BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Aaron Draper’s career started at light speed just out of high school and hasn’t slowed down. Now, at age 36, he’s one of the top percussionists in the soul, pop, and hip-hop realm, and looking forward to 2019 tours with Adele and Eminem, among other high profile gigs. But it was a groundbreaking 2001 MTV Unplugged performance with Jay-Z that sealed the drummer’s desire to make his name as a percussionist.
“It blew me away,” he says. “I’m 19 and I’m like, Man, I’m on TV playing with Jay-Z and The Roots. That was really the first transition of me playing percussion. I was always a drummer first, but I could always kind of play percussion, so I dabbled. But I wanted to do something different because we have a lot of Philadelphia drummers and I took on the task of trying to separate myself, so I solely focused on playing percussion.”
His education came largely from mentoring by fellow Philadelphia native Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer of The Roots, who took a shine to 18-year-old Draper early in 2001. Draper, who grew up drumming in church, soaked up as much as he could from Questlove and the great percussionists he’d watch on the BET Jazz Channel, like Poncho Sanchez, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Tito Puente.
“I didn’t have so much technique at first,” he says. “Working on flats and open tones and all that kind of stuff, that came over time… I took whatever I learned, and just like with anything, you take it and make it your own.”
That led to a style he finds success with to this day. It’s a combination of feel and groove, and replicating sounds from the recording into his live percussion setup. “My approach, as far as percussion, was to make it feel good, make it sound good, make the count stick like it needs to be there,” he says. “I’m so particular when I hear records or I’m playing music, if there’s percussion in the song that makes the song, I’m so adamant about playing it that way.”
For example, take Draper’s performance with 112 at the 2017 Soul Train Awards, where he meticulously crafted his setup to connect the audience with the much-loved recordings. “‘Cupid’ has a bongo-ish kind of pattern in it, with a clap, and every second beat when the claps come in there’s a water drop on that. So I found that sample and programmed it,” he says. The seemingly small detail only appears sporadically during the last minute of the five-minute medley. But it adds a literal connection to the “wet” feel of the slow, dripping R&B jam that pushes the whole performance over the top.
“Every sound plays a part because it reminds you of the song,” says Draper.
And on tour with Rihanna a few years earlier, he used acoustic percussion to bring the feel of the percussive elements from her records. “Even if the songs don’t have percussion, I find a way to mimic something that’s in the pattern of the song,” he says. “When I was with Rihanna, ‘Where Have You Been’ is one of her famous songs. But there’s no percussion in it. So what I did was made up — well, not made up, but took a pattern out of the song, played it on cowbells, claps — and I just took it and made it my own, with my approach to it. Her music has a lot of energy. Same thing with ‘Rude Boy’ — there’s something in it, but it’s not percussion. I just played a conga pattern and a tambourine in that joint, but it stuck so good that it sounded like it was part of the song.”
In contrast, his most recent setup for Adele was carefully scripted with minimal gear. “I had congas, I had the whole setup,” he says. “She didn’t want any of that. So it made me have to think. She said she only wanted what’s in the songs.”
So, he focused his energy into crafting the perfect samples and considering the theatrical aspect of the live performances. “The first tour, half the song I would play electronics on ‘Hello.’ So I sampled my kick drum and my floor toms that I would play on there, and I would put it in the pad because in the beginning of the show, it was just her out in the front and they needed it as quiet as it could be [onstage] because she wasn’t coming from the front of the stage, she was coming from somewhere else. So we played from the electronic drums in that part and then I would switch in the big part to acoustic drums when she got up onto the stage. It worked out perfect.”
IN THE BEGINNING
In the days before YouTube, a VHS tape of your favorite drummers was an essential tool in every budding drummer’s practice arsenal.
For 16-year-old Draper, it was a tape of Philadelphia legend Brian Frasier-Moore paying with ’90s R&B royalty Aaliyah and Ginuwine that he studied religiously. “Me and my brother Kurt Chambers — also a musician, guitarist, singer, writer, doing his thing right now with country music — we used to watch that and it inspired us so much because it was like, here’s this dude from Philly, traveling, killing it on tour with Aaliyah with his drums, sounding amazing. You see the energy of the crowd — it’s just a whole thing. And it blew us away. To the point where this is where I’m at now.”
