Idris Muhammad: A Most Unpredictable Career

{Ed. note: Update. Idris Muhammad passed away Tuesday July 29, 2014 at the age of 74.} Idris Muhammad

Above all else, Idris Muhammad is a keeper of the New Orleans flame. Through more than five decades of popular music he has ladled his Louisiana grooves onto top-selling records from the worlds of R&B, pop, jazz, rock, and funk. But while he seems to blend in like a musical chameleon as he moves between styles, he’s really a rhythmic leopard, one whose spots don’t need to change. For at nearly every turn in popular music — pop to rock, R&B to funk, post-bop to soul-jazz, and funk to hip-hop — Muhammad’s Big Easy style has been a natural fit. In every context his work has embodied the spirit of New Orleans and its mix of American jazz and African drumming, Latin beats and funky second-line rhythms.

Even those who don’t know Muhammad’s work have heard him on seminal recordings from Roberta Flack and Curtis Mayfield, and on soul-jazz breakthroughs from Charles Earland, Grant Green, George Benson, Bob James, Lou Donaldson, and others. Or they’ve heard his own funky jazz hits that charted in the ’70s, or the recent hip-hop and acid jazz grooves that reflect the esteem he is held in by beat samplers. Now in his sixth decade as a pro, Muhammad keeps time with the Ahmad Jamal Trio, traveling the world in his trademark red beret and sunglasses, an ambassador of genuine cool in a world that always needs more of the real thing.

Origin Of The Beat

Lightly tapping a closed hi-hat with a stick in his left hand while his right grasps a mallet, Muhammad creates the flow of the beat for “Poinciana” with the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The groove is timeless: the percolating rhythm, split between cymbals and drums, creates a chatter of call and response and bubbles against the offbeat metallic chick of the hi-hat. It’s one of the most recognizable beats in jazz history. Muhammad plays it quiet, bouncing the rhythm against Jamal’s lush half-time chords and James Cammack’s grinding bass riffs, growing in volume, strength, and intensity as Jamal’s solo progresses. All the while, the boom-chick-boom-chick-boom-chick-buh-boom-chick pattern stays focused on the groove and never gets in the way. It’s a beat he inherited from Jamal’s recording of the song in the late ’50s with another great New Orleans drummer, Vernel Fournier. Or was it?

“Man, that groove is a street beat! I’ve heard that since I was a kid,” says Muhammad in his distinctive New Orleans accent. “Poinciana” had made its way from a swing-era creeper in the mid ’30s to a quasi-Latin feel in the mid ’50s, but it wasn’t until 1958 that Fournier put the definitive New Orleans stamp of approval on it, using the street beat Muhammad knew so well.

By the time the song became a hit with Jamal (Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing, 1958), Muhammad was already immersed in New Orleans drumming. Born as Leo Morris in 1939 in New Orleans, he learned his rhythms early in the 13th Ward. His parents were musicians, and his three brothers and sisters all played drums. Street bands were frequently playing in the neighborhood, and Muhammad remembers, “I was so small, I could fit under the bass drum player! I really liked the bottom end, so I would dance under it. I could really feel it. The guy would say, ’Get out of here, or I’ll hit you with this mallet!’ So, all of those rhythms really sunk in, and I think it made me play the way I do. I’m a bottom-up drummer.”

A Two-Dollar Lesson

One day in the late ’40s, one of these street bands came by looking for a pickup drummer, and his brothers and sisters weren’t home. After some coercion, Muhammad’s mother allowed him to go with the band on its march through the streets. “After a while, these old guys said, ’This kid can play,’ and at the end, one of the guys gave me $10,” Muhammad remembers. “I never thought that you could make money playing music. I wasn’t going to shine any more shoes after that! I started practicing all the time at home along with my brothers and sisters. I had to play my brother’s drums when he wasn’t there; I didn’t have my own set. My mom said, ’Oh no, not another drummer!’”

