BY GARRETT TYLER | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Sometimes playing it “wrong” can sound so right. That’s the case with the drag beat, which is now solidly infused into modern R&B, hip-hop and soul music. This technique conveys a feeling of sloppiness in which the drummer seems to be playing behind the beat, but is still perfectly in time. Learning to control this “sloppiness” can extend your dynamic range, make you more comfortable with odd timing and subdivisions, and most of all give you a deeper sense of pocket and control over placement of the backbeat.
The drag beat opens the door for advanced subdivisions such as quintuplets, sextuplets, and septuplets, but it also forces you to play ahead of, on top of, and behind the beat. This new vocabulary can heighten your language as a drummer and enable you to communicate your ideas not only within the drag beat, but also in any style of music.
This “broken beat” feel is still considered a new concept in popular music. This particular style was born in what Grammy-winning drummer and producer Questlove calls the “Renaissance Period” of hip-hop, 1992–97. Artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and Questlove’s own The Roots were important contributors to this renaissance, but at the same time an underground hip-hop scene in Detroit, Michigan, led by producer J Dilla, helped usher in a new rhythmic feel called the drag beat.
BUILT ON FEEL
The drag beat is a prime example of a drum groove built on “feel.” Many musicians have said that feel is something that is only acquired over time, through experience. Those are good tools for perfecting it, but this technique can also be broken down on an academic level.
There are three important elements in creating the correct feel of a given style:
Having complete physical and internal understanding of the interpretation of it’s rhythmic tendencies; learning and gaining control of balance and dynamics for each limb; and allowing complete immersion within a particular style and genre such that a player can sing and replicate the vocabulary of the style.
These exercises are meant to develop muscle and aural memory of the rhythmic tendencies that form the structure of the drag beat. I have notated sticking for a right-handed drummer; lefties should reverse the sticking if it feels more comfortable.
START WITH THE SNARE
Examples 1–18 are to be played on the snare, starting with small subdivisions and advancing through multiple groupings. This will prepare your ear to hear these subdivisions and train your hands to feel how they are played. You should always play with a metronome for consistent subdivisions and time-keeping.
To begin, play with even alternating strokes on Exs. 1–6. In Exs. 7–12, accents show how the eighth-note pulse begins to be delayed, demonstrating the progression of the drag beat pendulum. This delay is the fundamental musical vocabulary of the drag beat.
After the accents are added, the sticking varies in Exs. 13–18, causing the accented notes to stay in one hand. This will prepare you to play these notes on the hi-hat or bass drum. It is important to emphasize the difference here between the accented notes and ghost notes.
Exs. 19–24 remove the inner subdivisions. You might want to say them aloud to yourself as you play. Once these exercises are consistent and fluid, start applying this to the drum set.
TO THE DRUM SET
At this point you should have a general understanding and grasp of how the odd subdivisions feel in reference to the traditional quarter-note, eighth-note, and sixteenth-note subdivisions. Exs. 25–36 train the hi-hat (Exs. 25–30) and bass drum (Exs. 31–36) to play independently between the pendulums of straight and swung. This allows the moving (straight to swung) rhythm to stand out and allows you to capture the progression of the drag beat within a basic groove. Take your time with this section as it will be heavily relied upon in the next section.
When applying the drag beat, the snare drum has a natural tendency to rush the backbeat. Exs. 37–42 begin to train the limbs and mind to anticipate the snare drum hit on beats 2 and 4 while continuing the drag beat pendulum. (Note: The grace note notation in this example shows the placement of the beat, not its dynamic.)
Each grouping demonstrates a measure of the groove with the snare drum landing on 2 and 4 followed by a measure of the snare drum “rushing” on 2 and 4. It is almost as if the snare drum is playing a thirty-second-note before the backbeat. Like the notation in the exercises, it should be played like a flam.
Now that the foundation has been set for learning the drag beat, let’s take a brief look at the creators and learn some actual grooves.
