1952. I didn’t really start playing drums until I moved to Los Angeles, even though that was one of my main interests from when I was six years old. I used to make little drums out of oatmeal boxes and coffee cans. I never even really had a pair of drumsticks; I just created my own little thing. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I got an opportunity to play real drums. Once I got into it, I kind of OD’d on it. I was going to school for mathematics, but the music bug hit me and I really got into it. I moved to L.A. in 1960. I went to junior high school, where I started my musical career, and moved on to high school, where I changed my major to music education, so my emphasis then was totally on music. I was in the band and orchestra and taking music classes too—theory and harmony and all that. I went to Locke High School, which was one of the key black music schools in the city in the years to follow. I and maybe five to seven other people were the ones responsible for setting up the musical base in the school, because we were the first to go through and become successful. The band itself was one of the best bands in the city and the state, and won all the competitions. We marched in the Rose Parade and so forth. At that point I started branching off into other areas of drums. I really devoted a lot of time to percussion, mallet instruments, and timpani. I never really took any private lessons, but I got a lot of private influence during that time. One thing that kept me from getting private lessons was that I couldn’t afford it. I’m the youngest out of seven, and there really wasn’t any money left over for a profession that a family didn’t know that much about. So it was kind of trial and error. It worked for me. It’s not something that I encourage, but it’s worked for me. And I was fortunate to go through it like that.
I attended college for two years at Cal. State, Domingus Hills, with a major in Music Ed., and then I dropped out. I really got too busy to absorb the school thing. Plus, it didn’t seem at the time to be very functional for what I was trying to do musically. I can see where it would be valuable now, but at the time, I didn’t see it that way.
RT: You had a rudimental background then, from school?
NC: Oh definitely. Being that I couldn’t afford private lessons I had to get it any way I could. I learned from people like Raymond Pounds, who took private lessons from one of the better teachers in the area, and there was another drummer who didn’t go to the school but took lessons from Ed Thigpen. Also, I became very close to Stix Hooper. All my technical knowledge came basically from those three areas of people, along with the band directors at school. I had the same band directors from Gompers Junior High to Locke High School.
My first exposure to really great names in jazz was in 1968. The band director at the school took me to the Pacific Jazz Festival in Costa Mesa. Don Ellis had a big band with two drummers. Buddy Rich was there. The Crusaders were there. Jack DeJohnette was there with Charles Lloyd. And that was really a treat for me. I ended up backstage talking with all the guys and getting autographs. I think that was my greatest inspiration of knowing what was in store for me later on, and what I had to do—how much work I had to do. I saw a crossbreed of very talented and great drummers playing different music at the same time. That let me know that if I was going to be successful in this, I really had to get everything together. So I’d like to say I had private lessons without paying. That’s what it boils down to. Stix Hooper put me on some books. The other guys showed me things that their teachers taught them.
RT: What was it, when you were six years old, that made you start making those drums and banging away?
NC: It’s really strange. I’ve seen pictures of me from three and four on up, and all my life there’s been like a show-biz air around my personality. When I was a kid I’d get a broom and act like I was playing guitar, or act like I had a microphone. It wasn’t something that I was conscious of. I think I felt some form of music at all times. When I was six my family bought me a guitar, and I got blisters on my fingers because I wasn’t aware you were supposed to use a pick. I didn’t get anything out of it, but something during that time kept driving me to rhythm. When I was washing dishes I’d pick up two steak knives and start beating them—drive everybody crazy. It wasn’t something I was conscious of until I was denied it. In the 6th grade they had a little elementary school band, and I told the music instructor I wanted to play the drums. She said they already had a drummer and wanted me to play trombone, so I said, “Well, I won’t be in the band.” That was that, because I think at that point, I was really starting to feel that it was something I wanted to do, despite the fact that I never had the opportunity. So it was just a matter of time. I ended up having to prove a point to my family too, because like I said earlier, the whole area of entertainment and music was very foreign to my family. That made me work that much harder.
RT: You hear a lot of talk in music about how success is being in the right place at the right time, and who you know. How much of it do you think is that, and how much is persistence and hard work?
NC: I think the persistence and the working hard is what guarantees your longevity, and being able to hang in there once you get a break. But there is so much luck involved in becoming successful that it is being in the right place at the right time. As human beings we all have talent. We’re all not always aware, when it counts, of what our true talents are. The ones who ended up being successful are the ones who are a little aware of their talent—maybe not totally but to some degree aware of their talent—and develop it to a point that when an opportunity comes for them to show that talent, they can utilize that space.
