Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, Texas-based drummer JD Beck is only sixteen years old. But he’s already spent several years collaborating with a wide range of artists in the fertile Dallas, Texas, hiphop/urban music scene. He’s also wise beyond his years and thoughtful about drums and rhythm, which comes in handy when he tries to explain exactly what it is he does.
Mentored by Dallas-area drummers like Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy), Mike Mitchell (Stanley Clarke), and Cleon Edwards (Erykah Badu), JD Beck has crafted a style of crooked beats and patterns mixed with over-the-barline fluidity that grooves in its own unique way. Singles and ghost notes fly by, and there’s definitely a pulse. But, especially for listeners whose sense of groove was baked in prior to the envelope-pushing approaches of modern kit players like Karriem Riggins and Eric Harland, everything feels somehow…different. “It’s this thing in the air,” says Beck about the unique drummers coming out of Dallas. “People play beats with this live, jazz feel. And everyone sounds like a computer, a program, which is really cool.”
Beck may have started young and with conventional lessons, but he quickly became inspired by a contemporary musical vocabulary that led him down a new path. There was a precedent set by the electronic offerings of producers like J Dilla and the kit work of players like Chris “Daddy” Dave, and Beck began to get his chops together and develop the internal meter that’s so important to sounding authentic when playing these unconventional beats. Jam sessions were attended and drumming friends made, and calls started coming in from local musicians like Jon Bap.
Others then took notice, and soon Beck started leading gigs in the Dallas area under the name JD Beck and Friends. Through Searight, he hooked up with Berklee keyboard student Domi Degalle, resulting in a funky, jazzy keys-and-drums collaboration that’s currently his main focus, with high-profile gigs including the Newport Jazz Festival. But Beck is also getting opportunities to play with big-time names like will.i.am, Skrillex, and Anderson .Paak, and laying beats down with hot bassists including MonoNeon and Thundercat. And you get the feeling he’s only just begun.
MD: Did you go through formal lessons like most kids?
JD: I started on piano at age five, in this little music school in Allen, Texas, which is twenty minutes from Dallas. I was doing classical and jazz for a few years and then switched to drums at age eight at the School of Rock. I was there until about age eleven. They put me in the advanced band at age nine, though you’re supposed to be fifteen. But by eleven, I got worn out on the whole School of Rock band thing, so I just began practicing by myself.
MD: What made you switch from piano to drums in the first place?
JD: I used to play drum patches on the keyboard as a joke, because it was funny. But drums also spoke to me, in a weird way.
MD: What were you listening to?
JD: I was listening to fusion-y kind of rock. And my dad was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, so I’d hear that stuff with him. But I’ve always been all over the place. I would listen to all the pop music my brothers would listen to. And I’d hear hip-hop, too.
MD: So you were digging on Bonham and all that stuff ?
JD: Yeah, Bonham, but also his big influence, Joe Morello. And I liked how much Keith Moon didn’t care. His playing wasn’t the craziest to me, but his attitude was really cool. And everything I’ve been influenced by is still with me. But as I got older, I started branching out and meeting more people. When I was ten, I met Cleon Edwards, this drummer from Dallas who plays with Erykah Badu, and he introduced me to Robert “Sput” Searight. And they put me on to a lot of people.
Cleon is one of my biggest influences as a drummer, and he needs more recognition. All these drummers were playing with chops and intricate patterns, and he found a way to put space in. The way he approached it was really crazy. It’s hard to explain. He doesn’t sound like anyone on the planet.
I really liked Chris Dave for a long time when I was younger. He set off my whole “the meter isn’t as big a deal as people make it” thing. That was really helpful. And Mike Mitchell showed me a lot of stuff .
MD: So there’s been a unique music scene in the Dallas area?
JD: Dallas has a crazy hip-hop sound. It’s not brand-new, but it’s these subtle details of how they play. Nobody plays standards out here. That’s kind of rare. People will play beats, and live bands will have rappers instead of singers. People come from a similar background, and the sound speaks for itself.
MD: Talk about what you did for chops and exercises.
JD: I worked out of Syncopation and Advanced Techniques, but I really didn’t care. I’d do the paradiddle groove in triplets instead of doing the Purdie Shuffle. They’d ask me to do the iconic stuff like that, and I’d switch it up. I think they got mad, but it was a good learning experience. [laughs] But mainly, for hand stuff, I wouldn’t do anything too complicated. I would work on flam taps, paradiddles, and singles and doubles.
MD: What does a younger-generation drummer like you use YouTube for?
