Charles Haynes

Charles Haynes

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Paul La Raia


The secrets to this multi-threat’s success?
Do the work, and know your worth.


Charles Haynes is a true drumming multi-talent. The forty-year-old Boston resident has toured the globe with the pop stars Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, and Queen Latifah. His beefy beats and crafty production have invigorated the R&B of Meshell Ndegeocello, the jazz of saxophonist Marcus Strickland and keyboardist Jason Moran, the blues of singer Ruthie Foster, the fusion of bassist Marcus Miller, the big band blowouts of Kendrick Oliver’s New Life Jazz Orchestra, and Latifah’s early-jazz tribute soundtrack, Bessie


Performing with keyboardist BigYuki’s trio at Revive Records’ recent ten-year anniversary concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, Haynes took that old Frank Zappa adage “beat it with your fist” to new heights. BigYuki’s music is equal parts progressive hip-hop and power-driven prog, melded into a kind of super funk-fusion. Staring down his kit like an action hero, Haynes delivered deep funk satisfaction with his monster beats and silken grooves, while his blazing combinations dazzled the audience and fired the music. Haynes’ flashy groupings impressed, while his alternate left-hand snare drum recalled an old-school Akai MPC and acted as a trigger point for myriad sampled sounds.Beyond the beat, Haynes has provided production skills for Ndegeocello, Latifah, country singer Christa Gniadek, jazz keyboardist Brett Williams, and gospel artist Isaiah Grigg. And he’s written for almost as many acts as he’s produced. Across all of these platforms, and with all of these artists, he’s had one goal in mind: to serve the music.

MD: You drummed on Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark tour from 2008 to 2010. What’s the most important thing the drummer has to be aware of on such a major gig?

Charles: With Kanye I played drums, percussion, and timpani. One of the hardest things was being on point with the timpani. Luckily I could draw on the timpani lessons I had in my high school years. I also went to Eastern Illinois Percussion Camp in the late ’90s. We had great teachers, including Ndugu Chancler, Buddy Williams, and Lewis Nash. We studied marimba, timpani, and drums. Kanye’s gig brought me back to that. I’d be playing to a click and playing in the pocket, then jumping up, tuning the timpani real quick, and—boom!—into the next song. It was a serious multitasking gig.

MD: Did Kanye express what he wanted to hear from you, or were you expected to replicate the record?

Charles: We had to play the record. I had moments of freedom. We would do duets where I would play breakbeats as Kanye rapped. Playing that show is going for blood, because his music is not your regular mom-and-pop music. If you’re playing it right and it feels right, that is an accomplishment in itself.

MD: Was there any triggering with Kanye?

Charles: I used a Roland SPD-SX for claps sampled from the record. But he was in his organic mode then.

MD: And what was the challenge working with Lady Gaga?

Charles: I worked with Gaga for four months while I also worked with Kanye and M.I.A. Sometimes she said what she wanted to hear, but not very often. And that can be a problem. Some artists don’t know how to express what they want to hear. Every blue moon Gaga gave me something to grab on to. At that time we played the record, straight up, though we did have [live] arrangements and segues. I did Ed Sheeran in that time too.

MD: Was working with Meshell Ndegeocello a door to playing with bigger artists?

Charles: Producer Jeff Bhasker is a friend, and he helped a lot. He called me for Kanye. He and Adam Blackstone were the MDs for Kanye. Queen Latifah came from Blackstone; I played on her new record, which will be released next year.

MD: Did Queen Latifah request specifics?

Charles HaynesCharles: We turned on the click and she said “Play.” We developed a song as she was singing. A vibe would happen. Then she would pick a part she liked and piece it together on the spot. Pure improvising in the studio. I’m going to tour with her soon, and I have a coproduction credit on her album. I played on the soundtrack to her movie Bessie.

MD: When did you work in Meshell’s band?