I think I was lucky that various people were attracted to the area that I was in. Herbie Hancock came to the school and performed, and I had a chance to perform with him. Gerald Wilson took an interest in the school. Nelson Riddle had a little workshop once a week that I was involved with. So I was involved with enough of a crossbreed of influence which inspired me that much more to get it all together. Then it was a matter of getting the break. I think I jumped on the bandwagon during a very lean period, when they were searching for new talent. The music was making a transition. We were coming out of the heavy bebop, straight-ahead jazz thing and into the fusion. I think at that time they were looking.
I think the most important thing is your attitude. There were, and still are, a lot of musicians who have more technique than I have, or more talent. But inside the talent is a way of not only knowing how to manipulate it through the ranks to get the maximum out of it, but there is also an attitude that you must project to make people feel you as a person. I very much wanted to get along with everybody, and wanted to add as much as I could to whatever situation. From the beginning, I wanted to be a workhorse, and I had to work harder at drumming than some of my peers. There was a guy I grew up with who was much more advanced than I was at the time. Right now you can’t give him away. Much more talent than I had at the time, but the thing that was missing was the knowledge of how to utilize that in the marketplace of the music and not just in his own home or practice room. He had the talent but it didn’t work for him, overall.
RT: When did you play with Miles Davis?
NC: I played with Miles when I was a little kid. I was 19, and I wasn’t ready to be with Miles. That’s the only gig I regret. When I went with Miles I had just gotten fired from Freddie Hubbard’s band. Miles called me, and the last person on this earth that I thought I’d ever play with was Miles Davis. I was in shock. Part of my performance on the gig was based on that. I was in shock. Some nights I played good and some nights I didn’t, because I watched Miles and got into Miles, and forgot that I was with Miles and needed to be playing to help Miles out. On the gigs that I played good on, I played my behind off. But on some of the other gigs nothing was happening. So I was inconsistent. One of the keys to being successful is consistency.
RT: Did you do any recording with Miles?
NC: Just some bootleg records that came out in Europe, but no real recordings.
RT: You were with Miles at 19, and Freddie Hubbard before that. Who was the first “name” that you played with?
NC: I played with Willie Bobo while I was in high school. Right after graduation from high school I played with Gerald Wilson. That was for the summer, weekends and local stuff. Then I started going out with Hugh Masekela on the weekends during college. I had gotten called to play a concert with Herbie Hancock during that time at the Forum, with Iron Butterfly. I did that, and Herbie asked me to join his band, but I wanted to stay in school because it was my first year. Herbie asked me to play on his record, and we did the Mwandishi album with two drummers. Then Herbie and I kind of gained a rapport back and forth. I started working locally at Shelly’s Manne Hole with whatever bands came to town—Eddie Harris, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, and then Freddie Hubbard. I lasted with Freddie Hubbard, I think, three weeks, and I had moved to New York for that summer to do that. So I came back, and Miles called me about a month later. I gave up everything. I was still enrolled in college and never went. That was it. After that the snowball effect started really happening.
RT: People talk a lot about Miles as a teacher.
NC: Miles Davis is one of the greatest teachers of music ever to play any instrument, but he doesn’t teach like a teacher. Miles teaches you concepts—ways of thinking—and he teaches you how to get inside yourself. He teaches you to explore yourself before you explore somebody else. Check yourself out. And he opens you up to appreciate what everybody else is doing. A lot of musicians get hung up in what they’re doing and forget that just as you play an instrument, there are 150 other people around the corner playing the same thing, trying to get where you’re trying to get. So you can’t get hung up in the vacuum of what you’re doing. You’ve got to be really receptive to what’s going on totally. Not only in music, but in society in general. All of that Miles taught me. At that point it wasn’t a question of technique, it was a question of direction. I had gotten most of my playing influence from Stix Hooper, Bruno Carr, and Herbie Hancock, in terms of the feeling I have as a player, but in terms of channeling the direction, all of that is Miles Davis. Where I am now is a product of things that Miles taught me how to think about. I learned a lot from him. I’m still learning from him. One thing I’m learning from him now is that you’re never too old to change. I think the most important thing in music is to remain contemporary. If you get hung up in what you have done, you will never do anything. And all that is what Miles is teaching.
RT: It’s not easy to play drums standing up, but you seem to enjoy it.
NC: I’m really into the history of the instrument; the evolution of drumming in America, drumming in Africa and other countries. I think before you can really play and appreciate an instrument, you’ve got to know where it came from. Then you’ve got to know about all the people who were responsible for its evolution. In terms of standing up, what I learned in my readings was that most of the great drummers were dancers. They tap danced; did vaudeville. Buddy Rich is a great example.
RT: Steve Gadd too.
NC: So understanding that gave me another insight into the whole show concept. Stand up and dance. Without the beat there is no dance anyway, so the beat itself is a dance. I just acquired that in my mode of thinking and went for it. And I practice it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I think the way my setup is aids me in doing the show things that I do. My cymbals are set up kind of high and I sit kind of low, so that means I can get up.