The one formal drum lesson Muhammad had was with the legendary Paul Barbarin, who has played with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. “I asked Mr. Barbarin to give me a lesson, and he came over to my house. He got there and asked me to play the beginning of ’Bourbon Street Parade,’ which had a famous intro he had written. I played it. He asked me to play a waltz, and I played it. He asked me to play a mambo, and I played it. He asked me to play a cha-cha, and I played it. Then he said, ’Listen, I’m a very busy man. I’ve got things to do. One day you’re going to be a great drummer, but when people say, ’You’re great,’ let it go in one ear and out the other. Now give me my $2.’ That was the end of the lesson!”

Over the next several years, Muhammad became involved with the growing R&B scene, along with other New Orleans drummers John Boudreaux and Smokey Johnson. By the early ’50s he was already gigging with Art Neville’s band, the Hawkettes, who would record the classic single “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954.

“Aaron Neville and I sat in with the band many times,” says Muhammad. “John Boudreaux had gone on the road with [pianist] Eddie Bo about 1952, and their dad said, ’Hey, this kid Leo is pretty good, but he doesn’t have a set of drums.’ That weekend they had four gigs, so they came around and talked to me, and my mother made my brother loan me his drums because he wasn’t working that weekend. We went to Shreveport and places like that, and that’s how it started. I was about 14 at the time. When I got back from the weekend, my brother asked me if I wanted to buy his drums, and I said yes! They cost me $115 and they were Ludwig drums, blue, with a gray stripe around the middle.”

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Just Don’t Play The Backbeat

Finally able to practice on his own kit, Muhammad began to play along with the radio, but there was something unexpected that influenced his technique, style, and sound: a dry cleaner’s next door with three pressing machines. In an episode of art imitating life, Muhammad was able to hear the three steam-driven press machines at work. “And when you released the handle, these three machines would make a pssshhh sound, there was rhythm in there. As I played along with the radio, I would try to copy the sound of the machines by hitting the hi-hat and opening it. All the guys around town said, ’Yeah, that’s hip. How’d you do that with the hi-hat?’ So that was something that I did, and played on some recordings, but it wasn’t fully developed until I was in Hair. Because of the limited space on the flatbed truck we were on, I could only have a crash and the hi-hat so I had to play a lot of stuff off of the hi-hat. Bernard Purdie heard that, and he put it on Aretha Franklin’s ’Spanish Harlem.’”

Muhammad was witness to the traditional and modern jazz scenes that coexisted in New Orleans. “One time, I was rehearsing with [pianist] Ellis Marsalis and Clarence Ford, Fats Domino’s horn player. I couldn’t get down the fours because it was foreign to me. Ed Blackwell stopped over, and I said, ’I can’t get these fours down.’ So he sat down and played a few choruses, and then I played a few choruses. I asked, ’How do I play jazz?’ And he said, ’Use your left hand for anything, just don’t play the backbeat!’ So I played the concert, and it was great. It was the first time I had played that kind of music.”

Drummers like Blackwell, John Boudreaux, Earl Palmer, and Smokey Johnson were all influenced by the new bop-oriented styles of Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Roy Haynes. “Blackwell was a cold-blooded jazz guy,” says Muhammad. “When I was a kid, my brother took me to the YMCA to see Ed Blackwell’s and Earl Palmer’s bands. On the stage there were two sets. Earl’s set was a Silver Sparkle Ludwig set. The other kit looked like someone made it by hand. It had a snare drum for a tom-tom, and both the floor tom and the bass drum were 16". Earl played, and it was great. Then Blackwell’s band played, and I had never heard anything like that. I would see Blackwell around and talked to him, but those bands didn’t work a lot because there wasn’t so much straight-ahead jazz around. I didn’t gravitate towards it because there was no money. My family had a lot of kids, and I had to find out a way of making money without asking my mother.”

The Hits Start Coming

Over the next several years, Larry McKinley, a local New Orleans DJ, promoted shows where he would bring in artists from out of town, and they would use the Hawkettes as the backing band. Muhammad would get the work when Boudreaux wasn’t available. “In 1957, we went on the road with Larry Williams [who wrote hits like ’Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ and ’Bony Maroney’]. We made a recording called ’Short Fat Fannie’ [a #1 hit on the R&B charts] and were on the road all summer. We came back, had a few gigs, and then things got slow. I got married at 18, and had to get a job as a window painter.”