Charles: For three years between 2005 and 2008. I’m still in her band. Deantoni Parks also does the gig. I left Meshell for Kanye’s gig, but I still play with her and do production on her records. Working with her led to Jason Moran. She told him, “If you want a hybrid drummer who can play hip-hop and jazz and Afrobeat, call Charles.”

MD: When producing artists, as you did on Marcus Strickland’s Nihil Novi, are you drumming and programming?

Charles: Yes. Marcus’s album is 95 percent natural drums. I play the deeper left snare as part of my setup there. That’s my secret weapon. Everybody tries to steal that SJC snare drum from me! I spent a lot of time getting that drum to sound like a snare from an old-school hip-hop, boom-bap record. I tune it down, find the sweet spot. I finally put a new head on it.

MD: Are there any similarities between working with Kanye West, Meshell Ndegeocello, Queen Latifah, and Lady Gaga?

Charles: Kanye and Latifah are both MCs, so they want the drums to feel like the records. With Gaga, she cared for the music, though not as much as she does now. We would rehearse, then she’d be off to dance rehearsal or something else. Some artists will trust you, some won’t. If an artist has the right manager, they will insist the artist spend time with the band. We rehearsed for three weeks with Gaga, twelve hours a day. With Kanye I learned the show on the plane to L.A., landed, and we rehearsed until 2 a.m. The next day we rehearsed all day, left for China, and toured for two years.

MD: On “Celestelude,” from Strickland’s Nihil Novi, you play very linear patterns that recall David Garibaldi or Dennis Chambers. Did both drummers influence you?

Charles: I am so happy that somebody actually noticed that I’m playing some straight-up David Garibaldi! I had his Future Sounds book in high school, and I sight-read and shedded out of that book. I’m a huge Garibaldi fan. That’s “Oakland Stroke” all day! I’m doing David Garibaldi with a little J Dilla on it. A lot of people don’t give it up for Garibaldi. If it wasn’t for David Garibaldi, a lot of drummers today wouldn’t be playing what they’re playing.

MD: And you’re also a fan of Jack DeJohnette?

Charles: DeJohnette, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones were my guys in high school. They were all I listened to then.

MD: When you’re soloing, are you thinking of the form of the tune, or is your approach looser than that?

Charles: It really depends on what I’m playing and who I’m playing it for. If there is a form, then yes, I play the form, but if not then I’m in my own little world. People ask what I’m thinking when I solo, and for me it’s like crashing buildings and butterflies. That’s my thing.

MD: In a Zildjian online interview you talk about playing the rudiments backwards.

Charles: I had an instructor who asked me to play in reverse. In college I would challenge myself to be different. When the Beastie Boys’ PauI’s Boutique came out, I wanted my drums to sound like that. I didn’t know the drums on that record were programmed. But I wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to sound like anyone else. I realized that all the drummers I respected had their own sound: Garibaldi, Dennis Chambers, Jack DeJohnette—all those guys playing the same four-bar pattern would sound entirely different. I wanted to be that guy.

MD: Did you play rudiments backwards as a routine?

Charles: Some rudiments I would play in reverse; a lot I couldn’t play in reverse. It was a challenge to see how far I could push myself beyond my ready-set-go chops. But I never worried about patterns or licks—I worried about being consistent.

MD: What else did you focus on when you attended Berklee College of Music?

Charles: Again, being consistent. Can I play eight bars exactly the same way? Can I sound like an MPC? If I need to loosen it up, can I do that? I shedded playing everything evenly. I learned the entire E.S.P. record by Miles Davis, then Missy Elliott’s second-to-last record with Timbaland, This Is Not a Test!

MD: Did you study staples like Morris Goldenberg’s Modern School for Snare Drum, Ted Reed’s Syncopation, and George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control at Berklee?

Charles: Definitely. John Ramsay was my instructor. At the time I couldn’t afford a set to practice on. My first year at Berklee, I was the best air drummer you ever saw! There were no drums at Berklee in 1995. Later they had practice sets.

MD: What did you practice to become so exceptionally fluid around the kit?

