Omar Hakim is one of those guys who oozes cool. His dynamic attitude and awesome career as one of the most successful drummers and session men of the past 40 years can’t fail to inspire you in even the briefest meeting. He’s built up an eclectic treasure trove of skills and styles, moving seamlessly between acoustic drum prowess and electronic sound innovation. He could name drop with the best of them, working with top artists including Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and Madonna. But Hakim prefers to roll as one of the band, bringing his experience and sensitivity to any session to create the best music possible. “At the end of the day”, as he puts it, “it's not always the toys, it's definitely the noise”.
Born Into Music
That Hakim should dedicate his life to music was almost pre-destined, given his musical inheritance: his father Hasan Hakim was a virtuoso trombonist playing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis’ Armstrong’s big band. At the tender age of five a relative gave Hakim a toy drum, and a true passion was born. “I fell in love with it right away and somehow knew what to do with it pretty much right away; they put it around my neck and I started playing some marching drum songs that I probably heard on TV and everybody was like "where did you learn to do that?" so I think there was a little natural affinity for drumming. Then soon after that my father purchased a Ludwig snare drum, which I actually still have today, my very first pro-snare drum. He then got a bass drum, a one ridge symbol and a pair of high hats, so I had this little kit that I was working on. By the time I was 10, I started playing shows with my dad.”
Eclectic Tastes from the Word Go
His early musical experience was an immersion in jazz at home, mixed with the mainstream musical tastes of his school-friends: “My earliest memories are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, with Elton Jones on drums of course, the Buddy Rich Big Band, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. These were the sounds that I was hearing as a young boy but, at the same time, kids my age were listening to all the Motown artists, The Beatles, bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, so I was getting into a steady balanced diet of a very eclectic listening habit as a kid, which really shaped my professional approach to drumming. I've never really been satisfied to just immerse myself in one genre as a specialist; I understood that it would be a lot more fun to just open myself up to any and every music experience that I can have, be it rock, jazz, funk, R&B, pop, whatever; and, as a result, it's made for a very interesting career.”
This eclectic diet has stood Hakim in good stead, not least in his involvement in fusion band Weather Report in the 80s, which brought all sorts of influences together. “I often tell people Weather Report was the first band I worked with that required I use everything I knew and everything I understood about the drums at that moment. There's not many jobs one can say that about, that you actually are playing at the very edge of your ability in order to make it happen. The explosive energy of the band was an inspiration to the young drummer: “The improvisational side of it was very jazz but the performance and the power of the performance was like playing with a rock band. It was a phenomenal experience for me. I was quite young when I joined the band - even though I had been professional already for 13 years I was only 23 years old. It was dream come true in many ways because I was such a fan. It was unbelievable. When that call came in, I was like "really?".
Adding Drum Machines to the Arsenal
But what does a young emerging drummer do when met with the arrival of electronics in the industry, producing machines to do his very job? “Well it was an interesting moment because when drum machines happened, I was around 20 years old. I was a very young professional drummer starting to make a name for myself on the New York session scene and then all of a sudden, Roger Lynn creates this device that changes every drummer’s life. But I guess when you're 20 years old, you're open-minded and my feeling was "Well, I don't have time to take an elitist stance about drumming and the technology. What I need to do immediately is to go out, purchase one of these machines and add programmer to my business card promptly.”
His dynamic, upbeat attitude shines through: “I was too young to take a defeatist mindset; a lot of records that I was listening to were being made with drum machines. I was still a pop music fan at that point, and I'm going "What is this sound?". The only thing I could think of to do was to add these things to my arsenal and figure out how to use them creatively in what I'm doing. As a result, I think it opened up a lot of things for me. It also kept me busy because when I wasn't drumming on a drum-set, I was programming.”
The development of drum machines and a whole generation of new recording technology revolutionized ways of working, and again Hakim’s youth, training and open-mindedness played into his hands. “People would create a lot of their music in the studio now, and if they had decided on an arrangement they would have the drummer come in and simply over-dub on the existing tracks that they created. So, I guess that's where practicing with a metronome as a kid all of sudden became a useful tool as a professional. I had drum teachers who would use the metronome as a tool, speed it up, play the rudiments faster, speed it up, play them even faster, slow it down - so that you would get a sense of internalizing tempo and rhythm. It didn't take me long to adapt that concept. It was an interesting moment to become a young drummer, trying to make it in New York.”