In 1959 Muhammad backed the singer Joe Jones on the hit “You Talk Too Much,” which led to a stint on the road. That was followed by tours with Sam Cooke and Dee Clark, with whom he recorded the hit “Raindrops” in Florida. Then he went back on tour with Joe Jones and [singer] Maxine Brown, a gig that would lead to his big career change. “We found out that Joe was going to the promoters and trying to make direct deals with him and not going through the agency. When the agency back in Washington D.C. found out, they fired the whole band. I was at the movies, and you know how the ushers show you to your seat with a flashlight? Well, they came in looking for me, flashing the light on me, and saying, ’There he is!’ and I was wondering what I did. I went outside, and Maxine Brown’s manager had my drums and my luggage on the top of the station wagon! They said to me, ’We’re going to New York, you should come with us.’ So we went to New York.”

Muhammad’s bass drum-centered New Orleans groove was an immediate hit in the Big Apple. He played with Maxine Brown at the Apollo and caught the ear of Jerry Butler (then leader of the Impressions). He soon joined the group, and recorded hit after hit with Curtis Mayfield, who took over the Impressions when Butler left in ’61. Muhammad continued working with Mayfield after the singer left to pursue his own solo career.

Boogaloo Down Broadway

When Muhammad decided to come back to New York in 1963, Mayfield gave him a suitcase and told him not to open it until he was on the plane. “I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I remembered the suitcase. It was full of money. Curtis had given me a point-and-a-half of the publishing company, and there were thousands of dollars in there. I was glad that he had done that, because it really helped me get my footing back in New York City.” Muhammad would continue to record with Butler and Mayfield, including the soul classics “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready.”

Many of the original giants of jazz were still alive and gigging in New York in the mid ’60s. Fortunately, Idris had the luxury of not having to work, because of that suitcase full of cash. Checking out all the drummers he had only heard on records and through Blackwell, Boudreaux, and Smokey Johnson at various places around the city, he became familiar with his future jazz employers Lou Donaldson, Betty Carter, George Coleman, and others.

“I went to the Apollo, and I knew the musical director, Ruben Phillips, so the backstage was open to me. Ruben saw me backstage and asked me for my phone number, and in a couple of days he called me. He said, ’How’d you like to have the gig at the Apollo?’ And I said, ’That’s great, but Charlie Persip has the gig at the Apollo.’ He said, ’I just put him on two weeks’ notice.’ So, I worked the gig. Charlie told me himself that he came to the Apollo to see who had taken his job. He came backstage while I was playing and told me that there was no way that he could do what I did. He and I became good friends. I played at the Apollo for about a year and a half.

“I was doing that job uptown, which took all of the day, and at night, I was going downtown to see the jazz players. It was something I liked to listen to, but I couldn’t play. Plus, I couldn’t woodshed, because I was at the Apollo all day. I didn’t consider myself a jazz player,” says Muhammad. “But a lot of jazz guys started checking me out because I had this New Orleans thing going on.

“One day in 1965, I went to Birdland to see Miles Davis. I was going downstairs, and Lou Donaldson was coming upstairs. [Trumpeter] Bill Hardman was with him, and he says, ’Hey, Lou, that’s the drummer I was telling you about!’ And Lou says to me, ’Hey, you! Can you swing? You workin’ this week?’ I gave him my number and he called it. We ended up going to [saxophonist] Gary Bartz’s jazz club in Baltimore [The North End lounge was owned by Bartz’s parents], and the first tune was ’Scrapple From The Apple.’ He turned around and said to Bill, ’Hey, we got us a drummer!’”

Muhammad dug the music, but not the dough. “I did do a lot of gigs with Lou Donaldson, which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. I mean, the money was very bad. And I had to help carry the organ. It had four handles and there were four of us. Going up the stairs — it wasn’t that comfortable for me.”

Despite the pay and the labor, working with Donaldson broke down the doors for him in the studios when they recorded “Alligator Boogaloo.” “It opened a whole new recording thing with Blue Note. We were living in a building on 82nd and Broadway, and there were a lot of musicians that lived there too. There was a conga player that lived over me, and he would listen to me play. One day I was coming up the stairs, and he was too. He asked why I had stopped playing the day before, and I told him I was tired, that I had a gig that night, and I needed to sleep before. He said that he had never heard anything like that on the drums before. But as I was hearing that, I remembered what Mr. Barbarin had said to me years before about the compliments going in one ear and out the other.”

