He may not be a household name, but you’ve probably heard Dylan Wissing’s beats on tracks by Jay Z, Kanye, and Rick Ross, who call up the beat specialist when they need a specific drum sound. No? How about the distinctive boom-bap on title track from Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire or the chest-rattling thump on Drake’s “Lord Knows,” for which he just won a Grammy? But recently the fates conspired to crush the dream when his drum-filled paradise, Triple Colossal Studios in New Jersey, got flooded by Hurricane Irene in 2009. And then, after relocating across town, he was nearly taken out again by Hurricane Sandy last year. Wissing shared his story while on vacation, the moral of which is this hard-earned lesson: Insure your gear already!
My building complex is the old [Neumann] leather factory in what used to be a really rough part of Hoboken. When Sandy hit, I was really thankful I had moved to the second story because the building was completely surrounded by water. They haven’t even cleaned up the walls yet, and every day when I walk in to work the flood lines are still on the walls, about 3' up. So when Hurricane Irene hit [in 2009], I had a whole bunch of drums stored at the [previous] studio [the old Chambord Factory, also in Hoboken] and I had a whole bunch of drums stored at my apartment building too, but there wasn’t time to get to both places, so I kind of had to do a coin toss. I kind of bet on my apartment, and unfortunately I made the wrong bet. The apartment was totally dry, but the studio was trashed. I couldn’t even get in for three days.
The stuff that was above 3' was untouched by water, but I had a whole bunch of drums in these EXO Percussion [upright standing] cases that happen to hold five to six snare drums. They’re kind of tall square cases, so I had four of these in the middle of the room, then a bunch of other drums stacked on top of that. I thought, “Well, these [cases] are waterproof. If I get less than 3' of water, it’ll be fine, and all the stuff on top of it will be fine.” Except I didn’t realize that the cases would all float so they all just became little boats and toppled over into the water. I mean, tons of stuff: I had a ’30s Gretsch snare drum that had the original calfskin head. I had a [late ’50s] Ludwig Jazz Festival [snare] where the shell actually opened up and completely came apart at the seams. I had a 1936 Radio King set, one of the very first ones where the tension rods just thread directly into the casing? Those were just submerged. I pulled the heads off and was just dumping water out of them like they were buckets.
Every bit of it was insured, and the company was amazing. It took a couple months to get paid, but they paid for everything. It was a game changer for me – I had money to rebuild. I actually hired an assistant to just start cleaning snare drums and just trying to salvage what I could. Oh, man – it kills me to meet musicians whose gear is not insured. And every time I talk to them they say, “I don’t even know where to start” and “I’m sure it’s so expensive.” The truth of it is the only way I was able to rebuild was through insurance, and it was through a proper instrument insurance company, and it wasn’t that expensive at all: 100 bucks per year for every $10,000 worth of stuff. So for the vast majority of musicians, they could probably fully insure all of their gear for what they make on one gig. It boggles my mind, so I’m personally on a crusade to get every musician to insure their gear, because it saved my ass in a big way.
It’s usually calls coming in about 8:00 at night from people who would literally die unless we get them these drum tracks by yesterday. They have some sort of vintage sample that they want to capture, so I end up being the guy on records where most of the drums are programmed and then I’m the one guy providing, like, the analog vibe underneath. A lot of times my work will end up being chopped and sped up or slowed down or filtered or whatever. I do a lot of modern stuff for my independent clients as well, so I kind of have to cover a wide range of territory, which is why I have way too damn many drums. I’ll think, I have 40 snare drums and I haven’t used them in ages – this is ridiculous! Then something comes up when that one snare is perfect for that track. It justifies it in my own mind. My wife may have a different story.
For Alicia Keys I actually assumed that there were other live drummers because some of the programming was really good. I just did the single “Girl On Fire.” That one was cut at her studio but I had two nights of prep in my own place just getting drums. There are six notes that I did on a kick drum and a snare drum and it was incredible how much time it took. They wanted a really distinctive sound, and re-creating it exactly was excruciatingly nitpicky. I don’t know how many bass drums I went through and different head combinations, muffling, tuning, beaters, changing of the snare drum. I ended up having an 8" splash on the top heads to kind of match the bite of this one snare drum sound. We didn’t worry about takes. The beat was easy; it was about getting tones.
People send me their songs and they’re all over the map – singer-songwriters, blues, hip-hop – I’m kind of a drumming jack-of-all-trades. I don’t really get calls for jazz or hardcore metal, but everything else in between; if it has a back beat, that’s really what I’m set up for and comfortable doing. I’m pretty damn happy with the direction my career has gone. I’ve probably done 3,000 shows around America and Europe [with Johnny Socko] and at this point, I like dropping my son off at daycare, going to the studio, record during the day, pick him up, and we have dinner, then I come back at night if I need to. As soon as I get back from this vacation I’ll have – I don’t even know how many – tracks waiting for me. But I just have to jump in and start cranking them out.