J Dilla, D’Angelo, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson are widely considered the creators and original developers of the drag beat. J Dilla is regarded as one of the greatest beat makers and hip-hop producers of all time; D’Angelo is known for being a leader of the neo-soul movement in the mid- to late-’90s, along with artists Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Angie Stone; Questlove is a drummer, producer, and DJ, best known as the drummer and co-bandleader for The Roots, who in 2009 became the house band for The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
D’Angelo had his own concept of the drag beat. Unlike J Dilla’s intentional approach, D’Angelo’s was somewhat of a happy accident. You can hear it in D’Angelo’s early neo-soul contribution, “Me And Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine,” released on the album Brown Sugar in 1995 (Ex. 43). The reason for this happy accident, as described by Questlove, was largely due to the fact that D’Angelo played the drums on this track and his untrained approach created an artistic sloppiness that cultivated the drag beat style. When Questlove began working on Voodoo with D’Angelo at Electric Lady Studios in 1996, he had to re-learn his approach to drumming, as noted in Ex. 44 (old approach) and Ex. 45 (new approach).
During the recording process D’Angelo wanted Questlove to play a drag beat behind the click track. D’Angelo would then have the other instruments dragging even further behind what Questlove was playing. It was during the period from 1996 to 1999, working on Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and on albums with J Dilla, that Questlove was able to transform his playing. “Greatdayndamornin’/Booty” (Ex. 46) is another step in the direction of D’Angelo’s sloppy drag beat with Questlove on the drum set. Questlove has said about the song, “I made the meter sloppy as hell, but not so sloppy that you couldn’t feel it.”
Unlike the raw, aggressive, inconsistent drag beats that D’Angelo and Questlove were producing at the time on songs like “Nag Champa” from Like Water For Chocolate (Ex. 47) and “Intro” from Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2 (Ex. 48), J Dilla had a refined and consistent authority to his drag beat. His mastery of the Akai MPC-3000 MIDI controller, and his precision and clarity while sampling, produced drag beats with unrivaled success.
Questlove and D’Angelo were at the forefront of a musical phenomenon, fueled by the leadership and vision of J Dilla. The fruits of their musical endeavors have left a stamp on the industry, including in the styles of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, future-soul, and EDM, with artists like Chris Dave, Karriem Riggins, Daru Jones, Common, Robert Glasper, Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Anderson .Paak, Snarky Puppy, and many others.
Here are some modern examples of drummers displaying the drag beat style:
• Ex. 49: “E=MC2” by Robert Glasper (Chris Dave, drums)
• Ex. 50: “Twice (Questlove’s Twice Baked Remix)” [feat. Solange Knowles & The Roots] by Robert Glasper (Questlove, drums)
• Ex. 51: “Slim & Juicy” by Chris Dave and the DrumHedz (Chris Dave, drums)
• Ex. 52: “Swamp Thing” by Hiatus Kaiyote (Perrin Moss, drums)
• Ex. 53: “Binky” by Snarky Puppy [the tag section at the end – starting 7:13] (Robert Searight II, drums)
• Ex. 54: “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” by Anderson .Paak (Anderson .Paak, drums)
The level of awareness and ability to make “human error” sound musical and innovative is applicable to any style. For example, there are similarities between the drag beat and the rock-and-roll sound of the 1950s. Jazz drummers, accustomed to playing swing, were recording on
rock ‘n’ roll songs that needed a straight-eighths feel on the hi-hat. You can hear the drag beat pendulum between straight and swung on songs like “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard, “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Musically, they are connected through the quintuplet and septuplet subdivisions that are played on the hi-hat, even though that was not the intention with the early rock drummers. With the 1950s groove, the bass drum is still on beats 1 and 3, or on every downbeat, and the snare drum lines up with the backbeat on 2 and 4 rather than rushing the snare hits. One main difference is that the drag beat usually lives within the tempos of 80–100 bpm, whereas the 1950s rock style nearly doubles that, sitting at about 164–185 bpm.
In Ex. 55, we combine those two worlds with a basic rock groove that hints at the drag beat on the last measure of every four-bar phrase. The drag beat doesn’t have to be played for an entire song or section, but adding a little touch here and there can give your groove a swamp-rock type of feel and make the sound come across grittier than playing it straight.