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Give Me A Head With Hair

In 1967, hippie culture, the Black Power movement, and antiwar protests were storming the barricades of mainstream American culture. One of the products of these quests for liberation was the popular and then-controversial musical Hair, which premiered off Broadway in October 1967, and then made its way to Broadway in April 1968.

“I used to play cabaret gigs on 125th Street with a bass player named Jimmy Lewis for West Indian dancers. [Guitarist] Eric Gale was on those as well. He liked the way I played, and the gigs were fun, because we were playing music that made people dance. That was right up my alley; that’s what I was doing in New Orleans. Jimmy told me that they were rehearsing this play at the Shakespeare House down in the East Village, and that I should go down there because they were looking for a drummer. So I went, and to my surprise there were these kids with long hair, dirty jeans, holes in their jeans, smoking reefer, and I said, ’Man, I don’t think I can do this!’ I had never been around that kind of atmosphere. I went to one rehearsal and I didn’t go back. Then the bass player told me that the musical director of the show liked me and they were looking for me. They were planning on taking the show to Broadway, so I thought, ’Well, it’s a steady gig and it’s Broadway!’ They had a book of 43 songs in the play, and my book was just chord changes. So I just made up rhythms to the songs.”

“We had opened off-Broadway, and then a few months later, we had opening night on Broadway. In the middle of the show, there was a net that fell onto the kids, and they came up out of the net with no clothes on! I was supposed to make two hits on chords but I never made the second hit because I was so shocked to see that these kids had no clothes on. I called my wife and said, ’Call a lawyer, because I think I might be going to jail because these kids have no clothes.’ But it was legal as long as they didn’t touch each other. That’s how I got to Hair. I ended up playing for the show for four-and-a-half years.”

Alligator Bogaloo

The steady work on Broadway coincided with his increasing work in the studios. While Miles Davis and others were incorporating rock into jazz, a smoother soul-jazz form was developing that sprung from the mix of earlier R&B and jazz styles. Muhammad’s sound was perfect for this movement. Unlike the hard-edged records of the James Brown drummers or the Memphis Stax recordings of the day, Muhammad’s laid-back New Orleans rhythms provided a link between the traditional greasy organ trio style and the more urban funk that was coming on the scene.

Muhammad was the motive force for Lou Donaldson on the self-explanatory titles Alligator Bogaloo, Mr. Shing-A-Ling, and Everything I Play Is Funky, and also was the Prestige Records house drummer (along with Bernard Purdie). He was performing every night on Broadway and recording during the day at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studios in Englewood, New Jersey. During the period from 1969 to ’74 he banged out close to 170 albums for Prestige, creating a body of work that capitalized on the soul-jazz that had been pioneered by Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, and others in the late ’50s. The roots of the acid jazz movement of the early ’90s would be sown here, in the pastel colors of the early ’70s. This included his own releases for Prestige, 1970’s Black Rhythm Revolution and ’71’s Peace And Rhythm.

But things weren’t all that they seemed to be. Muhammad, in a personal crisis, turned to spirituality to attain peace, and converted to Islam. “Regarding my conversion, I was in a lot of trouble in that period. My wife left me, and I became a junkie — although I was a clean junkie, nobody knew. Nobody saw me nod because I was always able to buy the stuff. I wasn’t around a lot of people who were junkies. [Trumpeter] Lee Morgan caught me at a dealer’s house one time, asked me what I was doing there and how long I had been doing it. I told him. Then he cursed me, grabbed me, and shook me, and told me I shouldn’t be doing this. I was searching for something to pull me out of this rut I was in.

“A friend of mine was a Sunni Muslim, and he showed me the Koran. I went to touch it, and he told me that I couldn’t read it until I had performed a Widhu, which is a ritual cleansing of the face, neck, and arms up to the elbows so that the contents of what you read can penetrate to your soul. I thought, ’Yeah, this is cool.’ That stayed with me. When I converted, I was given the name of Muhammad Idris. At that time, Muhammad Ali Clay was really popular, but he was part of a different sect. So I changed my name to Idris Muhammad. The day I became a Muslim, my whole life changed. I felt it was time to change my ways with the drug habit, so I stayed inside the house for a week, and kicked the habit. After that, and my conversion, everything changed. Everything. All the records I made were hits. My whole life changed spiritually. I got a hold of myself and I could think better. I was feeling better about myself as a human being.”