Charles: Playing at all dynamic levels. Drummers are often told we’re playing too loud. It springs from that. Can I play super-intense, on the edge, but not blast the musicians out of the room?

MD: Can you give some tips on developing facility around the kit?

Charles: Back to the world of rudiments! I’m bobbing and weaving like Muhammad Ali! Being dynamic gives the music shape.

MD: You have deeper jazz roots than most guys we see on a major pop or hip-hop gig.

Charles: I’ve learned that when you’re playing in an arena, all the crazy notes are not going to mean a damned thing. Genesis playing live with Chester Thompson? He’s not playing super chops. You need the drums to project to 20,000 people. Simplicity projects. People can feel it and hear it more than a bunch of ghost notes.

Charles Haynes

MD: How did you develop your speed, as on the BigYuki gig?

Charles: I practice differently now than I did in college. I practice on the drum pad with marching-band sticks. I play rudiments, top to bottom. I don’t try to play them fast; I try to play them with consistency and at a medium tempo. It springs from that.

MD: What was your breakthrough gig?

Charles: Arturo Sandoval, when I was in high school. He played in our high school band as guest trumpeter, and afterwards he wanted me to tour. My mom said no, but I did some dates with him and my mother came with me. I was so happy to play drums; I didn’t really self-promote.

After Arturo I went to Berklee, and those were my heavy woodshed years. Then I played in the New Life Jazz Orchestra; the leader and Jason Moran knew each other from school. That’s how I got that gig. Meshell’s gig came from working with the bass player, Mark Kelly. He called me for that in 2006.

MD: How do you typically negotiate your fee on tour?

Charles: I look at it like the stock market. I just did a gig with Smokey Robinson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After that my stock went up! You have to be smart. If it’s a first-time pop artist, not jazz, which is totally different, play it by ear. They should know your worth and try to reach a decent number with you. If I’m with a new artist, I will do it for $3,000 or $4,000 a week. They might want to pay you $2,000 a week, so that’s when you negotiate something on the back end. That’s where my production [business] kicks in. I ask for time in the studio with the artist to write. It’s a give-and-take.

MD: How do you produce an artist?

Charles: I write beats but also cover melodies and arrangements. Sonically I have a good ear. I produced Christa Gniadek, a country singer-songwriter, for her record Leaving Boston.

MD: Are you using any electronics in your kit?

Charles: I played with triggers with BigYuki, Marcus Strickland, and Jason Moran. I’m infusing the pop world into the jazz world. I have triggers on the snare and kick and the pads. I have a Roland SPD-SX and my laptop running Logic Pro’s MainStage 3 program. It lets me access different software.

MD: Is the competition for the major hip-hop and R&B gigs intense?

Charles: There’s room at the top, but it’s very thin up there. Last year I was with Ed Sheeran. You have someone like Brian Frasier-Moore—he’s on top of the pop world; he did two years with Madonna. He’s undeniable. There’s only a few guys who can play the giant gigs, and it’s about more than the drumming. Are you cool enough to hang out with after the gig? That’s a huge thing, man. I learned that with Patti LaBelle. Are you reliable? I’m super-reliable. If it’s about reading charts, I can do it. I can play big band, Motown, and read charts. Whatever you’re doing, it has to be undeniable. That is my motto when producing artists now: No matter what the style is, it has to be undeniable.

Haynes’ Setup

Charles Haynes
Drums: SJC Custom
A. 5×14 10-ply
birch snare
B. 6.5×14 steel
snare (left of
hi-hat, not visible)
C. 10×12 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 18×20 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 16″ hi-hats (A Thin crash top and Constantinople bottom)
2. 18″ A Custom EFX crash
3. 20″ Trash crash
4. 20″ prototype ride
5. 15″ hi-hats (K Custom Hybrid Trash crash on top of an A Custom crash)
6. 17″ K Custom Hybrid crash

Sticks: Vater 8A wood-tip sticks, medium-hard mallets, and heavy wire brushes