RT: Is the bass drum hard to play standing up?
NC: The bass drum is the easiest part, because most of the time you’re playing heavy with the ball of your foot anyway, and in watching drummers like Tony [Williams], when they sit they’re not really sitting. They’re bouncing, and everything is moving. It’s like a machine. So all you’re doing is pivoting one limb off the other, because you’re never just sitting. You’re bouncing and pivoting, and while these two feet are up you might be pivoting on your behind. While the two feet are down you might be up or you might be reaching for the cymbals or whatever. To get the power you’re pivoting. When you walk you pick up one foot and move the other one around. So that can be incorporated in playing drums. It’s just a matter of balance. It’s like a ballet dancer spinning around on one toe. So the whole dance is really part of the music. You play music to get happy, and when you get happy you might dance. It’s supposed to make you move.
RT: And there’s the fact that it is showy.
NC: Yeah, yeah. Like I told Michael Walden, I’ve got my drums set up like that to separate me from the other guys, because I can’t outplay ’em. I do what I do so people will remember me. It’s not about a great battle. Everything I do is just a result of things that I’ve had to do over the years to gain a space on the musical horizon. So far it’s worked very well for me, so I can’t fight it.
RT: Another showy thing you did was lean back real far before coming up to crash the cymbals.
NC: Like a board. It’s like, “Where is the sound coming from? I can’t see him.” And that’s the whole idea. Let’s face it, it don’t make me sound different, and I’m aware of that. But it’s a show. Buddy Rich and other drummers, they’ve always put on a show. Krupa and all of them.
RT: Do you have your feet hooked under something when you lean back like that?
NC: No, it’s balance. When you lift weights on a bench press your legs are down and you’re lying out flat. There are so many things that we do naturally as human beings that can be incorporated on the stage—it’s just a matter of being aware of what those things are. That’s really just a bench press move. It’s balance; gymnastics. The only difference is that you don’t have a bench under your whole body. So there are a number of approaches you can use: the athletic approach, the dance approach, the overall stage approach, but the results are the same. I’m very conscious of getting to those points rather than just sitting there playing. That’s been one of the complaints of other drummers during the phasing out of bebop into fusion. They were saying, “You’d be a great drummer, but you move your body too much.” Again, there was just something driving me to do that. As long as you’re doing something that people can talk about and remember, you’re okay. It’s when they forget what I’ve done that I’m seriously in trouble. I mean, if my performance yesterday suffered because I busted so many drumheads, if they remember, “Man, he tore up everything he had up there,” that’s great, because that’s part of it. So my mission is accomplished. I know I’m not going to be able to sit up there and play more drums than Jack or Tony are going to play. But for the kind of music that I’m playing, it’s up to me to enhance it to the point that people remember Ndugu and respect him on the music scene and acknowledge him as one of the cats. Like I said, it’s not about trying to outplay this drummer or that drummer. They can have that. Let me do what I do and get some acceptance from it.
RT: Do you plan to change the kind of drumhead you use, after what happened yesterday?
NC: No. What happened was, I got an order for the new Fiberskyns, and they didn’t bring them. I had run out, so I was using backstock. Live, I think my heads last about two weeks, because I’m playing them hard. And most of my drums are pitch-controlled drums, so I’m stretching and pulling beyond their tuning both ways. I’ll loosen them all the way, or my Roto-Toms will end up being very tight.
RT: How about the rest of your equipment?
NC: Well, the first thing everybody should know is that I don’t play what I play because they give it to me. I do endorse, but that’s not the primary reason I play it. I play it because, for me, it works, and some of the things I use are only made by certain people. I’ve used Paiste cymbals for thirteen years, and the first two or three years I used them I didn’t have an endorsement, but that’s what I wanted. Then, during my first year with Santana, Remo Belli came to a show with Danny Seraphine of Chicago, and he saw that the only heads I had were Remo heads. So he said, “Come on by the factory. Let’s talk.” At that point they were just developing the Roto-Toms. I was one of the pioneers of that instrument, so I endorsed that. They later developed the pedal Roto-Tom, which they are no longer going to make, but I am going to continue to play, because it’s very functional.
RT: Why is Remo stopping production of them?
NC: Because it’s too expensive. Instruments have gotten beyond the reach of the beginning musician, economically. I think there has to be more development of instruments that are accessible to the semi-professional and amateur. Myself and Billy and Narada and all of us, we play all this stuff, a lot of it because we don’t have to buy it. So we end up with fifteen to twenty drums onstage, and we ain’t bought them. Young drummers who come to see us feel like they have to have all of that to become a part of the music business. They go bankrupt trying to buy all that equipment. We’ve got to cut back in terms of equipment costs so the drummers coming up can be inspired to do their thing.