Soul-Jazz Evolution

Many of those hits at Prestige were helmed by legendary producer Bob Porter. He recalls, “Idris was my choice. That is to say, in the beginning, the first date he was on was with Harold Mabern called Workin’ And Wailin’ in June of 1969. He was still Leo Morris then. Lou Donaldson was a friend of mine, and I knew his band like the back of my hand, and I had signed a bunch of people from his band over the years. So I was well aware of what Idris was capable of.

“The album that really made a difference was the Charlie Earland album called Black Talk!, which was recorded in December of 1969. That album was a huge hit, it sold close to 200,000 copies by the time it was all over. Everyone on that date went on to bigger things based on that recording.

“These recordings are like the second stage of soul-jazz,” Porter continues, noting the shift in the kinds of albums that were being produced in the late ’60s. “If you think of soul-jazz as beginning in the ’50s with people like Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith, and Bill Doggett, rhythmically, they’re pretty much playing an extension of swing. But by the time you get into the mid ’60s and you get the introduction of Purdie and Idris into the soul-jazz mix, that’s where the funk comes in. It’s not straight-ahead soul-jazz swinging anymore.”

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The Power of SoulRhythm and Revolution

By 1970, Muhammad was ready for a solo record date. “The first album we did with him was Black Rhythm Revolution, a collection of mostly my guys, with the exception of Clarence Thomas, who played tenor and soprano on the album,” says Porter of the recording date. That November 2, 1970, session featured Jimmy Lewis on bass, Virgil Jones on trumpet, and Bobby Caldwell on congas — part of a rotating ensemble that Porter used on most of his recordings. “To a certain extent, it made my life easier as a producer because these guys knew each other and they knew what they had to do to make each other sound good,” says Porter.

“What was a big surprise to me was when Idris came in with ’Wander’ and ’By The Red Sea,’ which were his tunes for Black Rhythm Revolution. He presented a side to me that I had never seen before, which was his ability as a writer and composer. Those are damn good tunes, tunes that stand up even today, 37 years later. I was extremely impressed with those originals because they were of a quality that I didn’t even get from my normal guys.”

Muhammad was very particular with his own recordings. “[Usually] the material on the sessions was developed from head arrangements or from something that the guys brought in themselves,” Porter continues. “When Idris did his own albums, he knew what he wanted, and brought it in. He would choose the sidemen that he wanted and we would do what it took. In normal circumstances, we would make an album in a single day. But for Idris’ second solo album, 1971’s Peace & Rhythm, we needed two separate bands, so we needed two separate days. But in all cases, when he was recording, he knew exactly what he wanted.”

Hair ran on Broadway until 1972, but before the end of the run, Muhammad tired of the production. He had been the main drummer for four-and-a-half years, playing the majority of its 1,800 shows. After leaving Hair, he began gigging and recording with soul icon Roberta Flack, making the recordings Feel Like Makin’ Love and Blue Lights In The Basement and continuing to make his own recordings such as Power Of Soul, House Of The Rising Sun, and Turn This Mutha Out, all on the CTI/Kudu label. Muhammad worked regularly with the powerhouse session musicians of the day, including keyboardist Bob James, saxophonists Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn, and many other first-call musicians.

Power Of Soul features the type of fusion that would make Grover Washington Jr., guys like James, and others household names in the ’70s and is considered a crossover classic. As a modern updating of the soul-jazz idiom, it stands as one of the hippest mellow-groove albums of the 1970s. “I had played with all these guys on their own albums,” says Muhammad, “so when it came time for me to make my own recordings, I gave them a call. Grover’s tune, ’Loran’s Dance’ is still one of my favorites.” With its loping, syncopated melody line and droning bass, the piece has been one of the chill favorites of the rhythmic underground. Muhammad’s relaxed drumming may be straight-eighth based, but it’s so in the pocket, it just begs to be sampled.

