Forging his own path into the future.
With roots in the U.K. club and hip-hop scenes, the drummer brings a fresh approach to the instrument that’s at once modern and traditional.
Combining machine-like accuracy with jazz-influenced improvisational sensibilities, Richard Spaven’s drumming has landed him gigs with vastly varied artists such the late Guru of the hip-hop duo Gang Starr, rapper Ty, producer/ rapper Flying Lotus, electronica/jazz group the Cinematic Orchestra, jazz/hip-hop vocalist José James, and pop/soul/jazz singer Nailah Porter. Spaven’s brilliance is evident beyond his world-class performance abilities; he’s equally impressive in production and compositional territories. And most recently, the drummer released his fourth solo album, Real Time, which once again showcases his multifaceted talent.
Spaven’s signature drum sound often sees him combine high-pitched, crisp snares; round, jazzy toms; and small, punchy bass drums. His cymbal choices are a sonic contrast of dry, lower-pitched hi-hats, rides, and crashes. Altogether, the drummer’s tone could be described as a nod to the past while keeping an ear toward the future.
Much like his compositions, Spaven’s drumming is elusive and genre-defying. He often avoids conventional downbeats and cadences in favor of sneaky syncopations and the types of sonic glitches you might hear from a deejay. No 16th note is left unturned within some of his drum ’n’ bass–and dubstep–influenced explorations on tracks like “The Hidden Camera,” a Photek cover found on Spaven’s album The Self. Regardless of the artist he’s working with, Richard’s ideas and touch provide the ingredients to his trademark sound.
Let’s dig into some highlights from Spaven’s recent work, with commentary from the drummer himself.
“1759 Outro” Spaven’s 5ive (Richard Spaven)
Richard’s drumming acts as the glue between the spacious Rhodes chords with some funky popcorn snare accents on the hypnotic “1759 Outro.” (0:45).
“My first record….This has a techno-in-miniature vibe for me. It was a bonus or hidden track on the record and got picked up for the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack. For me, it became my big hit.”
“Angel” While You Were Sleeping (José James)
The wobbly swing feel of Spaven’s groove on “Angel” sets a unique landscape for Jos. James’ soulful vocals to flow over. Check out how the sparse bass drum part in the verse provides just the right amount of space for the lyrics to shine through.
“I’m really happy with the way this came out on the album—the hip-hop swing and the way it sits. But there are also elements of freedom.”
As the chorus kicks in, Spaven adds more bass drum notes into the pattern. The last two bars of the phrase allow the drums to open up and fill the space. The drummer bends the feel at will without losing his strong sense of pocket.
“North Star (featuring Sharlene Hector)”
City (Stuart McCallum)
On the Stuart McCallum penned “North Star,” Spaven shows his tasteful creativity by crafting a cycling 4/4 hand pattern throughout the song’s 6/4 time signature. This creates a compelling friction against the grain of the rhythm, adding an air of mystery to the song’s vibe.
“I produced this record. Stuart plays guitar and co-writes on all my records. This groove starts off with the right hand playing the percussion part in 4/4 on top of the 6/4 groove, which makes it quite interesting.”
The bass drum follows the guitar rhythm in the verse. Notice how the figures cleverly displace backward by an 8th note halfway through the six-bar phrase.
When the song reaches the chorus, the bass drum outlines the changing guitar and vocal rhythms while the hands continue playing the 4/4 pattern.
“Whole Other* (featuring The Hics)”
Whole Other* (Richard Spaven)
This unique groove can be found on Spaven’s song “Whole Other*” from the drummer’s second release as a leader. The over-the-barline hi-hat phrasing between the first and second measure is evocative of a programmed delay effect, while the snare drum on beat 3 remains consistent.
“This beat has reference points, and I tried not to lock it down to being one thing. In drum ’n’ bass terms we’d call this pattern a ‘roller’—it keeps moving with a forward momentum.”
“Toko (featuring Richard Spaven)”
Cloak (Jordan Rakei)
As a sideman, Spaven has a way of retaining his musical personality while not overstepping the bounds of what is necessary for the song. On Jordan Rakei’s masterfully written “Toko,” Spaven lays down a spiky 6/8 rhythm that weaves in and out of Rakei’s stylized vocal phrasing. There’s an extra beat added to the fourth measure of the phrase that makes this groove even more interesting.
“What a tune by Jordan Rakei. I really tried to absorb the technical side of this so that it just becomes a good groove. The time signature is so internalized that an element of freedom comes with it. I would never count it. But it’s that offbeat hi-hat pattern that makes it a special one—it stays off, but I’m playing it in a way to not make it a big deal. The idea was to make it continue grooving.”
“The Self (featuring Jordan Rakei)”
The Self (Richard Spaven)
Another genius-level collaboration between Spaven and Rakei finds itself as the title track to Richard’s third solo album. At first listen, the perception of the time can be misleading.
“The dotted quarters going across the beat at the end of each phrase is where this started out. Then I subtly filled in the rest. It’s heavily influenced by dubstep, which I listen to a lot—133 bpm half-time goodness.”
Jordan’s mellow vocals float over the barlines while laser-sharp hi-hat syncopations slice up the subdivisions. The snare drum accent on beat 3 holds the time in place while the other elements fly around the stratosphere.
“Koln” 5ive (the Sure Co.)
On the song “Koln” by the Sure Co., Richard serves up a rapid-fire half-time beat with some interesting interplay between the kick and snare. The groove is a great example of tension and release between the density of notes in the first measure and the open feel of the second measure. The following transcription reflects the pattern that Richard plays live.
“Bit of a handful, this one. At speed it’s pretty hard!”
“B-Line” (Richard Spaven)
The song “B-Line” features many a Spaven rhythmic device. Though it’s not currently released, there are many recorded performances in circulation on the internet.
Richard takes an improvisational approach to his drumming on this piece, occasionally settling into this twisted beat. The hands switch from crossed to open positions to create a groovy pattern that flows through the repetitive vocal scat melody.
“I wrote this with singer Cleveland Watkiss. It’s a vehicle for doing a drum solo—just a vibe to play over basically.”
“Faded” Real Time
(Richard Spaven featuring Jordan Rakei)
Spaven’s artistry further develops on Real Time, which was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. Featuring the dream team of Jordan Rakei, Stuart McCallum on guitar, Robin Mullarkey on bass, and Oli Rockberger on keyboards, this album has a strong group-minded vision. One of the many standout tracks is the downtempo “Faded.” Richard’s repetitive drum pattern expertly sets the tone for this song.
“This is a deep cut with Jordan Rakei from the new album. The whole tune is in 7/4 with only one bar of 7/8 at the end of the first chorus.”
“Spin” Real Time (Richard Spaven)
“Spin”—perhaps his fieriest creation to date—provides an incredible display of Spaven’s abilities. The hi-hat plays a static rhythm that sounds almost programmed in its speed and accuracy, while the snare and bass drum create a countermelody underneath. Richard throws in some unexpected accents that add to the excitement of the phrase. The execution of this pattern at tempo is astonishing.
“My favorite beat of all time. Gnarly!”