He would watch the tape, then hit the shed to try and replicate everything he just saw and heard. It was a ritual. “We used to watch it every day, man. Every day. It was like the Bible.”
Draper got into electronics at an early age. “In church I was a drummer, too. I played a whole church service with a Roland MKII,” he says. “So it gave me an early edge on electronics and the idea of what it is, and what they do. And later on I went on to use the SPD-20, and then the Handsonic came out and it changed my life.”
Opportunity came knocking again in 2005, this time going by the name of Jill Scott. “That changed my life drastically,” he says. “I had to take the gig after Pablo Bautista, an amazing percussionist. That was my time to step up to bat and show what I do. Coming from a church, hip-hop, and R&B world, I knew some stuff, but the pressure was on me. So it was like, what am I going to do? It worked out, and I made it my own.”
He went on to tour and record with the platinum-selling singer and songwriter, employing a variety of acoustic instruments. “Jill Scott is a gig where it’s all on me,” he says. “There are no tracks, no ProTools. So it keeps me on my toes.”
He was in his early 20s, and developing his own style. “I don’t come against anybody,” says Draper. “I love all types of percussion — African, Latin, Chinese, orchestral — but I wanted my own style.… I wanted to be my own person.”
MORE MUSIC HISTORY
Draper had already been part of music history with one of the most successful acoustic hip-hop performances of all time with Jay-Z’s Unplugged session in 2001, when he found himself in the middle of another transcendent experience in 2012. Arguably the biggest moment in one of the world’s biggest music festivals was the Tupac hologram performance at Coachella, and Draper was right there onstage when Makaveli himself rose from the ground, much to the astonishment of everyone in the audience.
“We had the rehearsal and I knew it was going to happen, but you couldn’t say anything about it,” he says. “To see it firsthand at rehearsal, it was mind-blowing. Because if Tupac was here and I could shake his hand, this would be it. It was an incredible use of technology.”
He continues, “To me, 2012 will always be the best Coachella. I don’t think anybody’s topped that. You see Tupac onstage, in hologram form, it’s like…” he pauses, searching for the words, before settling on the simple, yet effective, “Whoa.”
Since then, he’s gone on to record with many soul artists, including Bilal (A Love Surreal, 2013), Mary J. Blige (The Strength Of A Woman, 2017), and one of his early heroes, Chris Dave (Chris Dave And The Drumhedz, 2018), whom he would watch tapes of playing with Mint Condition as a teenager. Add to that his own gospel quartet, The Origin Band, to which he lends his soulful vocals, just released its first single.
USE YOUR EARS, USE YOUR HEART
The old-school soul and funk influence is evident in Draper’s acoustic playing, especially on Scott’s 2011 album The Light Of The Sun. His smooth, locked-in grooves inspire the feel of a classic Marvin Gaye-era soul record, which contrasts beautifully against Scott’s modern songwriting and lyrical sharpness. His knack for capturing the feel of a groove and translating that through his hands into percussion begins with using his ears.
“I go back and listen to that old funk stuff,” he says. “What are they thinking, what are they playing? Sometimes they were just playing tambourine — just one instrument — but you think of what it did for that funk song, that one part, it made the song.”
He adds, “That kind of music still touches me to this day. I just love it, especially Marvin Gaye. The percussionist stood out in that stuff. Those kind of things, when I approach funk or soul or anything, that’s how I approach it. Just to make it count and make it stick and not overplay it.”
As a percussionist, he sees himself more as the glue that holds a band together than the shining star demanding attention with a virtuosic solo. “I’m playing to lock in and [make sure] we’re all on one page, and we all sound like one, so I’m just trying to add my piece to fill in the puzzle,” he says.
“And I feel like the bottom line of any hand percussion is to play from your heart. Of course, play everything else, but play from your heart — what you feel. Because it’s that kind of instrument.”