The most known unknown force in music, Chris “Daddy” Dave, shares with Okayplayer why his unique abilities are meant to make you feel.
Chris “Daddy” Dave isn’t the first drummer to front a band. But his new album with the Drumhedz, a crew he has developed musical relationships with for years, isn’t your typical drum-heavy drummer’s project. Tapping into the deep well of all the music he loves — from jazz to funk, soul, hip-hop, Afrobeat and go-go — rather than focusing on his astounding skill, the recording offers listeners an opportunity to check out of reality, enter another dimension, and feel something.
Dave has contributed his groundbreaking, explosive yet deeply soulful drumwork to albums by a broad array of artists from Adele to D’Angelo, Maxwell and Meshell Ndegeocello. The offerings on this album, which dropped Jan. 26 on Blue Note Records, range from the funky, instantly contagious “Dat Feelin’” (featuring SiR) to the delectable slow jam that is “Cosmic Intercourse” (with vocals by Stokley Williams) to the kaleidoscopic, hard-hitting “Lady Jane”. The iconic jazz label is home to pianist Robert Glasper, who also appears on the album, with other jazz musicians including trumpeter Keyon Harrold and saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Casey Benjamin. The core crew of Pino Palladino (bass), Isaiah Sharkey (guitar), Cleo “Pookie” Sample (keys) and Sir Darryl Farris (vocals) is joined by numerous others including James Poyser (the Roots), Shafiq Husayn (Sa-Ra), Anderson .Paak, Bilal, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Goapele and Phonte. But don’t let this long list of collaborators fool you; it’s the man with the drumsticks who’s leading the proceedings, with a voice all his own.
Dave’s playing is known for its sophistication, imagination, fire and virtuosity (astounding The Time, he learned to play the drum part for “777-9311,” which was created with a drum machine). And then there’s his unique way of choosing not only what but where to play, and where to leave space. Deceptively understated at times, you’ll need to go back to this album repeatedly to discover the exhilarating nuggets you may have missed.
@Okayplayer caught up with the Texas-born, 44-year-old legend over the phone who was about to go into the studio with The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson.
Okayplayer: Your first album as a leader came out on a mythical jazz label. How did the Blue Note record deal happen? And what does it mean to you to be releasing an album on this label?
Chris Dave: I got signed with Blue Note because of the people I’ve been working with over the years. I feel happy that we got to do the kind of record we wanted to do; Don Was [Grammy Award-winning producer and president of Blue Note Records] was instrumental in us being able to go there.
OKP: You’ve said that [the band’s second mixtape] Drumhedz Radio Show was “an overture for the album to come.” What experiences did you take from Radio Show into the new album?
CD: The mixtape was based on friends and relationships in the music industry. It was more like a small, quick musical journey, like a “Drumhedz World” — our own kind of playlist. Through the mixtape, other relationships were formed as well, like a family of all types of artists.
OKP: Around the release of the first mixtape, you told The Revivalist that you want people who don’t listen to jazz to still like live music, that this attitude “applies to all the genres we play on the record.” What can you say about the mix of genres on the album, and your general approach?
CD: If you put all of us together in a box, you really couldn’t have one type of music that defines us, that we would all want to listen to over and over. It’s a blend of life experiences, music we like, people and cultures we were influenced by, and lyrics reflecting what’s currently going on in the world.
OKP: What are some of the lyrical preoccupations of the album?
CD: “Black Hole,” featuring Anderson .Paak, deals with police brutality, and how people are trying to get ahead by any means, using the quickest or easiest way rather than doing the hard work. “Spread Her Wings” with Bilal and Tweet is about going from thinking you know everything when you’re young, to realizing you know nothing; you have to leave your nest and spread your wings to see what you can do without a safety net.
OKP: You worked with Anderson .Paak on Malibu; How did that come about?
CD: I’ve known Anderson for five or six years, since he was playing drums in L.A. He had a mixtape at the time, so I was already familiar with some of his work, and liked the sound of his voice and the way he was writing. I went to one of his gigs — this was when his name was Breezy Lovejoy; we became friends that night, and started working together right away.
OKP: You’ve said you weren’t sure what the album was going to sound like, but could picture it: “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.” What is this interstellar theme that runs through the album (and some of your previous work, such as “Cosmic Slop” — the cover of a 40-second Dilla beat) all about?
