For Us, By Us: How Gospel Chops Redefined The Future Of Drumming
Gospel music is the root of black music. B.B. King, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, D'Angelo, Daniel Caesar — musicians spanning generations have cultivated their talent in the church, only to go on and create some of the greatest music that has ever existed.
Since the mid-2000s, a drumming phenomenon born out of gospel music has transformed drum culture across the world — Gospel Chops. But in its rise, the phenomenon has found itself appropriated by the drum industry and diluted into a brand or style that's detached from its black cultural roots. A practice that reflects the music industry's problematic history of commodifying black music.
Gospel Chops was originally a website started by California video director Gerald Forrest. Having grown up in church and seeing the musical talent created in it, Forrest wanted to make a platform that highlighted gospel musicians and brought them together.
"I'm looking up to these guys and I'm seeing all this talent. But when you look in the media, nobody is covering," Forrest said. "The goal of the platform was to create something that we could have that was our own — for us, by us."
Initially, the website was going to focus on church organists and pianists. But after a video of Eric Moore — who has drummed for the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and Bobby Brown — teaching a drum pattern began to circulate online, Forrest shifted his attention to church drummers.
"It's a simple lick that you could use in pretty much any groove. Very, very simple," Moore says to introduce the drum fill in the 2004 video. He begins easy, slowly breaking it down. But when placed into a beat the pattern is anything but simple, Moore's hands and feet moving so swiftly that it's difficult to keep up. The originality of Moore's fill, as well as the conversational tone of the tutorial, attracted drummers. The video became a big hit for Gospel Chops.
However, not everyone was in support of the video. Forrest recalls receiving complaints from music professors at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musician's Institute in Los Angeles who were disgruntled by Moore's drum explanation.
"A lot of [Gospel Chops drummers] come from the hood. We don't speak the same language as university professors," Forrest said. "You're eavesdropping on our conversations and feeling some kind of way about it when we're talking amongst ourselves."
In retrospect, Forrest realizes how this exchange highlighted an elitist and racial disconnect in drum discourse. But back then he saw it as momentum. Gospel Chops had people's attention — now he needed to find a way to keep it. In 2005, Forrest filmed Gospel Chops' first full-length drum video, Shed Sessionz Vol. 1.
Vol. 1 features several videos from different drummers including Moore and Jeremy Haynes (Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams). But it was a video of Tony Royster Jr. and Thomas Pridgen drumming together that became the standout from the collection.
Royster Jr. and Pridgen, who have known each other since they were children, were destined for success. As kids, the two won the Guitar Center National Drum-Off competition. By 15, Royster Jr. was performing at the Grammy Awards, and Pridgen was attending Berklee on a full four-year scholarship.
By 2005, Royster Jr. and Pridgen were already established, professional drummers. The former had backed No. 1 selling Japanese artist Hikaru Utada as well as Paul Shaffer — of Late Show with David Letterman fame — as a part of the Nickelodeon House Band. The latter was serving as Keyshia Cole's music director as well as her live and session drummer.
The two drummers hadn't seen each other in awhile prior to the Gospel Chops filming. The occasion felt like a reunion, the pair expertly going back and forth between soloist and timekeeper. The performance starts off tame, with Royster Jr. and Pridgen building on a groove. Then, the two take off. Their arms move with such precision and quickness as a flurry of fills are executed in a matter of seconds. Royster Jr. and Pridgen's video is enthralling, the pair displaying an athleticism and creativity that's hard to look away from.
Forrest, Royster Jr. and Pridgen had made history — even though they hadn't realized it yet.
People across the world were ordering the Shed Sessionz Vol. 1 DVD. France, Germany, Latvia — Gospel Chops was becoming a global phenomenon.
"I had an atlas at one point and I would put thumbtacks on it," Forrest said. "I'm getting orders from places that I had never been to or heard of, and yet, my product is moving there."
Pridgen also achieved new success following the video's release. In 2007, he became the permanent drummer for progressive rock band The Mars Volta. The following year, he received cover stories from magazines such as DRUM! and Modern Drummer. And in 2009 he received a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance via The Mars Volta song "Wax Simulacra."
But even as the drummer of a Grammy-winning band, Pridgen couldn't escape his ties to Gospel Chops. He found the label both artistically and personally restricting, especially considering that he hasn't been religious since he was a child. He also felt it was misleading, with drummers being enlisted for Gospel Chops videos even though they weren't gospel drummers or, at the very least, get their start in the church.
So, Pridgen started using his platform to acknowledge the gospel drummers who inspired him: Calvin Rodgers, Marvin McQuitty, Joel Smith and Teddy Baker.
"My main objective was to show who was a gospel pioneer," Pridgen said. "To at least pay homage to the guys who looked out for me."
There's no denying that Gospel Chops forced the drum industry to pay attention to gospel music. Now, most companies endorse gospel drummers; some even have website pages devoted solely to them. But it's hard to tell if the industry's acceptance of gospel music is genuine or not, especially considering how long it took for the industry to acknowledge it.
For Forrest, he doesn't think it's genuine. He finds certain drum companies that have branded their items with the word gospel on it disrespectful. They only see it for its monetary gain, disregarding and erasing its cultural significance in the process.
Forrest is currently in a legal battle with Vic Firth, accusing the drum company of "willful trademark infringement, trademark counterfeiting, and unfair and deceptive trade practices," a court document states.
"In the complaint, Forrest alleges that use of the title, The Shed Sessions by Vic Firth Company for its drum video advertisements, infringes the Shed Sessionz trademark, which Forrest has used exclusively in commerce as a source identifier for his drum video series since at least 2006," the document continues.
When asked about the case via email, Forrest said his attorney advised him not to speak on the record. An email was also sent to Mark Dyke, Vic Firth's Director of Sales, but wasn't responded to.
This case speaks to a larger problem in the drum industry — representation, particularly in regards to business ownership.
"There are no black-owned drum companies, cymbal companies or drumstick companies," Forrest said. "And even at these very companies that are happy to have black drummers endorse their product, they don't hire black employees."
"I went through that same thing where the industry as a whole started tacking this negative stigma to Gospel Chops," Forrest continued. "I've had drummers come and tell me that drum companies have told them that if they did Gospel Chops, that they wouldn't endorse them."
Gospel Chops still persists in an industry that arguably doesn't want it around. But it doesn't mean what it used to. Gospel Chops has become decontextualized of its racial and religious significance and diluted to nothing more than a drum fill extravaganza. Still, there's no denying that Gospel Chops — a black-owned music company — redefined drumming and reinvigorated the drum industry, even if it doesn't want to admit it.