Eric “Boots” Greene is a prime example of the contemporary drummer, an amalgam of classic musical influences and contemporary career approaches, which demand skill and creativity whether it’s a drumstick or a computer mouse that he’s got in his hand.
Boots was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, and at two years old moved with his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first national tour was with Philly songstress Jill Scott, and he’s since played behind Patti LaBelle, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Common, Jay-Z, and Cardi B. He recently teamed with Darrell Robinson in N.E.R.D’s two-drummer attack, and currently he’s part of the ensemble for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “OTR II” tour.
An engaging, outgoing personality, Greene hosts enlightening YouTube videos, inviting viewers behind the scenes on tour, interviewing other drummers in a podcast format, and offering lessons learned from the triumphs and tribulations he’s personally gone through coming up in the music industry. He’s written a book, The InstruMENTAL-ist, which he calls, simply, “my real life story.” And earlier this year he released a solo album called Trapped. “I [make] mix tapes and singles and albums…I really just want to put music out,” he says. “I want people to hear what I’m doing, what I go through. So I’m studying and keeping that flowing while I’m doing this music over here—and paying bills on tour over here.”
MD: You did some of your first drumming in church.
Boots: It’s a great outlet. I got into drums around the age of two at church with my dad. He played in church in Philadelphia back in the day. I just sat behind him and tried to study him. I would go to other churches with him and hear what the drummers there did, retain that, and go home and do what I heard.
[There are] so many different genres in church, but church gives you the freedom, if you ask me. Gospel music now has a lot of breaks and sections where drummers have the opportunity to set things up, as opposed to just playing drums and doing a chop. You have an opportunity to bring the chorus in or the verse back in, or do the breakdown, or take it to the vamp. So I think that’s why we have the freedom of adding [things like] fusion chops. Like, this is what I feel, but as long as I make it to that next section [laughs], we’re good.
MD: Did you receive any other training like lessons?
Boots: Just listening. Drums is natural to me—it’s what I love to do. I was playing piano in the high school jazz band. There was already a drummer there, and I knew that I could play the drums and do the gig, so I thought, this is cool, I can learn piano, I can learn a different language, a different approach to the music. And when I started playing drums, I didn’t even need to read in a sense, because I understood the theory. Hearing how the other jazz drummers approached it, then when I finally played, I had it in me. I just started learning on my own, listening to other drummers and understanding what they were saying on the drums. I would hear people talking through the drums. I’d go home and try to mimic it, and then I’d implement it into my own style, and that’s how things started. I wasn’t just playing gospel, or just playing jazz. It was like, I’m going to play everything I hear.
MD: Developing your own style.
Boots: Yeah, I never wanted to stay in a box. People will tell you that I’m very against the grain. I’m like the Kanye of drums, if that makes sense. I don’t believe in the formula. I don’t believe in the grain. If I can learn this genre of music, I can learn that genre of music. Or, I should learn that genre of music, because I label myself a drummer. You’re not a drummer if you can’t play polka music, or country. Because if they ask you to play for a country artist but you can only play gospel, then you’re just a gospel drummer.
MD: Who are some of the drummers who’ve influenced you?
Boots: Of course Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers…. And as far as my home-bred, Lil’ John Roberts, Brian Frasier-Moore, Erik Tribbett, and definitely Gerald Heyward. Gerald used to invite me to his church every other weekend, and it was always huge DW kits and mad musicians there. Drummers and bass players, and keyboardists and organists and guitar players. It was like a shed every weekend at the church, like a top-of-the-line shed. People like Gerald took me under their wing and showed me the ropes.
MD: You must have put the hours in practicing early on.
Boots: Definitely. My dad always had some type of drumset or something for me. I would go downstairs and just practice and practice. And not even specific things. I just played. Let me do this, and let me try it the other way, or let me reverse this. Just come up with something new. Learning stuff differently from what others were learning. No one ever forced me. It was just a hunger. I really wanted to learn more about drums and about all these different things I’d heard on the radio. All these different types of beats, and how they got those sounds. Those were the types of things that I was into, and it made me practice.
MD: Learning how to play from the heart as well as off the page.
Boots: It’s the truth, man. Both ways are great, but when you learn from your heart, it’s something you want to do. Your passion’s different for it.
MD: When did you start thinking about the production side of music?
Boots: I made my first album around twelve or thirteen. It was a gospel artist named Tarra Scotton. I was just making songs and beats at the time. So from that point, I took production seriously, while playing drums. I decided to be a drummer first and a producer on the back end, because the drums were my first love, and that’s what was getting me gigs.
