Spend five minutes with young, talented Mr. Draper – first-call live percussionist to so many A-list hip-hop (Common), soul (Jill Scott), and rap (LL Cool J) artists – and you’re bound to hear plenty about North Philly. Spend an hour with him, as I did, and you may start to believe that the area has supplanted Nashville as Music City U.S.A.
It seems as if every musician that the shy and unfailingly polite Draper talks about on Common’s tour bus hails from the city of brotherly love. “We’re all family,” he says. That includes the drummers from N.E.R.D. (Philadelphians Darrell Robinson and Eric Greene), the co-headliner band on this particular Common tour.
North Philly is where Draper caught the bug for percussion in his church at nine, and where he shedded as a teenager with mentor Amir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots. “I think now, when I get called to do a gig, I try to bring Philly,” Draper explains. “The heart, that’s what Philly is. So I give it my all.”
Aaron Draper’s “all” is on full display at the show two hours later at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Common arranges his band with Draper and his gear front and (nearly) center. This raises the entertainment value of the theatrical show considerably, as Draper charismatically grooves on his congas, timbales, cowbells, and electronic pads, singing backup to boot. As he explains it to me before the gig: “When you get on stage the crowd gives you energy, the band gives you energy, and it takes you to another level. It helps you create. And like Common always tells us, stick to the music, but you’re here to create. You’re here for a reason – you’re here to do what you do.”
To do what you do, if you’re Aaron Draper, is a unique thing indeed. A percussionist playing in the context of hip-hop has singular challenges and different goals than, say, a percussionist in a jazz or Afro Cuban band. The groove is all, and that groove is never “on top,” but rather on the nose or slightly behind the beat. A percussionist with light-speed “on top” chops – even a true virtuoso – would sound abysmal in this music. A hip-hop percussionist needs to accentuate the vibe, make it swing if that’s what is called for, remain deep in the pocket, and listen, listen, listen.
“I try to approach it musically, like an orchestra,” Draper says. “I pick my spots, and think, how can I bring more to it – still staying in the lines, not doing too much, but still making it more?”
When Draper has a new track to learn for a live performance, he listens to every recorded percussion line, to see what he can reproduce, either with his instruments, “toys” (cowbells, woodblocks, homemade accoutrements), or his electronic gear. But he also focuses on the rest of the music – even the words, he says. “Sometimes I know the words better than the music,” he laughs, “which is bad.”
Once Draper knows the song backward and forward, the focus becomes “how can I make this song live,” he says. That comes from communicating with the keyboard player, bass player, and drummer, and experimenting until the artist is happy and the musicians feel it. This, of course, is where the drum set player vs. percussionist dynamic is crucial, and unlike some percussion players who focus on, say, the hi-hat or kick drum to “play off of,” Draper is intent on listening to the whole kit. “Hi-hat, snare, even toms. I want to give the drummer space, not run over his toes.”
Here, again, is where it helps to play so many different gigs with such a tight-knit group of familiar faces. “I can listen to Spanky [George McCurdy]” – the drummer on this current Common tour and part of the three-year Jill Scott tour Draper recently wrapped – “and I know exactly where he’s going next.”
Big Ears. Like many young musicians-to-be, Draper gained his first exposure to live music in the church. As early as age four or five, Draper started to zero in on his church’s drummer, Benjamin Tolin. There was a visceral power in what Tolin achieved with his instrument, and for Draper, witnessing that response in the congregation was all it took. “What drew me to it was what it did to people,” he says. “How it makes everyone feel ’in the rhythm,’ and how certain rhythms make you move certain ways.” By the time Draper was nine, he had clearly gravitated toward the drums.
“To come up as a musician in the church was amazing because it was all kinds of different cats coming in from different churches and just killing it,” he recalls. “I got the chance to learn from them many different styles of music, and they helped me get started, giving me pointers when I started playing out on gigs. One guy in particular, Mr. Robert Webb, gave me my first church gig, and I started playing drums everywhere with him, at different churches, and maturing in my craft. What I learned musically in those years was: you got to pay attention! Follow the service, stay on the beat, stay in the pocket, but also play from the heart.”
As he got older, Draper received a different kind of hands-on musical education at his high school in North Philly. There, Draper would develop some jazz chops and begin to learn theory. This was also a key “input” phase for the budding musician, still primarily a drum set player, as he consumed not only what he was hearing in the church and in school, but also the work of musicians like Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Giovanni Hidalgo, Pancho Sanchez, Sheila E., Tito Puente, Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report, The Yellow Jackets, and fellow Philadelphians Brian Moore and John Roberts. Meanwhile, radio staples like the The Winans, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson “when he was Mike” were key.
