Perpetually relaxed, and seemingly never breaking a sweat, Rico Nichols plays a once-in-a-lifetime mega gig with a broad pocket, enviable self-composure, and a nimble touch that can alternately be described as creamy, mellow, and deep. Born and raised in Chicago, where church gigs and basement jams led to his high-profile L.A. status, Rico is one of a growing cadre of drummers for whom a big pocket is a natural result of a childhood R&B focus. But unlike gospel-chops drummers who emphasize technique over musicality, Rico’s influences reveal his heart’s direction. Sure, he loves Chris Dave and today’s contemporary R&B stick-slingers, but his tastes go back, way back, in the lexicon of drumming legends.

Before mastering such rhythmically difficult Lamar songs as “For Free,” “Lovely,” and “Lust,” Rico manned the drum throne for Brandy and Mary Mary. His teen years were spent in high school marching band and his father’s basement, grooving with older musicians and honing his craft. Today he can claim having guested with U2 and Stevie Wonder, and performing at the Brit Awards and the Grammys. With production roles and other projects on his horizon, Rico is just beginning to unleash his flow.

MD: When you play with Kendrick, you look incredibly relaxed, like you’re taking a walk in the park. Even your facial expression is totally chilled. What’s the source of that level of control and relaxation on one of the biggest gigs in the world?

Rico: Honestly, I just think about having fun. I’m up there with my brothers; we’re doing what we love to do. All the hard work in the rehearsals has paid off—though even in the rehearsals we’re having fun. When it’s showtime, even though it’s serious business, I just learn how to enjoy it. I try not to make it too serious. I try to have fun with what I’m doing.

MD: What kind of work goes on in the rehearsals? What are the challenges?

Rico: My only challenges are taking sounds, like what sounds I may want to use. I use a lot of triggers on the gig. So [it involves] going back and forth in terms of which trigger I want to use with what song, or how I want to play the song—whether I want to play live drums or use triggers. That’s really the hard part, picking and choosing what I’m going to play, because playing triggers can put you in a box. Without playing triggers I’m free to play a little bit more and get more musical in certain areas. So, I try to figure out how to still be musical while playing triggers so I won’t sound like a robot just [replicating] the record.

MD: You’re like the anti-robot; even when playing with other drummers in YouTube videos, your tone and style come across, which comes from having a solid touch.

Rico: Thank you. Touch came from my dad drilling me as a kid. My stepfather, James Wright, and my biological dad helped me out. My biological dad started me on the drums. He was an organist and keyboard player. And my stepdad is a drummer. He took me to the next level, to the next place I needed to be as a drummer. I’d be in the basement every day, playing drums. He’d drill me. He’d say, “The chops are cool, but it’s all about the feel.”

MD: How did he stress the feel?

Rico: He’d say, “You always want to make sure people are dancing.” Back home in Chicago I used to go to corporate gigs with my stepdad, big wedding-band gigs, etc., and I always noticed that the people were always enjoying themselves by dancing, not by hearing him take a drum solo. He played a groove that made them want to move their feet. They had no choice but to move. He taught me, “You want to be mindful about the kind of fills you play; don’t make it about yourself.”

MD: Who were the drummers that your stepdad suggested you listen to for groove?

Rico: Teddy Campbell, for sure. He’s my idol. Then Steve Gadd. A lot of Gadd. A lot of Vinnie Colaiuta.

MD: Teddy Campbell I can understand, but the other two are unusual choices for a twenty-five-year-old R&B drummer.

Rico: I didn’t start watching Chris Dave until later on, and he’s one of my favorites as well. But Gadd and Vinnie are the types of guys my dad had me study every single day. “Make sure you’re watching that video,” or “Did you see this video?” YouTube was just coming out then. I’d be there all day. But before YouTube I had my dad and his friends, guys around Chicago, who would come over and show me grooves and different techniques on the drums.

MD: When did you start playing drums?

Rico: At one year old. Mom said I used to tear her kitchen up. I’d beat on everything.

MD: Kendrick Lamar’s gig is one of the biggest in the world right now. Do you ever get nervous before a show?

Rico: I used to get nervous when I first started touring, back in 2013. But now it’s who I am. I don’t let it go to my head. When we hit the stage, it’s go time. I don’t have time to get nervous.

MD: The band’s bassist, Tony Russell, is also the MD. He brought you on the gig, correct?

