Keith Harris: Soul In The Machine
When you’re the hottest drummer in hip-hop, your most pressing concern ought to be selecting the finish for the custom kit being built for you. Actually, Keith Harris has a bigger concern at the moment. Call it a musician’s existential crisis.
See, The Black Eyed Peas have just finished recording The E.N.D. (The Energy Never Dies), a glittery jewel of bleeps and Auto Tune’d vocals. Problem is, not all that many of the beats are, ahem, actual drums. It raises the question of what Harris is supposed to be doing while the songs’ preprogrammed four-on-the-floor bumps along. “The musician side of me is like, ’Man, I have to play less drums?!’ I don’t feel like I’ll get a chance to play the way I want to.” As he says this, the gears whirr in Harris’ mind, hatching a plan for fusing acoustic and electronic drums as the band begins putting together their live show in preparation for this summer’s massive tour. “I haven’t figured out how to do it yet,” he adds, “but I think once I do and get comfortable with it I think it’s going to be something pretty amazing.”
Rhythm Is A Dancer. In the superslick pop-rap world of The Black Eyed Peas, Harris had to contend with loops and samples from the very day he joined the band back in 2005 for the recording of Elephunk. An element of the synthetic has always been part of the Peas’ recipe, from the loop in Fergie-fueled come-on “Humps” to the triggered snare on flagship jam “Let’s Get It Started.” For The E.N.D. – recorded in Los Angeles and at Metropolis Studios in London – it was just a matter of being more skilled at the juggling act.
“Getting the vibe and energy and actual sonic sound of dance music and infusing it into what we do is a big part of the record,” he explains. “More so for me now it’s going to be re-creating dance songs and playing dance loops live. So that’s something new for me to do because I’m a drummer: I want to play the drums. But now I feel it’s more like I’m a DJ.” The E.N.D.’s dance-floor aesthetic is forcing Harris to geek out on modules and other electronics more than he ever has before. “I do have to change my drum brain,” he says. “I haven’t found one that I like where I can sample into it. A lot of the new songs on the record are going to require different types of sounds than I’m [currently] using, so the fastest way for me to do that is to have all the samples on a CD and be able to import them into the drum brain.”
Harris’ current setup is only a MIDI dump, though, meaning that whatever drum sound he needs is loaded as a wav file into an MPC, chopped up, then MIDI-dumped from the MPC to the drum machine. “That’s time consuming. Plus, it’s like ten-year-old technology,” he says. “The Ddrum brain has been my brain for years, but I’m kind of maxing out the limitations of it, so I’m seeing what I have to do to be more efficient.”
As if that weren’t enough, Harris realized his increasing reliance on electronics detracted from the visual impact of The Black Eyed Peas onstage experience. “I’m going to try to make it look cool, to where it’s pleasing to the eye to see a lot of electronic things, but have the acoustic drums for ’Let’s Get It Started’ and the songs where you have to pump it.” First, though, Harris needs to sit with the new material and just let it marinate. “It’s crazy because there’s a lot of songs I haven’t even heard yet. A song that we played three or four months ago in the studio isn’t the same song that makes it to the record, so we have to relearn things and figure out how we’re going to play all 300 drum parts that were added.”
From Head To Hard Drive. Dreadlocked impresario Will.I.Am “sets the road map” for The Black Eyed Peas on every album. But within this chain of command, the other Peas are expected to bring things to the creative table. For his part, Harris’ preproduction research helped shape The E.N.D. in more ways than any previous Peas album. “I’ll ask [Will] what kind of artists or what should I listen to to get the idea of where he wants to go. And he’ll either play me some things he’s done or he’ll say, ’Listen to Justice or Daft Punk or to [Italian DJs] Crookers to give you some different ideas sonically and songwriting-wise as to where the music needs to go.’”
As heavily produced as the Peas’ music is, its creation is never labored. “We don’t play around,” Harris says. “Pretty much we can cut a whole record in a week, easy, because we’ve played with each other for so long we know what to do. And Will’s a great leader as far as what he wants, what he needs to do, how he works with Pro Tools, and how fast he is.”
The upside of Harris doing less drum tracking in the studio is that it has stimulated his interest in composition, as he produced several tracks on The E.N.D. including “Imma Be,” “Ring-A-Ling,” and “Meet Me Halfway.” On the latter, the kernel of the song had been in his head for a long time after coming to him in a dream. “What influenced the song to the next level to the actual production process was Coldplay. Listening to ’Viva La Vida.’”