The influence of Gaye on Draper from a young age provides some insight into his growing fascination with percussion within soul music. Albums like the seminal What’s Goin’ On LP are awash in painstakingly orchestrated percussion, without which the album would simply not sound whole. “That Marvin stuff is so awesome,” Draper intones with a wide smile and a slight shake of his head. “The drummer is in the pocket, and everyone is just locking. And that’s what I took from it – not exactly what the percussionist does, though that’s part of it, but the whole terminology of it, and the language, and the fact that everyone is creating together instead of running over each other’s toes. Making a song.”
Killer Connection. Draper got right into playing after high school, foregoing college and taking various rap, jazz, and soul gigs, which eventually led to a steady job with acclaimed soul outfit Jazzyfatnastees. Draper also cut his teeth playing in local festival events with visiting rap and hip-hop artists, including Doug. E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, and Common.
This period, circa 2001, would be also be notable for ?uestlove’s growing influence on Draper, who was a teenager when he met The Roots drummer/producer at an event in Philly called The Black Lilly. Before long Draper was dubbed “Babyquest,” and even rocked ?uestlove’s signature afro and pick at the time. ?uestlove quickly took an interest in the young musician and wrote down more than a hundred names of artists that he thought Draper should listen to and study, with James Brown at the top of the list.
“He just gave me a bunch of records to listen to,” remembers Draper. “And James Brown, man. That’s just something right there. You got two drummers, right? And one’s basically playing a percussion pattern on the kick and hi-hat, and the other one’s actually playing the drums, and they’re switching off. And of course sometimes they had a percussionist too. There was also a lot of Marvin [Gaye], P-Funk, and lots of old ’70s and ’80s on that list, plus Stevie [Wonder] and Ray Charles.”
Draper continued his transition from drum set to percussion, and began experimenting with a percussion setup in church. “I always played drums, and I sing too. But I started messing around with congas, and some djembe. But I started getting curious. I saw some timbales and I’d be like, ’Let me try some timbales.’ I’d also just see different cats having different stuff, so I’d try to implement what they were using. And I’m still trying different things. Just put up a third conga, stuff like that.”
The ?uestlove connection also led to an opportunity to occasionally sub for Roots percussionist Frank Knuckles, which allowed Draper to gain some exposure as he covered dates in various cities. The more he got a chance to play out and work with bands from behind his new world – a percussion rig – the more Draper honed what would become his signature and sought-after sound on his new instrument.
“Already being a drummer, I kind of knew I needed to follow [?uestlove’s] lead,” he explains. “And I wasn’t ’all that’ at first. I was, as they say in Philadelphia, ’goin’ for blood.’ Just chopping away and doing whatever. But after a while I was learning, ’Okay, gotta stick to this pattern here,’ or, ’I’m hearing the groove here,’ or ’This is 4/4 or 6/8’ or whatever, and ’Let’s change this, but it’s still gotta make sense locking with the drummer and the bass player.’ I learned to listen to everybody, so we can follow each other to where we’re going.”
A Banner Year. Later in 2001, Jay-Z gave Draper his biggest break to date. The rapper/producer/music exec had noted Draper’s talent at the local rap festivals in Philadelphia, and asked the 19-year-old to join him on his MTV Unplugged appearance.
“I had just gotten out of high school,” Draper explains. “And I’m thinking, ’How’d this happen?’” One listen to “Big Pimpin’” from Jay-Z Unplugged answers his question – the fluidity in Draper’s playing is so undeniable, the cowbell and woodblock pattern so in the pocket, that you forget that you are involuntarily bobbing your head, even as Jay-Z starts chiming in with a call-to-action: “Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!”
On this cut and others from the broadcast, one begins to detect Draper “goin’ for blood” from an entirely new angle – not chopping wildly, but focusing now like a seasoned player on the heart of each song, and providing that steady flow of rhythm that keeps circling back to the heart. Everything Draper does on this track, and on the majority of the Unplugged session, revolves around this approach – the product of a born listener.
Draper’s performance on Unplugged is reminiscent of what I saw seven years later, in New York, as Draper stood on stage with Common. In both cases, Draper consistently dials in unbelievable amounts of swing, all while making the drummer and the musicians around him sound groovier. Sometimes you can’t even tell how he’s doing it. It could be by playing his pads with sticks, or by finding the right syncopation in his tambourine pattern, or by serving up a thrilling timbale roll where you least expect it.
The MTV Unplugged date and the exposure it afforded would pay huge dividends for Draper. A subsequent Levi’s-sponsored tour with Jay-Z and other rappers would lead to more calls from more artists, and Draper, still so hungry, wisely took every gig that was offered him. “I was 19, man, and I’m like, I’ve seen these people on TV!” Draper laughs. “Totally star-struck.”