Rico: Yes. We’re both from Chicago. He knows my parents, both of my fathers. They all know each other from home and from church. We met in Los Angeles; he came and said, “You don’t know me, but I know you.” He knew my parents when he was a little kid. He’s like my big brother; he took a chance on me.

MD: What was the challenge when you joined Kendrick’s band?

Rico: I didn’t know how to use triggers, and no one in the band knew! I faked it like I knew what I was doing. [laughs] I figured it out. I didn’t want to risk losing the gig.

MD: How do you fake playing with triggers?

Rico: I would ask Dion Friley, one of our techs. He used to play drums on the gig. So he would give me whatever sounds I needed. He knew how to trigger, so I would ask him questions. But then I would try acting like I knew what I was doing, talk with him like I was up to speed. I had to fake it. And luckily nothing went wrong.

MD: Did you know Kendrick’s music before you joined the band?

Rico: I was familiar with his music. I’d been listening to him since his mixtape music. Around 2012, when he took off, it was crazy to come on board and play with him. When I got there, he was coming out with the song “i.” No one had heard it yet. The rehearsal for that song was pretty much my audition. I had to learn the parts and make it feel good, of course. I already had the gig, played his set a couple times. Then Kendrick came in while we were playing “i,” and he said, “Dope, you sound good. We’re good.”

MD: Were there charts?

Rico: No, it was all feel, all ear training. And getting the sounds.

MD: Is a click running in Kendrick’s rehearsals?

Rico: Everything is straight Ableton Live. Every single thing gets stemmed out from the record. While Dion is running the playback with Ableton, we’re simultaneously playing with the playback. I’m running my triggers to make sure we don’t miss any sounds. He may have the snare drum from the record muted, and I’m playing the actual snare from the record, or the kick drum. It’s only snare and bass drum sounds that are triggered. I make the decision to play what’s comfortable for me, and [stage manager/backline and drum tech] Marco Zambrano and I figure out what sounds to take from the record. That’s part of the rehearsal process. I choose not use to use the toms from the record because it takes away the live sound just a little bit.

MD: What’s the triggering process?

Rico: We’ll get all the sounds on an SD [card]. Dump the sounds into a laptop. Hook the laptop up to a pad. Then we assign sounds and make adjustments. I once played the wrong sound in a song, and the band noticed. But it wasn’t bad.

MD: Are you playing rimshots?

Rico: I play straight on to the head, no rimshots.

MD: In one online interview, you’re shown using three snare drums.

Rico: It’s actually four snare drums now. I have the main snare drum, which I sometimes use for triggering, then an 8×15 snare that I trigger as well—that’s good for ’80s-type sounds. Then I have a 12″ snare that I trigger as well if I need a smaller sound or an 808 sound. The fourth snare, which is on my cocktail kit, I don’t trigger; it’s always straight live.

MD: How do you place the snare drums?

Rico: I have the main drum, then a 15″ to my left, a 12″ above that, and on my cocktail kit to my right I play another main snare drum, a 5×13.

MD: Are some songs more demanding than others?

Rico: Yeah, some songs I play the main role in the song. Honestly, everyone in the band has their song where they’re highlighted, and everyone else gets to chill. For me, when I first began the gig, that song was “Lust.” “Lovely” is another; I play straight pad [on that one].

MD: “For Free” must be hard to pull off.

Rico: Now that record, bro, that record we were locked up in rehearsal a long time to get that going. That’s the most complicated song we play. That’s crazy. I play that song live. I have them mute all the drums from the record. Actually, we’re all live on “For Free”—they mute the drum, bass, keys, piano, everything.

MD: What’s hard about playing “Lovely” and “Lust”?

Rico: I don’t play any live drums on “Lovely,” just pads. I have to picture myself as Logic or Ableton or Pro Tools. I have to be Pro Tools at that point.

MD: Are there specific things Kendrick wants to hear from the drums?

Rico: Every now and again he and I have a section where he raps and I drum over the lyrics. I accent his lyrics with the drums. I’ll follow his cadence, or he’ll feed off my cadence. It’s all vibe; we don’t always work it out beforehand. It’s all feel.

MD: Back to your upbringing, did your fathers have you play along with Teddy Campbell and Steve Gadd on records?

Rico: I wish. My dad and Teddy are good friends. Both of them are from Chicago. When I moved to L.A., Teddy started calling me to sub for him on gigs. He’d seen me on YouTube. It’s a big deal that he calls me for gigs now.