The production started getting into the drumming side, because now I’m looking at the grid. The verse is eight bars, the chorus is twelve, and the breakdown is four…. At a certain point I was starting to see the grid while I was playing the drums. Someone will send me music, and when I’m learning it I don’t really count bars, like we’re at bar 8, bar 16, bar 24. I either go off lyrics, or I go off the grid, which I can visually see. That helps me when I’m playing to where, Alright, Boots, this is the pocket, this is the verse, this is where you relax. Okay, we’re going into the chorus, bring us out…. I’m literally talking to myself, looking at the grid. So I know where I can add little things where it doesn’t affect the vocals. Because if I was producing it, I wouldn’t crowd the vocals. That’s the thing that people don’t get. They think you’re just hitting drums. No. You can either make or break this song, because if you do too much, we’re going to get lost, whereas if you just relax and let the song breathe and you find your area, then it feels better.
MD: It takes a lot of precision to play hip-hop. It sounds simple, but those dropouts and small things have to be spot on.
Boots: Those small things are actually the big things. You’re playing a pocket for so long, and that one drop comes up, and you’re like, Oh, dang it, I forgot about that. You know, if you’re playing a song where it’s fifty breaks, you’re going to remember the fifty breaks, because your mind is going that way. But when you’re just relaxing and playing a groove, and that one drop comes, you’re like, How did I miss that? Because you were grooving. That’s also a complicated thing for some people: to play a pocket, or to mimic an actual drum pattern. That’s why artists get upset. They’re like, “Yo, that’s not what it sounds like on my song.” Do what that’s doing, and then implement your feel into it when it’s time.
MD: Making the artist happy.
Boots: Seriously. That’s your job, man—make ’em happy. You’re also showing your professionalism. It’s like, you either have to play with triggers or with pads. Now you have to gravitate and really put your mind to something else, to where it’s not just drums. For instance, I did the Jay-Z gig, the 4:44 tour, and there were a few songs where I had to literally just play the actual sounds, and play it like the record. It’s not about how I think it should feel. “Listen to the record; we’re going to give you the sounds—play the sounds, and play just like the record, with this feel”—whether it’s swing, syncopated, or whatever.
You have to figure out as a drummer how to mimic this exact feel so the artist is happy. And people think it’s easy, like they could get out there and impress the artist with chops or by playing hard and playing a pocket. But do you know what the pocket is? It’s not just playing straight; it’s playing the pattern, the feel, the drive, whatever that consists of, for the artist to be happy.
People don’t listen to the records deeply enough to hear the difference between an 808 and [an acoustic] kick drum, or a hi-hat and open 808 hi-hat sound. Because now they’re getting very intricate on these songs. So if you can’t differentiate an 808 from a kick drum, you could possibly make this song sound cluttered because you’re overdoing it.
That’s the thing I try to teach people, because a lot of the young guys coming up now are getting it confused, to where they think YouTube and a lot of the IG and Facebook clips where people are chopping away, they think that’s the way to go. No. Questlove is where he’s at because he plays the music, simple as that. He plays the pocket. And the guy is everywhere. They know his afro, and they know when he sits down he’s going to play the pocket, and you’re going to feel great. A lot of people get stuck on the speed, forgetting that it’s not about them, it’s about the music.
MD: You’ve also talked about making the crowd happy.
Boots: You gotta feed the crowd. You have to be damn near more ecstatic to be there than they are. You have to show them a good time. Their energy feeds off of you, so if you’re playing and you look bored or upset, it’s going to show and it’s going to affect your playing. So why not get over it, and understand these people want to see the artist, but they know the artist has a band, so it’s time to show up and show out.
MD: In your “On the Road With” videos, when things don’t work perfectly on tour, you’ll often say, “It’s time to give thanks, be grateful. Things could be worse.”
Boots: You keep yourself positive, because it’s very easy to snap, to get mad and just do something stupid. So I just look at things like, whether it’s good or bad, everything’s a test. When you receive something negative, how do you receive it? Do you still give thanks for that negative because it taught you a lesson? You’ve got to think positively on both sides. That’s just me, man—I’m grateful for every single thing, even stuff I hate.
MD: From the technical side of it, do you remember any issues that have come up on tour, and how you dealt with them?