“I love that song,” he continues. “All the different colors and textures and the building up and taking the song to different heights. I was like, ’Man, that’s what music is missing. So that’s what helped ’Meet Me Halfway’ into this beautiful song, I think. And hopefully it’ll be one of the singles. I’ve heard people talking about it [laughs], so I think it might be.”
For “Imma Be” the spark came from a much more unlikely source. “I went to a Snoop Dogg CD release party, so I was just listening to the songs that he did [that were] produced by Teddy Riley and I was like, ’I like these songs. They’re really simple yet impactful. Let me take that inspiration and try to do something of my own.’”
As for “Ring-A-Ling,” Harris found inspiration in rapper Common’s “Universal Mind Control,” a Hype Williams—produced track that captures much of The E.N.D.’s futuristic sound. “That song influenced me to make something for b-boys and b-girls and dancers to do their thing and be able to walk into a club, do their little battles and stuff. I thought that would be kind of cool.”
Sunday Morning Mack. From a distance, Keith Harris may look like a designer-clad Los Angeles baller, but that’s only to those who don’t know him. In fact, he remains true to a younger self, the ten-year-old kid who learned to play by copying the drummers at the New Friendship Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up.
Young African-American drummers getting their first taste of playing in the church is by now a cliché, but the experience continues to have a hold on Harris, which partially explains why he and a partner are putting together an online music service called Gospel Depot. “Gospel drumming is very, very complicated yet simple,” Harris says. “I mean you can do anything from jazz to 6/8 to a waltz to doing hymnal anthems, Latin music – so it really broadens your scope on the different styles that you can play.
“And being a gospel drummer, having that knowledge of all the different styles, it helped me because you watch a choir director to give you different cues and different accents to do, and when to cut the music. The Black Eyed Peas gig translates to me like that because I have to watch Will, I have to watch Fergie and Taboo and apl.de.ap. And they’re doing different things at different times, and body movements, and that’s what makes the shows special and exciting when you have the music doing the same thing that the people are doing in the front.
“So what I learned in gospel helped me be a better drummer for this gig because it keeps me on my toes. And I think that’s one of the reasons I was so successful with this group because they had never experienced someone who could follow them on the drop of a dime like that. So it’s like, ’Hey man, you do what you need to do. I got you. I’m right behind you.’”
In general, Harris is more of a pocket provider than a showman. A notable exception would be that “double bass” onslaught on the outro of “Let’s Get It Started,” a very non-R&B/rap-drumming lick, and it pops so much for that very reason. Anticipating what I’m going say, Harris bursts in: “Aw, no, no, no,” he says. “That’s one foot, not two.” And just to be extra crystal clear: “For the record that is one foot. Not two.”
The amazing thing is that any drummer hearing this part would think it was a double pedal, especially since Harris indeed rocks one in his setup. But wait, it gets sicker. The Peas usually save this song for last, and if there’s only two minutes of allotted set time remaining, they still squeeze it in. “Sometimes, depending on time constraints, we would play that song double-time, so I would try to play every fill twice as fast so even that part I would have to [speed up]. It would be hard to do, but I would do all that footwork.”
School Versus Street. If solos are going the way of the dodo in rock, they’re all together absent from R&B and hip-hop. But then, The Black Eyed Peas aren’t strictly either. “I like playing solos,” Harris says. “I don’t mind expressing myself once a night.” It’s a good thing, too, because he has little choice in the matter. “Last tour, because of our set, we had to do solos. I was like, ’Man, can I skip my solo?’ But it was scheduled in the set, so no matter if you were tired, if it was blazing hot outside or freezing cold, you had to play one.
“As far as what I’m going to be playing on the solo, I have no clue until I play it. Most of the time, I would say for the last tour, because a lot of the pieces we did were the same, my solo would start the same. What I actually played in the middle and how I ended it was different.”
Compelled to change the solo each night to surprise the audience, Harris is willing to forsake drum conventions. “I want to do something cool to my drum solo where I play keyboards and drums at the same time,” he says, surprised by his own chutzpah. “It’s funny: Everybody’s doing the solo I used to do. Now I’ve got to think of something else. So that might be the new thing for ’09.”