MD: Did you study drums with a teacher?

Rico: No, but I was in marching band in high school, Thornton Fractional North [in Calumet City, Illinois]. My music teacher, Mr. Joe Malik, and my drum major drilled me on my left hand, which was weak. Mr. Malik made me start everything with my left hand. That forced my hands to become even. Mr. Malik also showed me the rudiments.

MD: And how did you develop your funk pocket?

Rico: That’s from playing at Prayer and Faith church, and being with my dad. He’d have jam sessions at home in the basement with musicians that were out touring the world. I’d sit in with the band and learn to lock in with the bass player. Dad would drill me on that.

MD: What did you focus on when practicing alone?

Rico: I’d watch the Gadd or Vinnie videos for their drum solos. Focus on how they’d have their conversation, how they’d build their solo. Real musical stuff. Or I’d watch how Teddy would play a song, like how he’d hit a splash on a particular part as opposed to the crash. That would make a big difference dynamically and musically. I’d study those small details. I’d listen for what’s best to play in a particular setting—like if I was playing a rock gig, I would study a rock drummer. I listen to all types of music. I want to have a universal sound.

MD: How did you work on tone and touch?

Rico: I used to hit the drums very softly. One of my peers, an up-and-coming drummer named Clemons Poindexter [Khalid], we used to critique each other’s drumming. I started playing more aggressively at church. My pastor wouldn’t allow me to play drums soft; he wanted it aggressive—he wanted to feel the drums.

MD: Before Kendrick, you played with Mary Mary and with Brandy. How did you adapt playing in clubs to playing massive arenas?

Rico: Man, I looked at it like it was all training. Church, my dad, high school, Mary Mary: it all prepared me for the next step. Brandy took me to Kendrick Lamar. Who knows where it will go next.

MD: What do you practice now?

Rico: I haven’t practiced in a long time. I do try to work on my hands. But we’re so busy. And I’m working on other things now, like production. I’m focusing on building my own sound. I want to create my music and collaborate with different artists.

MD: What’s next?

Rico: I’m re-evaluating things in my life. Thinking about my journey, where I want to be next. I’ll never stop playing drums. But I want to do something different that hasn’t been done before.

Drums: Tama Birch Bubinga
A. 5.5×14 main snare
B. 8×15 aux snare
C. 5.5×12 aux snare
D. 6.5×10 tom
E. 7×12 tom
F. 14×16 floor tom
G. 16×18 floor tom
H. 14×20 gong drum
I. 16×24 bass drum
J. 5.5×14 snare (cocktail side kit)
K. 6×8 tom (cocktail side kit)
L. 18×22 bass drum (cocktail side kit)

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 15″ A New Beat hi-hats
2. 11″ FX Oriental Trash splash
3. 20″ A Custom Projection crash
4. 20″ K Sweet crash
5. 9″ FX Oriental Trash splash
6. 15″ FX Oriental China Trash with a 10″ A Custom EFX splash underneath
7. 10″ FX Oriental Trash splash with a 10″ FX Oriental China Trash on top
8. 20″ K Custom Dark ride
9. 20″ K Sweet crash (above the ride)
10. 17″ K Custom Hybrid China
11. 20″ A Custom EFX Crash (cocktail side kit)
12. 13″ A Zildjian Pocket hi-hats (cocktail side kit)

Heads: Remo Powerstroke P77 batter on 5.5×14 main snare and 5.5×14 cocktail kit snare with Ambassador Hazy Snare Sides; Emperor batters and Ambassador Hazy Snare Sides on 8×15 and 5.5×12 aux snares; Emperor batters and Ambassador Clear resonants on all toms; 22″ Powerstroke P3 batter on 14×20 Gong Drum; Powerstroke P3 batter and logo front heads on bass drums.

Hardware: Gibraltar chrome rack with all custom Gibraltar stands and clamps; Tama HP900PN Iron Cobra Powerglide single pedals; Gibraltar Hydraulix drum throne

Sticks: Vic Firth X55B

Accessories: Vic Firth standard stick bag; Gibraltar GMAT 12×16 percussion table; Drumdots Clear Dampening Gels; 8’x10’ drum carpet; Lasko Blower Fan (black)

Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sample pad (2), RT-30HR dual zone triggers (3), RT-30K Kick Drum Triggers (2), BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad; Boss FS-5U Foot Switch Pedals (4)

Mics: Sennheiser, Shure, Audix