Boots: Oh, yeah. Electronic situations where triggers and stuff go wrong, or things cut off, or stuff isn’t saved the way you saved it. Sometimes the techs double-check things, and things are great and correct, only for you to get up onstage and [they’re] not.
A lot of technical things happen out here, because people are moving fast, and that’s one thing I had to realize. Everyone’s human. You might miss a chord or miss this or that, because it’s kind of hectic out here. But I think that’s where the professionalism comes in. And like I said, remain positive, because if you’re thinking on the negative you’re going to miss something.
I think that’s what happens a lot with crew members on the technical side of things. I’m not a quick-to-get-mad guy; I just try to fix it. Either I’ll turn it off or mess with it or whatever, but other than that, I’m cool. As far as a drumheads and stuff, I don’t bust heads, I don’t break sticks. I’m not like a crazy drum player dude—I don’t hit all hard or do anything crazy—so it was never any issue on the drum side. But yeah, technically something always happens. You can’t always depend on computers—it’s like, you can’t live with ’em, you can live without ’em.
MD: You’ve played with so many different kinds of people. Do you think differently for each project? For instance, N.E.R.D is a two-drummer group.
Boots: That was me and Darrell Robinson. Yeah, that’s a different mindset. Because now you’ve got to think, Who’s going to play what, and when, and why? Every little single thing—sounds from the record, to the actual acoustic drums, to who’s going to lead off the next song or who’s going to fill on the next song. You can easily clutter it up if there’s no communication.
Bottom line, [these are] someone’s songs, and [these are] two loud drummers. Every gig is different for me, and I love it. It’s a challenge, but that’s how it should be. It makes me a better producer, a better drummer, a better musician, and a better person overall, because it’s also teaching [me] to open up and to gravitate towards different things.
MD: I noticed that you sometimes have a gong bass drum on the left of your snare.
Boots: That’s one thing about me, man: I never have the same setup. I feel like every gig is different. For Common I have three or four snares, bongos, a floor tom, a kick, and two crashes and hats. I have the snares because it’s hip-hop, because the snares change more than anything. [There are] no tom-toms or fills or crashing cymbals in hip-hop. But to keep the live aspect I keep crashes there to hit on the 1 every once in a while.
Playing this Jay gig, it’s the same as hip-hop, but [there are] more breaks in it, more hits and stuff, so I added toms and bongos. And I’m playing with Beyoncé’s band a little bit—percussion—so I have bongos, some toys, cowbells, timbales, which is nowhere near a setup that I’ve had before. For Cardi B I had a regular setup—five-piece kit, two snares, two cymbals, pad on the side—because all her stuff is trap music. I could have really just played kick, snare, and hat, and maybe a crash. It’s claps and high-pitched 808 snares, so that’s when the producer [in me] comes in—like, we need a couple piccolos; tune these bad boys high, and make them match the gig and the sounds.
Trap is a genre that’s basically, like, the drums with all these thousand hi-hats everywhere. Playing these songs, you can’t really mimic everything, because it’s all computerized—everything is syncopated. So it’s like, let me just play these claps or just mimic what I can, but you ain’t going to have time to be doing chops and all that, because the drum track is already so intricate.
MD: I’ve seen you with snares on the right side, too.
Boots: Yeah, I’ve had snares everywhere. I’ve had toms everywhere, the gong drum on both sides. I’m all for some changes. I’ve had tin cans, tin buckets, all kinds of stuff. I like being different. I’m a producer. I hear things other than just kick, snare, hi-hat, tom, crash. I hear everything.
Drums: Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute
A. 5×12 steel snare
B. 8×14 brass snare
C. 6×13 maple snare
D. 7×10 tom
E. 8×12 floor tom
F. 16×16 tom
G. 13″ brass timbale
H. 20×22 bass drum
Sticks: Promark ActiveGrip Classic 5A
Cymbals: Zildjian and Sabian
1. 14″ Zildjian K Special Dry hi-hats
2. 10″ Sabian Chopper
3. 18″ Zildjian EFX crash
4. 20″ Zildjian EFX crash
Heads: Evans, including a Hybrid batter on the 8×14 snare, a Heavyweight batter on the 6×13 snare, an HD Dry batter on the 5×12 snare, Onyx tom batters, and an EMAD bass drum batter
Percussion: bongos, tambourine, Pearl low-pitched clave block, high and low cowbell
Hardware: Yamaha stands and pedals, three-sided Pearl ICON rack, Porter & Davies throne
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sampling pad, RT-30 triggers, RT-30K trigger, PD-128 pad