Drums are the most important part of your everyday hardcore ensemble. This isn’t an arguable point, it’s an objective truth. Hardcore is a music genre where quality is directly linked to the amount of aggression displayed. Hardcore is basically when you take something and drive it to it’s absolute limit aggression wise. The engine behind this aggression is the drummer.
I’ll bet you that the majority of all the shit bands you’ve seen opening up some semi-interesting show you attended mostly to hang out with friends had a shit drummer. You know the soft-hitting, cheat beating, shirtless dude with a Terror cap confidently turned backwards. The drummer is of course not the only component in making a band sound like shit. But without a good drummer a band’s never leaving that “well, it’s nice that you’re playing” state of existence. That’s just how simple it is. In an aggressive genre the drummer is number one. Everything else is merely details.
In the following articles I’ll try to dig deep in the concept of hardcore drumming, discussing the beats that form the foundation of the whole genre. In this first piece I thought I’d situate myself in the subject by presenting my favourite hardcore drummers and why these, for me, are the epitomes of hardcore drumming. But before we get there I’d like to discuss three properties that I find crucial in every drummer.
There are some key points that constitutes a good drummer. The first and perhaps most important one is to hit hard. There’s just no way around it. If a drummer doesn’t hit hard the whole foundation of both band and beat is lost. The obvious reason is linked to the aggression I mentioned earlier. Aggression is the most important quality of a hardcore band. The easiest way to achieve a feeling of unrelenting anger is by having a drummer that pounds the skins like the world is about to end. It’s also an necessity in a scene where most of the shows take place in locations not always adapted for live music. In other words, you can forget mics on the drums in most scenarios. So if a drummer want to be heard over those pesky Marshall heads played through two 4×12’s they need to hit like they mean it.
The next necessary property is more of an universal skill, not only looked for in hardcore drummers: playing tight. But by playing tight I don’t mean being a human metronome. Many of the albums in the hardcore canon have questionable tightness in the traditional sense: in relation to tempo. Take for example Breakdown’s 87′ Demo, it isn’t exactly quantized to a click track. But the shifts in tempo and the general wry sense of the tracks amplifies the rawness. The tightness I’m talking about is the relation to the other musicians in the band, especially the bass-player. To be able to listen to, understand and follow what the other people in the band are doing elevates a drummer and creates a feeling of tightness that exceeds the need for a metronomically tight tempo.
The last point I want to discuss is that it’s a necessity for a hardcore drummer to actually listen to hardcore. This may seem obvious but more often than one think you stumble upon a drummer who has absolutely no idea of how to play hardcore. This may be a person who’s in other aspects a very skilled drummer but falls short when it comes to hardcore. Hardcore is a style of music centred around the expression of raw emotion in a very direct way. Because of that fact it’s also a genre understood emphatically; it’s not possible to mediate the playing style in a written, notated format. How it’s supposed to be played is something you must hear and analyse yourself. You have to learn by listening and through that find your own style of playing, figuring out the small nuances constituting the genre. If all these abilities can be found in a hardcore drummer he or she is most definitely noteworthy. These three points are also the things I listen for the most when watching a drummer live or listening to a recording. With those points in mind we’ll move on to my favourite drummers and the reasons behind why I like them.
Bad Brains is one of the most important hardcore bands to date, if not the most important. Their impact on the early hardcore scene transcends being an inspiration sound wise. They had a hands-on impact by taking on the roles of music teachers to the early hardcore kids. Their pupils ranged from Ian MacKaye and The Teen Idles to the rhythm section of Cro-Mags. As they already were adept players when they transitioned from jazz and fusion to hardcore they went in with an interesting perspective on how punk and in the extension hardcore were meant to be played. They displayed a musicality and a musical personality as instrumentalist in a scene that in large consisted of kids still struggling with finding a musical identity.
