Bashiri Johnson: Session Specialist

Bashiri Johnson isn’t exactly a household name. It’s not as if he hasn’t played on some of the best-selling albums of the last 30 years, or that he hasn’t been on tour with some of the top-grossing musicians in history. He has. But Johnson is a session percussionist whose fame lives quietly in liner notes and shadowy corners of sold-out arenas. He’s the guy producers call when they want to add the perfect percussive touches to an album, tour, or commercial — the guy the music industry adores and the average Joe has never heard of.

“Percussion, Bashiri, percussion, Bashiri, percussion, Bashiri. When someone says percussion, I say Bashiri,” says Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, whose production savvy earned him a reputation for engineering some of rock’s cleanest albums. Katz isn’t alone when he gushes about Johnson. “He’s one of those rare master musicians,” says Clarence Greenwood, also known as Citizen Cope. “He’s a real guru at what he does, and it’s always a thrill to play with him.”

The Bash Man, as he’s often called, has hammered out a résumé that reads like a who’s who of the music industry since 1978. Bouncing from studio gigs with Eric Clapton and James Taylor to live concerts with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, Johnson made a name for himself as the session percussionist of the ’80s and ’90s. He’s also found a niche doing percussive overdubs for video games, commercials, and television scores. Almost two decades ago, Johnson recorded the percussion that accompanies the soundtrack for the Sega Genesis classic Sonic The Hedgehog, and he’s working on the score for a spy game coming out next year called The Agency, for PlayStation 3. He recently finished work on a New York commercial to promote music education in schools.

“It’s kind of an extension of session work,” Johnson says about his non-traditional roles. “A lot of the record producers have evolved into doing other types of production, and a lot of that is video-game production. So they call people who they’re used to working with.” He’s worked with so many producers that he claims not to be sure where he’ll be next week. A follow-up phone call, however, found Johnson getting ready to rehearse with Michael Jackson for the 50 plus shows the King Of Pop has lined up at London’s O2 Arena this summer, fall, and early 2010.

The Early Years. Johnson grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He bussed to John Dewey High School from the predominantly black Bed-Stuy to the mostly white Bay Ridge neighborhood. For Johnson, this meant learning how to play both sides of a racially charged coin. (Incidentally, Spike Lee also went to John Dewey, graduating two years after Johnson.) Johnson came of age when The Last Poets, a group of civil rights–minded writers and musicians, were inventing new percussive rhythms that combined jazz, funk, and salsa beats. He was also influenced by the prevailing mindset that equality was a right, not a privilege, and that everyone should have a voice, regardless of race or social status. “It opened me up to being a global citizen,” he says, adding that his diverse childhood also had an impact on his musical sensibilities.

At school in Bay Ridge, Johnson soaked up the rock stylings of The Who and The Beatles. When he came home to Bed-Stuy, he’d hear his father listening to everything from classical music to Sly Stone, James Brown, and Dinah Washington. This musical diversity provided him with a solid foundation for the session work that would define his career. “I feel that I can be put in any room with any artist and listen to their track and be able to channel what percussion would work well with their music,” he says. “To be able to be a part of that music and have it sound like I was always meant to be there, that’s something that I’ll always do and I’ll always call upon as a way and means to have a career.”

When he found out in high school that his friends were starting a band, Johnson decided he wouldn’t be left out and picked up the missing element: percussion. He played along to songs he heard on the radio and emulated drummers like Ralph McDonald and Bill Summers. Once, in 1975 he sneaked backstage at a Miles Davis concert and asked James Mtume, Davis’ drummer from 1971 to 1975, if he gave lessons. “No,” Mtume replied, instead inviting the impressionable teenager to his house. “I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time,” he says. That began a three-year stint where Johnson learned, more than anything, the business of being a session drummer from his mentor.

“He shared with me a mindset and a posture of working as a musician that was invaluable,” Johnson says of Mtume. “I studied with him as his sole student, so he was able to share with me the ins, the outs, and a lot of the business side of the entertainment industry.” With a little help from his mentor, Johnson landed his first major gig on R&B singer Stephanie Mills’ 1979 gold album, Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’. “From then on,” he says, “people started calling because they’d see my name in credits and hear from other producers about my work. It all snowballed from there.” Johnson says Mtume also taught him to recognize his role as a session player. He says that regardless of the type of music he’s playing, his goal is always to complement the music, not dominate it.

“It’s important to have a sense of less-is-more, because it’s not all about playing everything you have on a track,” he says. “A lot of the time, one sound every four bars is all you need to make a track sound like a million bucks.” He goes on to say that the reason he gets most of his jobs is because he’s able to call on a different set of percussive tools that most other drummers don’t have for lack of experience or otherwise. “Countless times I’ve sat in the control room, watched him listen carefully to a track, then stand up and say, ‘Okay, let’s start with this shaker,’” says Chris McHale, a producer from New York City, about Johnson. “And it’s not just any shaker, mind you — it’s this particular and perfect shaker.”