So I use all Remo drumheads. Depending on what line of drumming I’m doing—if I’m doing recording I might use a few CS heads, and I use Ambassador heads on the bass drum for recording. But generally, Fiberskyn mediums are my head. Live, I use those all the time.
Drum-wise, I use Yamaha drums exclusively, one reason being that the drums themselves are made out of a good quality wood. Number two, Yamaha is one of the few companies that will listen to some of the things I suggest. They’ve been instrumental in developing a comfortable pedal floor tom. And they’re growing and continually changing. The rims are nice, strong, heavy duty, and all the hardware is fantastic. What makes it great is that it works for me. When I’m playing two timbales, just two, I use the Latin Percussion Tito Puente model. But when I’m playing four, like you saw yesterday, I use Yamaha, because again, they listened to my feelings. They made me a graduated set of timbales, not only in depth but in diameter also. So my timbales go 15″, a deep 14″, a shallow 14″, and a 13″. That’s something that LP wouldn’t do. It gives me a little uniqueness. They don’t sound totally typical Latin, but I’m not doing totally typical Latin anyway, so it works for me.
My sticks are a specially made crossbreed that I have Pro-Mark make up once or twice a year, just for me. It’s a crossbreed between a Gretsch 1A and a Page 1A. I took the length down about 3/4″ from both sticks. I’ve got the tip of one stick and the diameter of the other stick, and the length is my own personal feeling. It’s a totally hickory wood stick, and I wouldn’t think of playing a nylon-tip stick. It’s heavy, but it’s light also. It’s a strong stick. It has a strong shaft on it. Nice bead, and the butt is fairly good size.
RT: I saw you toss one away yesterday.
NC: That’s the only stick I broke yesterday, which was surprising. That just means I got hold of a good pair to start, because they were killing them heads like crazy.
RT: You did a clinic in San Francisco a few years ago, and talked a lot about how important dynamics are for the drummer.
NC: I think a drummer’s success and notability are based on sensitivity as a musician—not as a drummer. I don’t even approach myself as a drummer. I’m an orchestrator. The drums are just the instrument I use to orchestrate—paint the picture. It is very important that you don’t lull the people to sleep with one volume or one style. I think the great drummers are the ones who can give you peaks and valleys in their performance. That’s very important. Dynamically we’re playing an instrument that naturally can be played loud and hard, but the beauty of the instrument is when it’s played soft. Just as you can get your point across loud, you can get it across more so soft because you can draw more attention, number one. Number two, dynamics and accentuations are part of music, period. For drummers to think that they can’t do that means that they’re not total musicians. It’s very important for drummers to vary not only their speed concept, but their volume concept, because those things are synonymous. If you play everything fast—your fill-ins, your beats, a lot of intricate things—you don’t give the people time to breathe. If you play everything loud you don’t give their ears rest from the volume, so you slowly numb people to what you’re doing, which is unfair. So I think that’s half of being a drummer. We’re not at a point where anybody’s playing anything so drastically different. It’s just that the style they’re using is different. That’s all.
RT: You also talked that day about the role of the drummer working with a percussionist.
NC: With the advent of these sophisticated digital drum machines and so forth, the role of the drummer takes on a different shape. Along with playing with a percussionist, as a drummer now you have to have sensitivity to whatever else you’re going to play with. It might be a drum machine; it might be tablas; it could be anything. It’s very important that you really become a part of whatever characteristic you’re trying to portray musically. It’s like in Latin music, they don’t even use drums. It’s timbales, congas, cowbell and all that. In Indian music they don’t use drums. In a lot of African music they don’t use drums. So it’s very important for drummers to absorb whatever style of music they’re doing to become a part of that, and to play characteristically of that style. Playing a samba is totally different, dynamically and instrument wise, from playing a heavy rock ‘n’ roll tune. You have to get into which drums and equipment to use, and how to use it. When you play with a percussionist you can’t do all the fill-ins that you want to do. You’ve got to give the percussionist some space, and vice versa. When you’re playing with a bass player who’s playing a lot of thumb stuff and popping and all that, you can’t play the busy, fast, intricate beat that you might want to play.
RT: What are your ideas about clinics?
NC: Well, the mistake a lot of drummers make at clinics is they just play. You can go to a concert to hear somebody play. I think it’s very important to hear what musicians feel about what they’re doing. It’s very important to know how they arrived at what they’re doing and why they think of things a certain way. Again, as I was saying about Miles, direction is the most important thing in music. Direction. Anybody can learn how to play, but once you learn how to do what works for you with that talent and technique, success is inevitable. Drummers come to me now and say, “Give me a lesson.” I say, “If I give you a lesson we’ll probably only play the drums about fifteen minutes. What I can show you on the drums I can show you in fifteen minutes, but I can show you some ways to get at yourself that’ll take longer than that.” It’s very important that you open your mind to those directions, rather than just play at a clinic. I’ll do a clinic where I talk forty-five minutes and play fifteen, and hopefully, in those fifteen minutes, you’ll understand everything I’ve talked about.