“One thing that got me a lot of work is [that] what I would play for people was something they couldn’t write down,” says Muhammad. “They would give me something to play on a session but they wouldn’t like it. I would play something, and they would say, ’That’s what I wanted to write, but I just hadn’t heard it.’ The song ’Feel Like Makin’ Love’ with Roberta Flack was done in one take. I came from out of town; Alphonse Mouzon was holding things together until I could get there. As I was setting up the drums, I got a chance to hear what was going down with the song. I had some mallets, and I could hear that this wasn’t a song you would play with sticks. I played that street beat from ’Poinciana,’ and they said, ’Yeah! That’s why we were waiting for you!’ We ran it down a few times and recorded it in one take.”

Killing Him Softly

After three-and-a-half years of touring and recording with Roberta Flack, Muhammad was tired again of performing the same material night after night, and so he moved on. “’Killing Me Softly’ was killing me,” he jokes. He continued to be a highly sought-after session drummer and also led his own bands. But life on the road as a bandleader presented its struggles. “I ended up with a #3 record (1977’s Turn This Mutha Out) and I had a band and was on the road a lot, but I had management problems. I had learned from Roberta how much agencies can steal from you, and I had worked with so many of them. But here I was, going through the same things myself, it was happening to me. I had a bus that I had paid $80,000 for, and my manager was on the road with us for a while. Then he left to go back to New York, and I had to collect all the money myself.”

It turned out that the manager was ripping Muhammad off to the tune of $1,000 a night, due to shady business practices. “I went back to New York and discussed it with him, and asked how much it would cost me to tear up the contract. I ended up paying him $10,000 to end our business deal. I thought that I’d just better leave all this, and go back to working for people and demand what I want rather than take on this headache. I sold all the stuff, the van, and figured that if I wanted a band, I could get a few guys together and just play a gig. So I gave all that up. I figured I could be a sideman that demanded a leader’s fee. And with the people I play with, I make it better for them.”

Being a sideman by choice was a smart career move. Since then, he has regularly performed and recorded with the royalty of jazz including Randy Weston, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Steve Turre, Joe Lovano, George Coleman, and of course, Ahmad Jamal. He still plays in New Orleans (Jazz Fest 2007 saw him performing with Wil Blades, Donald Harrison, and The Honey Island Swamp Band) when he’s in town. Although the solo albums aren’t quite as frequent as they used to be (ten albums from 1970—’80, but only two since), his influence has spread as his drumming has been used on countless hip-hop and remix tracks.

The Idris Influence

“Idris Muhammad is in the top echelon of drummers as far as his influence on hip-hop and modern music,” says Vinnie Esparza, the San Francisco-based DJ who uses a plethora of soul, jazz, and psychedelic records in his turntablism. “It comes down to a handful of drummers: Idris, Bernard Purdie, Zigaboo [Modeliste] from the Meters, and James Brown’s drummers like Clyde Stubblefield. [Muhammad]’s spoken in the same breath as those guys because he was on so many funky records that have been sampled and are still relevant today.”

Esparza says that even though the traditional “jazz police” through the decades have scoffed at the crossover hits as not being “serious” enough, the sheer groove of soul-jazz records made between ’68 and ’74 influenced later pop music and became the bedrock of the musical movement that would emerge in the early 1990s as acid jazz.

“Idris is a hero to that community because his drumming was so groundbreaking,” says Esparza. “One really good example is Grant Green’s Alive from 1971. Idris’ drumming on that album is the blueprint for a lot of acid jazz in the early- to mid-’90s. For example, Us3 looped ’Let The Music Take Your Mind’ and redid it as something else. Alive also has ’Down Here On The Ground,’ which A Tribe Called Quest sampled, so that’s one album right there that was influential in the whole acid jazz scene and in hip-hop as well, and still is a sought-after vinyl record.”