JD: On YouTube I was watching a lot of drummers—old-school jazz videos and new hip-hop drummers, like Elvin Jones and then a Questlove video. And I’d play along to records, like Tony Williams’ fusion stuff. And J Dilla. And Madlib. YouTube is so random. I think the YouTube algorithm made me play the way I do. And I’m more influenced now by programmed beats. And producers influenced me, like Knxwledge. He has an album with Anderson .Paak. And I just did a few tracks for Knxwledge. It was something about this gritty, off beat, but quantized kind of feel that made my sound. Knxwledge, Dilla, Madlib.
MD: And breaking up the meter is something you really practiced?
JD: Yes, and it’s funny, people will message me asking when I’m going to do a video in 4/4. I have to DM them and send them all my videos on Instagram, which are all 2 and 4. I think it’s a compliment, though. [laughs] Practicing was me playing to computerized beats. It was quantized to a point where if I would go out from whatever the metronome was doing, I’d always know when to come back. And I practiced to unquantized stuff, and my brain internalized the weird feel. And I practiced to a metronome a lot.
MD: What are other things about meter that you’ve learned and internalized?
JD: No matter what tempo you’re in, any BPM will fit over it. It will always line up at some point. You can play a hip-hop beat at 92 and you can play a shuffle at 130 [on top of it], and it’s going to line up. It has to. There’s going to be one beat that makes sense, so when you find it, you can go anywhere. The whole off – meter thing is complicated. It’s not a concept; it’s an internal thing. If you have it, I guess you have it.
MD: When you’re called by the artists who like what you bring, do you generally have a green light to play whatever you feel?
JD: You can call anybody to play a gig note-for-note, but not everybody is going to play what I think of at a show. It’s individual. Someone like Jon Bap is going to call someone for what that person does, what’s different from anybody else. Jon lets me play pretty much whatever I want.
MD: How’d your collaboration with Domi Degalle happen?
JD: Sput Searight was playing at NAMM, and he called me to come, and Domi was there playing with him. After that, we hung out and became friends and played each other a bunch of music. Then we played at a jam session, and it kind of just took off.
MD: Did you discuss what you’d play? Did you put charts in front of each other?
JD: We didn’t realize we wanted to be a duo at first. I was doing these JD Beck and Friends shows in Dallas, and I invited her to come play. [After] we played with other people, we realized that we were the ones communicating the most. We had this connection.
I’ll sing her notes, and she’ll write chords around that. Or she’ll have a melody, and I’ll add drums to that. I’m producing all of it on my laptop, but we definitely write all the songs together. It’s cool, because all the decisions are collaborative.
MD: Is the plan to just play live shows, or do you eventually want people to hear you and hire you as a duo to add to their projects?
JD: We’ve been asked to play for a bunch of pop artists lately, but we’ve declined. The plan is to put out this album whenever we finish it. We also have a trio with [bassist] MonoNeon, who will record some parts on our album. We also play with [bassist] Thundercat.
MD: What about session work? Do you hope to just get called for your unique thing?
JD: There are so many drummers way better than I am at a lot of stuff, but maybe I have this weird little niche that some people can’t replicate. I don’t know.
MD: But it needs to be for someone whose music you totally respect?
JD: For sure. If a pop gig is right and the people are cool and it’s an easy enough situation for me to fly out and dedicate time to, I will definitely do it. But for session work, Domi and I are set to do something for will.i.am that will be different, and Skrillex asked me to record a bunch of breakbeats that he will use for some tracks he has coming out soon. It’s definitely all over the place.
MD: When you produce beats for yourself or other artists, is it an involved process?
JD: When I record my live drums, I try to make them sound as electronic as possible. But when I work with other artists, I always ask what they want. I don’t get offended when they don’t want live drums on a record. It’s not that big of a deal to me, because I do more than just play drums.
MD: And you record at home?
JD: We turned our garage into a rehearsal spot and studio. But in my room, I have a kit set up, some speakers and a TV, and my laptop. I have an interface and mics, so I pretty much have a home studio in my room. I was using mainly Logic for the longest time, but I recently switched to Ableton. A bunch of friends showed me some crazy stuff you can do with it. Domi and I were at Flying Lotus’s house, recording some live stuff, and he put some crazy plugins on my drums. I spent two days searching the internet, trying to figure out how to do that, and it was only in Ableton.
MD: What’s in your immediate and long-term future?
JD: Evolution is inevitable. In a few years, I’ll probably sound different. That change is going to happen. But I want to continue to play with Jon Bap and Domi, and keep recording studio stuff for everybody. Domi and I want to do a big gig together for some other artist, too. It just has to work out. I’m glad whatever I do can translate to a lot of people. That’s really cool. I’m trying to do my own thing and trying to be as “me” as possible, not trying to fit into any category.
Tools of the Trade
Beck endorses Zildjian cymbals and Vic Firth sticks.