CD: We just have our own portal. We know people have to deal with issues — things you have to tolerate to get around in the world — and at some point you want to escape. “Fuck it; I want to get back to where the Drumhedz hang out.” When you have that mentality, it’s more like a freedom thing of creating and inspiration; everyone is so respectful of each other’s art. It’s just a fun, peaceful place.
OKP: Can you share a particularly memorable moment from the recording process?
CD: When it was done, and I played it for Don, the expression he had on his face… “What the fuck am I listening to?!” — it was a good thing, not a bad thing. He knew it would be different than what was expected. There aren’t a lot of drum solos, there isn’t even an acoustic bass on it, and I wasn’t sure it would work with Blue Note; but he said that was exactly what he was looking for.
OKP: There are close to 50 artists collaborating on the album and, as you just mentioned, not many drum solos. Were you concerned about people losing sight of the fact that this is actually a drummer’s record? Your record?
CD: Technically it’s a drummer’s record because I produced the whole project and arranged it, and I write, and I was hands-on with every little aspect of it. To me it’s a drummer’s project because a drummer made it; it’s just another side of drummers, and I wanted to show that side — songwriting, arranging, bringing people together, making things happen — as opposed to just doing a drum solo. That’s not really my vibe. It’s about making people <em.feel things through the music, instead of a “look at me” type of thing. I’ve never been like that. I’m a shy person, anyway.
OKP: Tell me about being a drummer and a bandleader.
CD: When you’re performing live, if people come back to see the show it’s because the drummer has a really great groove, or a flashier type of show; it’s all about the feeling you can offer. It was always a consensus for us that the drummer was the DJ of the show as well, especially if you’re touring a lot. You’re reading audiences in different countries, different venues. Most drummers I knew coming up went to theory and music classes, and most of us played piano or bass, or other instruments, so we were always writing music. Technically, my first introduction to that was Mint Condition, because Stokley [Williams] was the drummer, and the lead singer, and a writer, and produced some of the songs, so I learned first-hand. It was about being smart with your craft.
OKP: How did you first connect with Mint Condition?
CD: The day we met was during my first year at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and [legendary songwriting and record production team] Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were on their tour, and stopped by Howard. I skipped class and went to the concert. I was with a few friends, and we met them after the show, and they were super cool. We told them we were musicians too, and for some reason they said “Let’s just go to your practice room; we want to hear you guys play.” So they came with [The Time drummer] “Jellybean” Johnson, and we just started playing, and then Jimmy Jam said he liked what he heard, and next thing you know, I’m in Minneapolis, rehearsing with the band.
OKP: Which must’ve been blowing your mind at the time?
CD: It was kinda scary; do you stay in college, or do you go on tour with a band your parents don’t know? My parents were more about education. But on my first major tour with Mint [Condition] we were opening up for Janet Jackson, and that’s when I officially left school.
OKP: Since then, you’ve been best known as a sideman. What’s important to you about focusing on your own independent projects?
CD: We were all just trying out figure out what we wanted to do. There had to be another option other than being a sideman for other people till we die. When I think about what it would be like to do my first interview at 80 years old, and I’d be asked “So, how does it feel being Robert Glasper’s drummer?” And the next question would be “When I saw you with Mint Condition at that festival, how did that feel?” — and I’d have nothing to stand on on my own. That may be good for some people, but that would be really sad for me.
OKP: What’s next?
CD: We’re touring, doing a lot of shows, recording live, and already working on the second album, so it won’t be a long wait. I’m also in studio working on the new Blue Note project — a tribute to [revolutionary jazz drummer] Tony Williams. I’m producing Jermaine Holmes’ first album (Holmes appears on the Drumhedz album and sings with D’Angelo and others). There’s another new group I’m producing, Radio Galaxy, which is one more portal in the Drumhedz world of live music. I’m doing shows in Paris and London next week with another group we just started called BDG, with Yasiin Bey, Robert Glasper, and special guests. And I’m doing more producing and writing for a few different artists I can’t talk about just yet.
Chris Dave and the Drumhedz is out and available for listening now.
Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in DownBeat, JazzTimes and Afropop Worldwide. You can find her work here.