Esparza talks reverently about Muhammad’s contributions to genres that wouldn’t come into being until years after the originals were recorded. “For example, the first song from Paul’s Boutique, the 1989 Beastie Boys album, is basically ’Loran’s Dance’ from Idris’ Power Of Soul. They just talk over it.” In describing Muhammad’s style from a DJ perspective, Esparza says, “It’s easier to sample someone who plays soul-funk drums, but Idris’ style isn’t like a straight, raw funk beat like Bernard Purdie would play it. If you listen to Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Bogaloo or Mr. Shing-A-Ling, it’s still jazzy and loose, but still in the pocket. There’s an album called Fire-Eater by Rusty Bryant where, in the title song, they give up a drum solo to Idris, and he just kills it. He’s just doing his thing, and it practically defines hip-hop drumming. He sounds like a drum machine. He may not realize it, but those 30 seconds in that drum solo are like the blueprints of hip-hop in just how fierce and hard the drums are. Plus, Idris plays on what is possibly the most-sampled song of all time, which is Bob James’ ’Nautilus.’ That song is hugely influential in hip-hop history.”

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Big Bass Man

Bob Porter casts a different light on why Muhammad’s sound was perfect for sampling. “The thing you need to know about Idris Muhammad is that the microphone loved him. Rudy Van Gelder knew how to get what Idris did on record — I’m not suggesting that everybody knew, and I don’t think that Rudy was able to ’get’ every drummer — but he sure knew how to get Idris. I think what you get from Idris more than anything else is bass drum. So many of the drummers that worked in New York in those years, the modern jazz drummers, for a lack of a better term, didn’t use the bass drum very much. They were cymbal and snare drum guys. Idris put a lot of bass drum into his work, which is a very typical New Orleans approach.”

Muhammad still remembers the $2 lesson that Paul Barbarin taught him 60 years ago, and the sound of that bass drum above his head when he was a kid. Both have stayed with him across the decades, and in recent years, affected his choice of equipment. Even though he could play any drum set in the world, he found the sounds he wanted in a small firm in upstate New York. “Idris was doing a recording session in the area,” says Gary Folchi, president of Precision Drums, based out of Pleasant Valley, New York. “The owner of the studio borrowed a drum set from us, and Idris loved the drums. He came over and met us and established a relationship. We built him his first kit around 2001.

“He let us know what he wanted in pretty much every respect. He knew what to ask for, and we did it. That’s really what we specialize in,” continues Folchi. “The unusual configuration is a combination of thick shells and shallow depth, which contributes, perhaps, to the legendary New Orleans second-line drum sound that is second nature to Idris — but just be thankful you’re not marching with his bass drum!

“His bass drum is 20-ply, and he has a 14" snare drum with 30 plies. The 18" bass drum is 12" deep and it has two toms that are both 12" x 7", and two floor toms that are both 14" x 14". All the drums are 100-percent maple and have a natural finish.” Bucking the trend of thinner shells, Muhammad knew exactly the sound he was looking for. “We usually describe the thick-shell sound as brighter and louder,” says Folchi. “You get less shell resonance, so the decay of the sound is a bit quicker, but the volume and brightness are increased. He also asked us to put a shiny coat of varnish on the insides, which is something we don’t normally do. That increases resonance and overtone ring. He seems to like a very big, open, resonant sound.”

Another feature that Muhammad requested was that there be no air vents in the drums. Numerous physical studies have been done on the subject of the science of percussion, and one theory is that the lack of air escaping the shell with each hit pressurizes the heads equally from within, resulting in increased sensitivity and resonance. “Naturally the stick response would be different, probably a little firmer,” says Folchi. “I can’t recall anyone else asking us to leave air holes off of the drums, so it’s pretty unique.”

“I’m a musical drummer,” says Muhammad. “Ahmad has very intricate music, and I have to match that music with my drums. Each of the bottom heads are tighter than the top head so when I hit the top head, the pressure goes to the bottom head and immediately comes back to the top and rings. Each drumhead has three different pitches. You hit the drum near the rim, that’s one sound. In between the rim and the middle of the head, that’s the second sound. The middle of the head is the third sound. I play all the drums like this, so I don’t want no air holes because I want to control the sound. And I want the thick shells because the sound travels better. I’ve been taping up the air holes in the drums since I was with Curtis Mayfield.”