“I get called to do what I do because people like the sounds and parts that I play with respect to their music,” Johnson says. “I don’t get in the way.” Having contributed to “their music” for the last 30 years (his latest supporting role was on the Belgian band Zap Mama’s eighth album, ReCreation) Johnson has been shifting from the shadows of other people’s records into more prominent roles in solo and collaborative projects. He started his own production company, Bash-Man Productions, as well as his own studio, known as The Lab. He’s recorded two solo albums, Art In Rhythm and Soul Liberation, both of which showcase his lesser known talent as a vocalist and songwriter. Later this summer he has two children’s albums coming out and, in the fall, he’ll release a world-beat record and a holiday album he recorded with his duo partner, Nigerian guitarist Jah Stix. Though he’s accepted fewer gigs in recent years, Johnson’s popularity as a session percussionist hasn’t waned much.

“I’m not sessioning on someone’s record every single day. That used to be the case maybe five or ten years ago,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to have a life where I had no breaks. I have a family. I have a life. I have other interests. I wouldn’t want my life dominated by work.”

The Next Generation. John Philip Sousa, known as the “March Master” for his instantly recognizable, patriotic compositions, famously predicted that the record player would be the death of music. Many have said, in similar fashion, that drum machines were the end — they’re soulless, some bumper stickers say. But Johnson always believed that technology would further his career in music, not inhibit it. “I came up as a percussionist right at the advent of the drum machine, when a lot of drummers had to make a choice of embracing the technology or rejecting it and suffering the consequences,” he says. “I embraced it, and that made all the difference in my career.”

Pretty soon, as he latched onto more new-school techniques, Johnson was no longer just backing up the big names. With Supreme Beats, a five-hour collection of acoustic and electronic percussion samples he recorded, Johnson pioneered many of the sounds that we unwittingly hear in a variety of modern music. And one of his biggest accomplishments, he says, is an electronic beat library called Ethno Techno. “People are using those sounds on commercials and records,” he says excitedly.

“In this collection, the traditional and the modern meld in seemingly effortless fashion,” wrote one reviewer from Remix magazine, of the $99 catalog. “On more than one occasion, I listened with my mouth agape.” But his inventiveness doesn’t end in the studio. Johnson has also collaborated with LP to create what the company calls Cyclops shakers, which look more like new-fangled workout weights than percussion toys. Similar to the lugs on any other drum, the Cyclops’ spring-loaded valves allow percussionists to tune the shaker to their liking. He’s not just pushing new boundaries, either. Johnson also takes time to learn about centuries-old instruments, like the sabar, a drum from West Africa that’s played with one hand and one stick. Not that this is surprising when you hear Johnson’s advice to young musicians.

“Get as much knowledge on whatever instrument you’re passionate about. Know its history and where it came from culturally. Know its folklore, and know how far it can be taken by seeing what other people have done and are doing with it. And then after you’ve seen all of that, decide what you want to do and what is going to be your voice with that instrument.” So what’s next for session players? For one, as we all know, the Internet has allowed musicians to work remotely. David Byrne and Brian Eno, for example, recorded their most recent album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, from New York and London, respectively. This sort of collaboration has given way to more home studios, fewer flights back and forth, and the overall means to record an album for a fraction of what it cost a decade ago.

“It’s simple to call me up, tell me what you’re looking for, email me the files, and then I’ll work on it, conference you on how everything’s going, and send you files back,” Johnson says. “That process is very easy.” Still, he says, he’d rather track his parts live. “Music has always been and hopefully will always be about people interacting together in the same space. I hope we never get to a place where there is not human interaction. The music will be devoid of emotion and humanity.”

Inspiration: Yes We Can. Asked what’s kept him ticking throughout his prolific career, Johnson doesn’t miss a beat. “What’s most inspiring to me is the beauty inherent in people and the beauty around us,” he says. His empathy seems to play big role in his success as a drummer. After all, he’s the guy other musicians and producers talk about as the session player who brings “a certain humanity,” as Greenwood puts it, to their music. “When I travel the world and I’m sitting on a beach in Hawaii, or when I’m in Russia walking the streets, or when I’m in Africa, sometimes it’s overwhelming. I’m riding a bicycle or walking in the rain in London. All of this is so sublime that it affects me. When I see the beauty of other people, when people help other people — random acts of kindness — that’s all very inspiring to me. That’s what fuels my creativity. If I’m doing a drum workshop for kids and some kid takes a wild solo, there will be something inspiring for me there. Or if a singer sings a line so perfect that it gives me goose bumps.”

What seems to inspire him most, though, is the state of the country. Johnson was hardly candid when talking about the project he’s working on with partner Jah Stix, saying only that he’s “writing contemporary stuff, addressing relationships and what’s going on around the world.” Even when pressed, he wouldn’t budge. “I write musical commentary about what’s going on around me,” he says vaguely. Something tells us that what’s going on around him is uplifting.

“If I’m playing onstage with Beyonce and she’s singing with the president, that inspires me,” he says about playing at Barack Obama’s inauguration. He continues: “I got to meet and shake Obama’s hand twice. He said to me, ‘Great work, baby.’ I really felt like I was part of something historic. I’ll never forget it.” Asked if he could retire happy after witnessing history, Johnson chuckles. “Until I can set up my drums on the moon, I’ll be in the business.”