When it comes to drumming inspirations, Harris has lately been drinking deep from the well of Buddy Rich. Somehow the abrasive chops fiend that was Rich couldn’t be more opposite from the cool groove that characterizes Harris’ playing style – but there it is. “First of all his technique is just freakin’ ridiculous,” he says. “When he plays a solo he’s not just beating on the drums and being super fast, but he’s showing technique, showing expression – actually talking when he plays. It’s like a conversation and …” Harris’ voice falls to a whisper, “he makes it look so easy.”
Fortunately, this particular Black Eyed Pea has the kind of formal training that not only allows him to appreciate the chops of a drummer like Rich, but also understand exactly what he is hearing and then execute it if he needs to. “Being at Berklee, you learn a lot about everything, so I know a lot of theory, I know all the chords and how one chord is supposed to go into another, and what’s right harmonically, and what scale goes to what, so that’s great,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect. “But when you come to the real world no one cares. No one cares about the notes and the scales and all that stuff – they only care about what they feel. It’s kind of like you have to close your eyes and play what you feel instead of what you know, and it took me some time after I graduated to really learn that.
“Berklee was great for me because it still gives me an edge on a lot of things,” Harris continues. “Because I do still have the knowledge, so whenever need be I can say, ’Hey man, we need to put these strings up a third, we need to do this, we need to do that.’ People are impressed that I actually know what I’m talking about. The majority of musicians and producers, they don’t understand that language, so you have to fall back on their level to interpret what they want. It’s going from the world of being around a whole bunch of scientist/brainiacs to the world of people who have street knowledge. They only know what’s on their level, and when stuff on the street level is selling millions of dollars you’re like, ’Okay, I got to learn what’s on the street level.’ That’s a whole other college within itself: Learning how to communicate and how to make things that are very simple that people can understand. And that’s what it was: just understanding the less-is-more concept, which is really true. And the more you do, the less people like it.”
On The Grind. Things will soon get hectic. We’re talking about the pre-tour boot camp The Black Eyed Peas put themselves through before hitting the road. It’s the first step in converting the record’s Teflon-smoothness into a sizzling live spectacle. Harris plans to get everything out of it he can. “They’ll cram it into a week of rehearsals, and then we’ll be gone again for two years [laughs].”
The small practice window forces the members to think on their feet. There’s really no point in setting things in stone since that is not, nor has it ever been, the way the Peas roll. “That’s the cool thing about this gig – it’s always evolving,” he says. “You get the basics and the concepts and the feel of the song, and as we start to perform them they develop their own unique hits and patterns. Also, depending on how the crowd responds to the song, depending on where we are, depending on how many times we’ve performed the song, we’ll just change it up and give it a different energy and do all sorts of things, so that’s what I think keeps our show fresh and new.”
Harris has no pre-gig ritual. In the 20 minutes or so before showtime he might run through some rudiments, but only if he’s really bored. “Actually, I like to do push-ups to get my body temperature up and get my hands warm, because if my hands are cold it feels like I got locks on my wrists and I can’t really play. So if my hands are cold and I start playing the show, it usually takes me, like, three songs for my hands to get right.”
On the road, sometimes the best drum therapy is no drumming at all. “We used to tour so much I didn’t even want to touch a drum when I didn’t have to [laughs]. I’m like, ’I want to sleep. I don’t want to think about music. Turn off all the music. I want silence.”
The Peas are known for their eclecticism in everything from fashion to music. And their wide-ranging tastes extend to touring partners – in this case, supporting U2 on that band’s summer tour before heading out on their own. “I think it’s actually in U2’s interest to have a band like us, because we’re known worldwide to a broad audience, not just an audience 16 and up,” Harris says. “We have kids from the age of four to eighty years old that come out to see us, so we’re giving them a whole lot more exposure than they’re giving us.”
Later this week, Harris will head up to San Francisco for a private showcase of Prototype, the funky dance band he recently assembled and signed to his own Harris Productions label. Oh, and he plays keyboards for them too. At the moment he’s shopping their demo around for a distribution deal. “They kind of look like The Fugees but they have an electro influence with the energy of a Black Eyed Peas,” he says. “They have a live band, the whole nine, so I’m investing time getting them looking right and sounding good to be able to get a deal and all that good stuff.”
If that doesn’t happen, Harris isn’t sweating it. He is still the drummer for The Black Eyed Peas. And if that means swinging sticks, flipping dials, or a combination of both, it’s a pretty solid fall back. “I have a lot of stuff keeping me busy,” he says. “That’s a blessing.”