Muhammad also has a different approach to sticks; his right stick is a 5B and the left stick is a 7A. “When I was a kid, I was originally left-handed. When I was seven, I was swinging on this contraption on the school yard, and I fell off and broke my left arm. So I just had the one stick in my right hand when I had the cast. By the time I got the cast off, my right hand was faster than my left. Many years later, in the ’80s, I was playing with Johnny Griffin, and my older brother was there. He said to me that my right hand was faster then my left, so I went the 5B/7A combo to make it even. I also put some tennis racquet wrap (a gift from Bjorn Borg) on the right stick like a cushion. And I also put a little gaffer’s tape on the left stick so when I play the cross stick on the rim, I can make two sounds on the same stick: the softer sound where the tape is, and then the sound with just the wood. All drummers have things that they do to make it easier for them to play. I also use red drum sticks because I wear red glasses and red shoes, and the sticks have a piece of gold paper in the center so when the light shines on them there’s a reflection. I don’t have any tricks, I just like the way it looks!”

You’re One Of Us

Muhammad is aware, but humble, about his contributions to the vernacular of drumming, remembering the lesson from Paul Barbarin. “One time, I was at the North Sea Jazz Festival and I was backstage with Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey in Art’s room. We were talking about the drums, and Max said, ’What you play is so complicated, but it swings so hard and is so funky, I can’t do that.’ And Elvin said, ’Yeah, the only one I know that’s as close to me is you.’ And I said that I had listened to him enough, because I wanted to play like he did with Trane. And Art said, ’Yeah, you got some kind of shit you play on the bass drum, how you do that?’ And I said, ’Look, I listened to all of you. I copied all you guys, what y’all were playing.’ And they said, ’No, we wasn’t playing that shit you’re playing.’

“But these guys had inspired me to play what I play. These guys were my heroes. And Art said, ’You’re one of us,’ and I said, ’No, I wasn’t one of y’all — you’re Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey.’ Art said again, ’No, you’re one of us.’ I said, ’Y’all better stop smoking that shit,’ and I turned to leave the room, and Art came up behind me and grabbed me. He was squeezing me in that vice grip, and he said, ’I’m gonna keep squeezing you until you say you’re one of us!’ Art was squeezing so hard I could hardly breathe. ’Say it! Say it! You’re one of us!’ And I was barely able to get out, ’Okay, I’m one of you! I’m one of y’all!’

“I always thought of these guys as my heroes. They were my friends, and for them to say that was a real compliment.”

{pagebreak} Idris Muhammad

Drums Precision Drum Company, maple shells in a Natural Orange Finish
14" x 5.5" Snare
12” x 4” Snare
18" x 12" Bass Drum
12" x 7" Tom
12" x 7" Tom
14" x 14" Floor Tom
14" x 14" Floor Tom
Sticks Hot Sticks 5B/7A, wood-tip
Cymbals Istanbul Agop
15" Alchemy Sweet Hi-Hats
22" Prototype Ride 16" Sultan Crash
18" Sultan Crash
Heads Remo Fiberskyn (Batter) and Remo Clear Diplomat (Resonant)

Idris' Licks

Listening to these tunes, one hears how Muhammad creates great compositions out of simple elements. The rhythms aren’t complex, but each tune is a sophisticated little drum composition with contrasting cycles of two- and four-bar figures. They all have that inexpressible sense of time movement called groove.

“Feel Like Makin’ Love”
Muhammad was frequently called on to work with singers. He has a knack for staying out of the way of the vocals but making the groove recognizable at the same time. As with other tunes in the late ’60s and early ’70s such as “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green) and “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye), he’s keeping time on the floor tom.

“Power of Soul”
This is a very cool seven-minute track, and these two bars represent a balance between how he keeps steady time on some measures and changes it up on others. The sound of this record is spare, with plenty of room for soloists to come forward in the mix. It’s pure funk presented like a jazz recording.

“New Orleans Gumbo”
Right from the top he presents this four-bar composition with the right amount of New Orleans grease and swing on it. The groove varies slightly as he propels the tune — a perfect example of the drum groove as a mini-composition.

“Wildfire”
Here he plays the backbeat on the & of 4, and on 4 every other bar. It’s a little like the “Feel Like Makin’ Love” groove, but with an eighth-note rhythm on the bass drum.

“Keep On Pushing”
This groove starts as a boom-click-click waltz but then creates a call-and-response form in the second measure. It definitely keeps on pushing.

DRUM! Notation Guide