RT: What sort of things would you talk about in those forty-five minutes?
NC: Style, musicianship, attitude, concept, how to develop that concept and how to apply it to what your desires are musically. I wouldn’t try to inspire anyone to sound like me; there’s only room for one of us. What I would try to place upon them is to just be conscious of what they’re trying to do and work hard towards it. That’s it.
RT: You do a lot of fast bass drum licks with a single pedal. I thought at one point you might be using a double pedal.
NC: I think a double pedal, for me, would be a crutch, just as it would be for Buddy Rich. The first thing is, sometimes it limits you. Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes it’s just overkill. Buddy Rich never used two bass drums but it sounds like he’s playing two. Tony Williams never used two and he sounds like he’s playing two. I think those are my inspirations for sticking with one. I’ve only got one bass drum foot. The other foot, when you get into the evolution of the instrument, was not created to play no bass drum. The right foot is the bass drum foot. Get everything together on the right foot. After seeing Tony do it, anybody can do it if they work at it. It’s just a matter of thinking about it and doing it. Tony Williams showed me—and I’m sure a lot of other drummers—that technically, anything you want to do can be done with very limited equipment, if you get your technique up to par.
RT: Are there any certain exercises you do to strengthen the bass drum foot?
NC: The same exercises I do in my hands I do in my feet. I play consistent 8th notes, or 16ths, depending on what tempo I’m at, for minutes at a time until I really feel pain. Then I switch to the other side. At the same time, I’m varying the dynamic level, up and down. So that’s giving me dynamic control, strength, and speed at the same time. Then I do the same thing with triplets. That’s the key exercise I use, then I play my paradiddles, and other rudiments. My key rudiments are the five-stroke roll, paradiddle, flam paradiddle, and the ruff. Everything else is basically a deviation of those anyway. The warm-up—preparing yourself—is the most important part of playing the gig, because it’s very physical.
RT: How do you warm up?
NC: I work out every morning just to keep my physical self in tune. There’s a heavy wind and pacing factor involved in playing with the kind of power that I have to play with, so you either have to pace yourself, or be in super shape, or both. So I get up and work out, stretch and do sit-ups and push-ups and all of that. I play racquetball, softball, and I skate, because when playing the drums, the overall body works. I have to have every particular section of my body in tune for the drums. A lot of times you only have time to sit back and think for a minute before a gig because there’s so much excitement going on around you, but that’s important also. Before a show I like to just get by myself and calm down for a little bit; just think about what I have to do so when I get ready to do it I’ll be up and smiling.
RT: You play a lot of percussion instruments. What kind of training do you have on timbales and the other percussion?
NC: Well, there is really no study that you can do for percussion, other than the mallet instruments. There has not been a book yet that really captures the styles and techniques of those instruments, because they are very much cultural instruments of a particular segment of the world. Playing congas is totally different from playing bongos, totally different from playing timbales, and totally different from playing guiro. So I think there has to be some influence from those areas, and trial and error. I, to this day, cannot play a successful shekere. My drum roadie makes shekeres and plays the devil out of them, but can’t play a samba on the drums. So right now I don’t have the inner feeling for that instrument. The instruments that I have a feel for, I’ll play them. If I don’t have a feel for ’em, I’ll tell you in a minute.
RT: I saw you with Santana in 1976, and you had a set of timbales on the left side of your drumset. Did you learn a lot about percussion being in that band?
NC: Yeah, I did. I placed a lot of emphasis on Latin percussion before then, but in terms of applying it to commercial music with power, and playing with a bunch of amplifiers, I hadn’t done that. Plus, I was playing with some of the great names in Latin music, both commercially and Latin. So with that it was great. Santana got me up to par, power-wise. When I first got with the band I had to change my setup three times to arrive at where I am now. I went in training because when I first started, after being in the studios and playing shows and so forth for so long, I didn’t have the power to project and hear myself back the way I should have, even with amplification. So I had to develop that power. I changed sticks to get my wrists back up, and changed drumheads. I made a full circle to get back to the sticks I used originally, but now I’ve got the power. I don’t have big hands; I don’t have big arms. I have very small wrists, and that lets me know that power is not in bulk. Power is basically in your technique. Drumming is in the wrists and ankles. The arms and legs are merely for reaching—for show.
RT: You wrote several of the tunes on Santana’s Amigos album.
