CHRIS DAVE AND THE DRUMHEDZ: A SONIC REALM WITHOUT GENRE
January 26 2018
You already know the Drumhedz. You just don't know that you know the Drumhedz. They've been playing on your favorite albums for years, setting the tone or keeping time at the best shows you've ever seen, making the young stars sound like legends and the legends sound like gods, quietly stacking Grammys without ever delivering an acceptance speech, and moving onto the next gig with the simple satisfaction of a job well done. They're the session players and the road warriors, or, "Cats that were looked over, but they're bad," in the words of the Drumhedz bandleader Chris Dave, who's drummed for everyone from Adele to Bieber and Dolly to D'Angelo. "They all have stories like mine." Sure enough, the group's self-titled debut LP showcases a family of musicians whose credits coil like ivy around nearly every pillar of modern sound, getting together to do things to music they couldn't on anyone else's project.
"I never knew what it was going to sound like when we all got together," says Chris. "But I could picture it, like, 'This album is gonna take place in a portal. You're getting away from Earth, from all the bullshit. You're safe, but now you're in our world.'"
It's a place without genre, where elements of funk, soul, gospel, hip-hop and jazz mix until they're an indistinguishable surging mass of solid groove. But this isn't a jam session and Chris isn't much for solos. His compositions are like his drumming: precise but tweaked just so, syncopated to allow the merging of multiple ideas, and flexible enough to triumph in all manner of tunings. As for this interstellar world's residents, well, how much time do you have? There are nearly 50 Drumhedz in here, spanning core crew like Pino Palladino (bass), Isaiah Sharkey (guitar), Cleo "Pookie" Sample (keys), Sir Darryl Farris (vocals) and Keyon Harrold (horn), to old familiars like James Poyser (the Roots), Stokley Williams (Mint Condition) and Shafiq Husayn (Sa-Ra), to fresh guests like Anderson .Paak, Bilal, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Phonte Coleman.
"People say you can't have all of these sounds in one place," says Chris, "but how we hear things, it's just music. You like it or you don't. This is a 'why can't you?' album."
It's the album the Drumhedz founder has been building toward his entire life. Chris first reached for the sticks at 3, hoping to hit skins for his brothers' funk group. He was denied, but found his second chance at church, on percussion initially. At home dad would listen to soul and jazz, mom gospel, and his two brothers would listen to funk bands. When he started practicing in his room, "it became like a video game," as he obsessively tried to emulating the styles he was hearing. By the time Chris hit middle school, he was drumming for Houston choirs, backing singers like Kim Burrell and Yolanda Adams. All of which made him a shoo-in for the revered High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. And thanks to a student exchange program, he'd soon be cribbing beats from boarders—non-4/4 stuff from Japan and India. Chris kept building his chops, and playing out, and graduated with a full ride to Howard University in D.C.
"But after first semester, I was trying to figure out what I'd even do with a degree," says Chris. He didn't have to wonder long. "Mint Condition was doing a black college tour and I cut class to see it. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were there, so my friends and I went up to them, like, 'Yo, you should sign us.' We didn't even have a band. But Jimmy's like, 'I'll listen to y'all for five minutes.' I don't even know what we played, but next thing you know, Mint Condition is calling me to be their drummer."
Chris dropped out to open for Janet Jackson, and the work started pouring in soon enough. Lionel Richie. Mary J. Kenny Garrett. Living with Stokely in Minneapolis, he made his own Dilla-inspired beats and worked on songwriting. In studios, on tour and in private, he was perfecting his style. Early on, he met the Time, and explained to Jellybean Johnson that he learned his part on "777-9311." The band's response: "What the fuck? You know that was a drum machine, right? You're not supposed to be able to play that." Chris's need to sponge up all he heard paid off—from 2009 to 2012, he worked on three Grammy-winning albums across three genres: Maxwell's BLACKsummer'snight, Adele's 21, and the Robert Glasper Experiment's Black Radio. In the personnel credits for those LPs, you'll find the foundation of the Drumhedz.
"I always wanted to be in a group," says Chris, and he was to a degree. "Me and Rob started the Experiment living together in New York, after Maxwell. But he was also signed solo, so after we did the Adele stuff, me, Pino and Poyser were like, 'Let's just play sometime.' We booked a random gig in London and it sold out. Then we started doing festivals, as Chris Dave and Friends, and out of that, we start casually, some-kind-of-way touring, like, 'How are we doing this when we don't have a record out?'"
So in 2013, they drop the Chris Dave and the Drumhedz Mixtape (GLOW365), a free 23-track set of "nod your head to this" type grooves swirling up all the genres these guys were working in. Some of the material was culled from old recordings—like when Chris, Glasper, and Mos Def rocked Houston's Red Cat all night—and other bits were new, but it was all overture for the album to come. It took a while, but in late 2015, Chris blocked out a month and change at Kingsize Soundlabs in Los Angeles (his primary home now). He spent a few days prepping the studio like he would his kit before a gig, then put out the call and the Drumhedz flocked from their various dimensions to help build a portal that'd transport the rest of us to their world. Chris recalls giving Goapele lyrical direction for "Atlanta, Texas": "You're not a woman, you're the sun." They'd record constantly. He'd cut it down later. The flow was most important.
"I want to play at nighttime at the festivals, not 'you can catch me at Carnegie Hall for $200 a ticket or don't talk to me,'" says Chris. "We just want to party. It's a getaway."
Sure enough the LP opens with a liftoff sequence, gives way to the astral rap of "Universal Language," where KRNDN rhymes and Sy Smith coos, then opens up with "Dat Feelin'," a go-go paced march through the center of the galaxy—you can almost picture space dust and hurtling asteroids as brass blows and drums pop. But despite the celestial bent, these are very human songs. There's .Paak detailing the struggle on "Black Hole," conflicted emotions taking musical form on "Sensitive Granite," the flirty jaunt of "Whatever," and Bilal and Tweet getting their Marvin and Tammi on, in five-four, during "Spread Her Wings." Because for all their otherworldly ability, the Drumhedz are who they are because of connection. At the end of the day, they're the cats who came together. And now that they did, you might be a Drumhed too.