In regard to that I’d say that the drummer/bassist duo of Earl Hudson and Darryl Jenifer are the definition of “holding it down”. These two creates a rhythmic bubble that makes everything happening in the treble department completely irrelevant. Hudson’s drumming is simplistic, a reflection of his time, it is pure punk drumming. Added to that core concept of punk rhythm is the hint of a jazzy feel. The syncopated snare hits and fills that creates groove. It’s not overplayed, it’s not dumbed down, it’s a combination of finesse and rawness. On their S/T record the songs were played at an outrageous tempo for the time. Still, the drumming doesn’t lose any finesse to the earlier demos where the songs are played at a lower tempo. It’s almost as if someone just put on the wrong RPM on a record player. Bad Brains’ past as the fusion band Mind Power is common knowledge. It’s in this past we find Hudson’s brilliance. The translation of jazz and fusion drumming into the unrelenting speed of Bad Brains is the perfect example of how important it is to incorporate other music styles while playing, as long as it’s done in a tasteful way. It’s the legacy of fusion drumming developed to its most aggressive point.
The drumming on all Bad Brains’ records is phenomenal in its own way. But on the third album, I Against I, where the tempo is held back a bit and the non punk influences become more apparent we see an other side of Earl Hudson. It’s almost validated to call I Against I a hardcore fusion record. It’s such a mix of styles and genres that it sometimes can be hard to classify. The drumming on this album excites me because of the fact that it’s not over the top or overplayed. It’s simple but adds enough flare to keep it interesting. Hudson is creating groove without loosing the beat and all in all the drumming is just hard, adding grit and dirt to an otherwise pretty melodic album. He’s keeping the groove, locking in with the bass and adds just enough flavour with the fills. Just listen to the groove on the kick drum and the fills on the toms on Re-Ignition or the drum/bass symbiosis during the solo on Hired Gun. It’s pure genius.
Hudson’s drumming fascinates me because of his ability to do exactly what the situation requires. It’s never over or underplayed, it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be. Adding a foundation to the band while at occasion offering something extra that shines through the rest of the mix. His almost dialectic relation with Jenifer is the stuff of dreams. There’s a give and take in their musical relationship offering a playfulness where ideas seem to pop up on the spot. There’s a shared understanding of rhythm but also a tugging in between the players taking the music in different directions, always keeping each other on their toes. You stop hearing two players and start hearing a rhythm section.
Maxwell “Mackie” Jayson
The transition from Earl Hudson to Mackie Jayson is in many aspects a chronological one. The similarity between their playing styles is striking. Hudson’s apparent influence over Mackie creates a lineage between the two greatest hardcore drummers of all time. I guess it’s because of the similarities that Mackie was the one to success the drum throne in Bad Brains after their first break-up. Due to their similar styles of drumming I didn’t even know, until I did research for this article, that Mackie was the one who played on Bad Brains’ 89′ album Quickness. I hadn’t even reflected that there could’ve been any other drummer than Hudson playing.
Mackie’s greatness as a drummer doesn’t necessarily hem from him inventing new beats or playing overly complex patterns but rather from his ability to incorporate different styles of drumming in a hardcore context. I do not only allude towards his incorporation of jazz and funk in his drumming put also his reinvention of old punk classic. Just look at the beat that sometimes gets branded with his name: the “Mackiebeat”. This thundering monster of a beat is signified by the constant beating of the bass-drum. Every eight note is occupied by a slamming force driving its presence right to the front of the mix, listen to We Gotta Know for reference. But this style of playing isn’t a new occurrence, you can hear it used in a punk context by both Gerard “Jerry” Nolan on The New York Dolls first album as well as by Rat Scabies on The Damneds debut album. But it’s Mackie’s excessive use of the beat on Age Of Quarrel that sets him apart. To adapt and reform for the benefit of aggression is monumental for every hardcore musician. The drumming on Age Of Quarrel is something that changed the whole landscape of hardcore drumming. There’s a clear before and after. Drummers have tried to copy that style of drumming since the records’ release, with different degrees of success. What’s apparent though is that no one has ever been able to recreate it in whole. There’s an aggressive weirdness to how the whole record is performed that just can’t be recreated. It’s just one of those monoliths in time and space where a certain group of people came together and created something completely unique
Some years after his departure from Cro-Mags, after playing with bands like the ska/funk outfit Urban Blight and crossover kings Leeway, Mackie joined up with the Bad Brains due to H.R and Hudson leaving the band to peruse other ventures. Here he recorded the drums on 89’s Quickness and later on the 1993 record Rise. His style on these records undergoes some small changes, arguably as a result of wanting to mimic Hudson’s style of playing. This gives us a chance to have a look at Mackie’s drumming from an other angle. Due to the somewhat slower tempo and more varied song structures the drumming we hear is a lot more dynamic, exploring a funkier approach to the genre. It’s on these records we can hear Mackie displays an effortlessness in playing a beat in a certain fluent motion. Take for example The Messenger on Quickness where he plays a straight beat with the snare and the cymbals while grooving it up on the bass drum, maintaining the aggressivity while adding groove. If there’s something worth mentioning from Mackie’s Bad Brains days it is this decoupling of hands and feet allowing the effect I mention on The Messenger. It’s exactly this that makes him such a great player. He displays an adaptiveness while at the same time keeping his integrity, not abandoning his style of playing. It’s the easiness he shows when changing genres that proves his greatness and is one of the biggest reasons why his drumming never stops to fascinate me. It’s a never ending source of inspiration.