NC: For as long as I’ve gained any notoriety as a drummer I have been writing and playing percussion and trying to produce and do arrangements, because I learned all that in school. It’s just that everyone pigeonholed me as being just a drummer, and all these years I’ve still fought. My first recorded tune came in 1970 or ’71, and at that time it was jazz. Since then I’ve written some Grammy winners, some gold albums and so forth, in a new vein. It’s something that’s just been brewing, but I never got the opportunity because by tradition drummers are dumb. They don’t read music or write music. That is the cliché, and that’s not true. You saw Jack DeJohnette yesterday. Jack is a great pianist. Tony Williams is a great composer. The new wave of drumming musicians is very intelligent. Now we have to fight the mold that some of the older guys set up for us, and that’s what I’m doing. Narada Michael Walden—great composer. He’s got to fight the mold. He ain’t supposed to know how to do that.
RT: The first composition of yours that I heard was “Sister Serene” on George Duke’s I Love The Blues, She Heard My Cry album.
NC: In order for people to understand me they really have to get more inside some of my compositions, rather than what I play with everybody else. I wrote two songs for the Stars of the ’80s and neither one of them had any drum solos or none of that. Those songs let everybody else get off. The last thing I do when I write a song is figure out what the drums are going to play, because I’m not worried about that. That’s not my primary inspiration for doing it. The first thing I do is get what I’m trying to express from inside, and then get into the drum aspect of it.
RT: I understand you’re getting in with Quincy Jones.
NC: Yeah, over the last year I’ve done all of Quincy’s projects—myself and Jeff Porcaro. That’s been a treat. At this point my main area of concentration is not on playing sessions; it’s mainly on producing and writing. However, I’m thankful to say that most of the records that I played on last year were among the top five or ten records of the year. And Quincy helped bring my average up tremendously. Donna Summer’s record did well. Michael Jackson’s record is still doing well. And outside of Quincy I have been working with Kenny Rogers for two or three years, and Lionel Ritchie, and I did the theme for Officer and a Gentleman. They helped put me in maybe the top five recording drummers going right now. Whereas before I was just bumming around, in terms of making records that didn’t gain a lot of prominence and acceptance. It’s ironic. Once I raised my fee for recording, I started getting calls for better quality stuff and got rid of the riff-raff.
RT: Which tracks on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album do you play on?
NC: I played on “Thriller,” “Baby Be Mine,” “P.Y.T.,” and “Billie Jean.” I think it’s a crossbreed of myself, Jeffrey and Roger Linn on “Human Nature.” My favorite track is “Baby Be Mine.” I just started liking that because everybody else likes it. “Billie Jean,” for me, was a lesson in musical discipline. A very simple rhythm that anybody can play who can play drums, but the whole discipline of it was just playing that, and being consistent at it. That’s one of the things I stress to other musicians anyway, so for me it was a great reminder. Very simple fill-ins; very few cymbal crashes; just groove for five minutes. It takes discipline, especially when the next day you might have to stand on your head and play a solo for someone else.
RT: How much room does Quincy leave for you to suggest drum parts?
NC: It depends on the artist he’s doing. I had more leeway doing Donna Summer’s album and the James Ingram-Patti Austin album that’s out now than I had with Michael. That’s only because when Quincy works with Michael, they hear and envision a total picture of what’s going to go down, and it’s very important to stick to the total picture so the overall concept shines for what it is. So a lot of times they don’t say, “Go for what you know.” They know what they want you to go for, so they tell you what they want, and it’s up to you to be professional enough to give them that.
RT: What are the qualities of a good producer?
NC: The first quality is to be able to get along with everyone you work with, where you obtain the greatest amount of creative input and performance from those people. The second thing is really capturing the concept of what the music is. The producer is the head musician—the bandleader—who can destroy or enhance the concept of any song at the changing of one or two things. So I think it’s very important for the head honcho to remain in a state of great control at all times. The greatest producers I’ve worked with— Quincy is definitely one of them, as well as Kenny Rogers, Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, and Maurice White. George Duke is a great producer. He allows you a lot of space because he calls you for what he knows you do.
RT: You’ve done a few records with Flora Purim. What sort of training do you have in Brazilian music?
NC: All I learned about Brazilian music was from reading, being exposed to some Brazilian people, and listening to records. I have a very extensive collection of true Brazilian music at home that I got from Brazil. I am a Milton Nascimento fanatic. I am very much in tune and really into Brazilian and African music, despite the fact that they’re not really that commercial here in the United States. From a drumming standpoint, though, they’re very important to the outcome of rhythm. In those countries, along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, rhythm is the basis of all their music. Before melody there is rhythm, whereas in Europe and Japan it’s the other way around. So I think most of my Brazilian training just came from being around the people and trying to absorb what they were feeling.
RT: How much is the click track or drum machine used in recording today?