Lightning Strikes Twice. In 2005, Draper would get his second major break when powerful soul songstress Jill Scott – another ?uestlove discovery – called up. Draper’s good friend Adam Blackstone was playing bass with Scott at the time, and the singer had just asked Blackstone to assume musical director duties. Blackstone and Draper had worked together with other artists over the years, and the bassist recommended him for the percussion gig.
Draper would go on to tour with Scott from 2005 through 2008, lasting through the tenures of three different drummers: Darrell Robinson (2005), George McCurdy (2006), and John Roberts (2007—2008). “All my boys,” he notes. “Those were some great years. We not only became a tight unit as far as a band goes, we also became a family.” Of Scott, he says with a smile, “That’s my sister there.”
Draper learned several things while out with Scott. The key difference on this gig versus his previous work was that there was no live DJ providing tracks – the musicians themselves re-created all the music from the recordings. “I used my pads a lot,” Draper explains. The percussionist also learned the nuances of putting on a world-class R&B show, and specifically how to play behind an “emotional” singer “who’s real,” and who fills the room with her big voice.
Draper’s work with Scott (perhaps best reviewed by watching Scott’s live appearance on VH1 Soul) again shows off the percussionist’s preternatural ability to add an effortless swing to every song, often accentuating off-beats and creating hypnotic triplet patterns on congas and bongos against a 4/4 pulse. Draper and the other musicians were also free to make adjustments or alterations from night to night, a key element of keeping things sounding fresh. “Jill was very open,” says Draper. “I wanted to challenge myself, and she liked that. If we wanted to go somewhere she would go too – and vice-versa.”
In Style. Still only in his mid-twenties, Draper’s resume is brimming with high-profile gigs. Yet the percussionist remains wide-eyed and humble about his success, the exposure, and the world travel. However, he also knows that he has something special that keeps his phone ringing. Through trial and error, going back to his church band days, through listening sessions with ?uestlove and his earliest gigs in Philly, Draper developed a sound that works pointedly for this particular brand of music. And originality and self-awareness are hot commodities when you’re a professional.
“My rhythm is obviously different than, say, the Latin cats,” he says. “My rhythm is more like a drummer. For Latin players, the metronome is a lot different – always ’on top,’ and I’m more pulled back on the beat than ahead of the beat. Now, I can do that – playing on top. I have a form of it, and I’m learning it, definitely. But I don’t necessarily want to have that rhythm, because I like my rhythm and I want to be different.”
From watching Draper perform with Common, I can attest that Draper’s skill set also includes a gift for entertaining. The best percussionists always seem to understand this – that their busy setup often calls for some charisma, some movement, a bit of flash. Draper gets this, no question. He dances and sways with his grooves, sings soulful backup in the mike, and gamely plays off Common’s theatrical performance.
“Musically, when I’m behind my rig, I feel like, here I am, in my work station, and I’m here to create,” says Draper. “I know that here are my timbales, here are my electronics, here are my congas, and here are my toys. So my way of entertaining is just dancing around while keeping the rhythms tight. Once I know where the breaks are – where the 4 is and where the 1 is and everything else – I’m trying to take my energy and do my thing. I jump, I sing, I interact with the crowd or what’s going on around me on stage. Once I get used to the show and know what’s going on, I’m good, because I know my station. I try to make it easy for me to get around – not a lot of hard work”
Add to that Draper’s intuitive sense of where his drummer is and where his drummer’s going. Again, it helps when you’re playing with the same handful of players from three or four or ten other gigs in your past. In the Common stage setup, familiar drummer George McCurdy is set up right behind Draper, and you can see the communication between the two of them, often via knowing smiles when one is playing off or impressing the other. “Mostly I’ll just look back there and shout, ’Yeah!’” Draper laughs.
Unbroken Circle. So the kid from 22nd Street in North Philadelphia and the hometown church bands has quickly become a seasoned pro, holding down the beat with flavor and originality for some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B. And he’s done most of it with his Philly cohorts alongside him. Perhaps this is the reason that Draper remains so deeply unassuming. Spend that hour in conversation with him: All about the music, all about listening and learning (even now at the top his craft), all about his family (both his immediate family – parents Michael and Charlotte, grandmother Ruth Draper – and his fellow hometown players from the neighborhood).
“The best part about all of this is that we’re all friends,” he says about the group of familiar faces from tour after tour. “These are the guys I’ve been playing together with for years. We all took our style and our language from Brian Moore [currently out with Madonna] and John Roberts [currently out with Janet Jackson, and engaged to Jill Scott]. We’re all from Philly. We grew up in church together. And that chemistry on stage really comes from being like family.”
All of which must make those long road slogs – through Europe, Japan, the U.S. countless times – more enjoyable. “That’s so fun,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see different lands. I go to some places and just think, ’Man, I may want to have a house here someday.’”