It wouldn’t be too far fetched to call Anthony Drago the grooviest drummer in hardcore. While there are several others that can compete for the title, Drago is undoubtedly in the running. Drumming with legends such as Breakdown and Raw Deal/Killing Time gives us solid proofs of his abilities. To be able to discuss the claim regarding groove we need to start from the beginning with one of the most influential hardcore demos ever.
Breakdown isn’t by far the first band to incorporate hip-hop grooves and break-beats in hardcore. But they we’re the ones, together with perhaps Outburst, that cultivated and developed the connection between the genres. The use of break-beats in hardcore is something that falls almost solely on the drummer. Take for example the riff from the first song of Breakdown’s 87′ demo Sick People. The intro riff on this track is in itself pretty straight forward, but by not playing a straight 4/4 Drago manages to create a groove that’s both hard and rhythmic at the same time. With Breakdown the breakbeats weren’t just used in small parts of songs or confined to one specific pattern like the New York tribal mosh or the Youth Crew beat, listen to Agnostic Front’s With Time and Youth of Today’s Youth of Today for reference. Instead, the break-beats are an essential part of the sound. Almost every song on the Breakdown demo features different kinds of break-beats and it is the masterful application of these that sets Drago apart from other drummers.
After the break-up of the Breakdown demo line-up three of the members, including Drago, went on to form Raw Deal whom later changed their name to Killing Time. The sound of their new endeavour was in many ways similar to the one of Breakdown in the aspect of groove but they added heavy inclinations towards heavy metal. It’s through the Raw Deal demos to the first Killing Time record, Brightside, that we can hear an incredible evolution in both style and skill on behalf of all members. If you compare the Breakdown demo with Brightside it’s almost hard to believe that it’s the same musicians playing. The record, saturated with heavy metal influences while thoroughly anchored to its hardcore roots, was poorly received at the time mainly due to its professional and clear production. Today it’s considered one of the all time greats. And it’s not without reason. There’s just something about the songwriting and the performance on the record that sets it apart from its earlier counterparts and later records carrying its legacy. Killing Time is still a band that makes the competition pale in comparison. Watch some clips from their show at 2016’s This Is Hardcore fest. Listen specifically to the transitions between songs. There are not many hardcore bands that can pull off stuff like that both in a technical aspect, but more importantly having the imagination necessary to come up with it after almost 30 years of playing
As we’ve established, Brightside is a musical masterpiece and the same goes for the drumming. This once again comes down to the small stuff. The things that lift the groove are stuff like the extra kick drum beats squeezed in on the verses on the title songs and Drago’s exquisite way of following the riffs with extreme precision, amplifying and decreasing intensity. The differences in the quality of drumming between the Breakdown demo and Brightside are worlds apart but the stylistic connection is still here. You can hear the same rhythmic ambition on both records which may provide some explanation as to why both releases are unquestionable part of hardcore canon.
Drago’s intoxicating groove is at the centre of his drumming. His inventive ways of playing new patterns and putting them in a hardcore context is why I consider him such a great drummer. There is a ingenuity to his playing that lies in the borderland between genres. He represents a harder and more Heavy Metal-inspired style of drumming than the other two drummers I’ve discussed, but he’s still keeping close connections with his roots. He can be said to be one of the links between the old school, more punk influenced way of drumming, to the modern style of hardcore drumming; constituting its own thing completely. The fact that he still keeps up the same energy after 30 years isn’t too shabby either.
Well, this has been my introduction to the subject of hardcore drums. I will try to follow up this article with others more specifically discussing different beats commonly used in hardcore and their respective histories. But as I got absolutely no discipline it’ll probably take a while. All from me for now.