NC: Now, 95%. On Michael Jackson’s album, every track I played on I was overdubbing to Roger Linn. On most other sessions I do the same thing, or I have Roger Linn playing along with me, or I have a click track playing. Movie dates have a click track; commercial records have a drum machine. As a result, it has made me buy a drum machine and learn to program it. In fact, Reggie Andrews and I are doing an album with a funk band and there are no real drums. Every track is one or the other drum machine—Roger Linn or [Oberheim] DMX or Roland or a combination of all three, and it sounds incredible.
RT: A lot of drummers are going to have mixed feelings about that.
NC: You know what? I had mixed feeling too, but this is 1983. Just as there is Pac-Man, Galaxians, Star Wars, and all of that, there are drum machines. We’ve got to change. My main objective at this point, being that I’ve played what I’ve played with who I’ve played it, is to remain contemporary for the next ten years, so I have to do whatever I have to do to remain contemporary. Okay, if the drummers are complaining, jump on the bandwagon. Get a drum machine and program it. Put your sounds in the drum machine. It’s still you. The instrument is just a vehicle for expression. It doesn’t take the place of your own feeling, and once you get beyond that point you won’t have any trouble adapting to whatever is happening. Okay, they’re not using 20″ bass drums anymore. Get a 22″; get a 24″. Take the front head off it. It’s still you. It sounds different but it’s still you. Same licks. Grover Washington is still playing bebop but he’s playing it on top of a simple commercial rhythm, so he’s still Grover Washington. George Benson is still playing all the guitar he was playing fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s just that he sings now, and plays shorter solos, and they mean more. The checks mean a little more, too. That’s the only difference, because we’ve also got to survive. Yeah, it’s embarrassing for a lot of drummers, but at the same time, the drum machines will do two things: First, they will make any conscientious drummers go back and get their act together. Second, they will make the good drummers that much better because they’ll be impeccable. I think in the last ten years, with the disco era and so forth, the level of musicianship has dropped drastically for drummers. We’ve got to bring that level back up. I like my drum machine. It’s my newest toy. I don’t feel intimidated by it because when they need Ndugu, they call Ndugu. Why call me when you’ve got a machine that’ll do whatever you say as many times as you say it, won’t get tired, and won’t talk back? You know, it’s also about economics.
RT: Is it easy to get burned out doing a lot of work in the studio?
NC: I used to have that problem, but I don’t anymore. In the last three years I have just gotten control of my life as a person. Before, I was a workaholic, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve set various rules for myself. I don’t work on weekends, and when I don’t feel I will be able to do all the work that people call me for, and do it consistently at the level they assume I should be performing at, I’ve learned to say “No.” It’s hard because it’s so easy to be greedy and try to do everything. They respect it when you say “No.” You have to be your own disciplinarian, so that’s what I do. If I get burned out now it’s because I want to do it. If it’s something that I really want to do and it’s challenging to me, I’ll push myself, but I’m no longer controlled by the clock or the gun to think that I have to do it.
RT: Who is the last drummer you lifted a lick from?
NC: I couldn’t tell you, because I probably lifted licks from every one of them. I still listen now. I have a very extensive record collection, and I listen to everybody in all areas, so everything I hear really becomes part of me in someway, shape or form. I’ve lifted a lot of licks from Herbie Hancock. My main influence in terms of who I sounded like was Bruno Carr, but everybody who I’ve heard is responsible to some degree for what I play. They all play various styles of music and my whole thing is being universal in music and being able to play anything. That’s one thing I stress to myself. To be able to play anything at the drop of a hat is being a total musician, and not a “jazz drummer,” “funk drummer,” “rock drummer,” or whatever. Just a drummer, a percussionist, a musician.
RT: How did it come about that you did the Tale Spinnin’ LP with Weather Report?
NC: Very strange [laughs]. I walked out of Paramount Recorders, where I was doing an album for Jean-Luc Ponty, and they were leaving rehearsal at Studio Instrument Rentals. They asked what I was doing and I told them about the album with Jean-Luc, and that I should be through on Friday. They said, “Okay, Monday come in the studio.” So there again it was the changing of the guard. I went from a very technical and structured music with Jean-Luc to a very free-form improvisational music with Weather Report. I had to adapt to that right then and it was really fun. They don’t talk a lot, they don’t write a lot of music, they just let you go. So for me it was back to the basics. Believe it or not, that record did a lot for my career. Everyone was ready to abandon me as a creative playing percussionist because I had been working with Santana, and doing some of the things with George Duke. They were ready to say, “He’s sold out. He can’t play no more. He’s a funkhead.” The Weather Report album turned that whole thing back around. They said, “Hey, he’s still got it, and boy does he still have it!”
RT: George Duke told me that you and he could tell what each other would play before you did it.
NC: Any time you spend over a year with a person it becomes like a marriage, musically. You live together, you play together, you hang out together. You start feeling and hearing the same thing. From the end of ’71 till now we’ve been through some of the same musical situations at the same time. We, to a great degree, have been sympathetic to each other’s cause. As a result we arrive at the same thing at the same time and it works. Just like now, he’s producing a lot and so am I. It’s only because we both grew as professional musicians together to the next level. We made the transitions at the same time.
RT: He said your hi-hat playing is the most sensitive he’s heard.
NC: That comes from timbale playing. In timbale, your cowbell is basically your rhythmic instrument, and the one you play the fastest and play all the little tricks on. The drums are basically just kind of pivot points, so most of the things you do when you play rhythm on timbales are done with the cowbell, and that’s with the right hand. So all I did was take all the cowbell stuff, put it on the hi-hat on drumset and paint a picture.
RT: Do you look at each part of the drumset as an individual instrument?
NC: The drumset is an orchestra, so yeah, each part of it is an instrument or section. I’ve got my drums set up in groups, so each one is a section. The three smaller tom-toms is one group. My two floor toms with the pedals is another group. The two Roto-Toms on the left is another section. The two tom-toms in front is another group. Each group has a different timbre, tonal characteristic and dynamic color, and I use them as such. I’m sure people at some point wonder why I only play a particular instrument in the kit once or twice. It’s only that a section will lay out of a certain tune. On another tune that section is shining. All that equipment up there is only supposed to be used when it is functional for what you are doing.
RT: You have your own production company with Reggie Andrews. Is it a must for today’s musicians to know the business of music? To be up on the industry?
NC: Oh, definitely. Fifty percent of my day, every day, in Los Angeles is business, 35% of it is music, and the other 15% is recuperating to deal with the next day. We are in the music business, and the head title is the Entertainment Industry. It’s very important to us, in order to survive and be successful, to deal with it as such. In a business, sometimes creativity and innovation have to take a back seat to whatever else is pressing. That’s why, for us, it’s very important to maintain a stable base in the business. For me, the key people that run my existence right now are my lawyers, accountants and PR people. This is before I create a note. They have control of my success at this point, but it only works in conjunction with the talent and creative feelings I have. The stability of the foundation comes from those key people. They have to work with each other and work with me, and I have to work with them along with working with the artists on the outside. So we really have to stay abreast of what’s happening. You can’t let a bad business deal or bad production decision blow you out to a point to where you don’t function creatively. Or you can’t let investing in an act and its not selling blow you out. That’s business. It’s creative but it’s still business.
RT: What are your feelings about electronic drum stuff?
NC: I’m an electronic nut. The only thing now is, a lot of it is fad equipment. After Syndrums I got disillusioned with the success and longevity of electronic instruments in drumming. I used to buy everything that came out—Moog drums, Syndrums, Synare—I got into all that stuff, and now a lot of it is obsolete. Now the question in my mind is, “Will Simmons be obsolete?” I think the only stable thing to come out of the whole electronic era is the drum machines. They’re here to stay. They will only be developed to greater peaks, greater consistency and quality, and will do more in the years to come. My emphasis right now is on enhancing and utilizing the drum machine in conjunction with playing the drums. Electronic drums, right now, are not really exciting to me because you can get synthesizers, if you know how to program them, to play the same things you can get on those electronic drums. I have four or five synthesizers at home. I don’t even play the drum synthesizers anymore. On the keyboard synthesizers you can do your synthesized handclaps and the tom effects. So you can do that and, at the same time, stay in touch with theory, harmony and music. Looking at a piano keyboard is definitely more stimulating and inspiring than looking at four pads that won’t do nothing if you don’t plug them in.
RT: Who are the leaders in the new breed of drummers?
NC: Some of my favorite drummers at this point are Jeff Porcaro and Stevie Gadd, from a total standpoint. We’re at a point now where all the music is starting to mesh together, so it’s very important for the drummer to be able to play both sides of the fence. I think Jeff and Steve do a great job at that. Now, if you just start talking about innovation, then I naturally have to go back to Tony and Jack. I have to do that. Then go back to my inspirations, Stix, Bruno, Tootie Heath, Billy Hart, Art Taylor, and all those kinds of drummers. But to be honest with you, right now, there aren’t a lot of people out there who really have the depth and the background that’s required to cross both sides of the fence. Harvey Mason does a great job. Harvey’s not my favorite drummer, but he’s in the top five. If I had to rate the top five drummers it would be Harvey, Jeff Porcaro, Stevie Gadd, myself, and the number-five spot could be filled by Yogi Horton, Buddy Williams, Steve Jordon, Dennis Chambers, and a number of others. I’m speaking from that total musical thing. I’m not just speaking of the drummer who makes all the hit records. That’s not important to me, ’cause if you get into that you’ve got to include John Robinson and so forth, but from a drummer’s standpoint, that ain’t it. I look at the overall.