Beating the Drum for Creativity
Far from being a death threat to drumming, as people feared at the time, Hakim believes drum machines have enriched the creativity and versatility of the instrument, and widened the scope of who could make drum music. “The best drum programmers aren’t necessarily drummers but rather people who have studied the components of rhythm, and understand the building blocks and how to put them together. Some of the most interesting drum programming happens by non-drummers who aren't necessarily bound by the rules of drumming and in this way, they come up with more creative things because in their mind, the bass drum doesn't have to be the bass drum, the snare drum doesn't have to be the snare drum or the high hat. You suddenly start hearing bass drum patterns that would probably take three legs to actually pull off in reality, but at the end of day though, it's still pretty creative and you have to go "ok then, that's kind of cool".
Hakim was ultimately won over to the power and beauty of the drum machine when he encountered the Dynacord ADD-one: “That's when I really got happy, when I could actually manipulate an electronic device with drumsticks rather than enter them with my fingers or on a keyboard or on the rubber pads of the drum machine. That really changed my life when that happened. To this day, I regret selling my Dynacord ADD-one, because the sounds were really amazing fat analogue sounds. It had a really incredible sound, that system. But fast-forward a few years to when Roland introduced the V Drums and I would say that was really the first time I was super comfortable enough to leave an acoustic drum at home and use a 100% electronics drum system for an entire gig.”
A Career Based on Change
Once gigging with the electronic drums he found the world was his oyster: “With V Drums and electronic drums in general, you've kind of stepped into keyboard-player-land and you're not bound by having to use the same sound for everything. It certainly opens up the palette as to what can happen sonically, and that's what I really love about it. I recently did gigs where I've programmed a different kit for every song - the appropriate kit for each song - and it's a lot of fun, it's really great.
He clearly has great fun playing creatively with different elements such as cymbals: “Inside of the V Drum system what was cool was the cymbals didn't have to be a straight crash. I could change the pitch, I could put effects on it, create fun electronic environments that not only that the drum kit sits in but the cymbals sit in as well. I could even assign a pitch pedal to those cymbals and do really whacky things. The position of the cymbals in the kit means that the sound doesn’t even necessarily have to be a cymbal. It could be a tambourine, it could be a shaker, it could be whatever I wanted to play with my right hand or play with my left hand so I could move away from thinking like a drummer.”
He admits it can be a bit of a mind-bender, not having the regular drum kit elements where you’d expect them to be, but he thrives on this: “It totally pulls you out of our comfort zone but it also forces you to grow too, which is why it's important for contemporary musicians to keep an eye on change. I've based my whole career on that concept.”
This openness to change truly has shaped his life and work, for after taking drum machines in his stride Hakim quickly adopted other elements on the new electronic scene, realizing exactly what they could do for his music and reputation. Working with The Loop Loft he recorded samples which have been used by top artists including Michael Jackson, Anita Baker and Sting, and by musicians all over the world. He’s embraced the new technology – but is confident there are crucial things it can never replace.
“What I realised is that even though I can provide my new friends and fans with some fun loops that they can use as a composition tool and maybe even use as the basis for some of their professional recordings, it still doesn't replace what I would do if I was actually in the room with them. In other words, a loop, even a great loop, is still a static kind of idea which can be brought alive. Hopefully if we're creating a good loop, we give them something that's very alive and animated as a rhythmic concept that's hopefully inspiring. But what I will do in response to another musician in a room, a loop can't replace.”
Opportunities and Inspiration
“I didn't feel that I would be replaced by the loop business as much as I felt like the loop business offered me an opportunity to sort of be introduced to a whole new generation of music-making people and so now, they go "ok, what is this?", "who is this guy?". They look up your history and maybe it forces an exploration beyond the use of the loops, maybe it inspires them, so it's more good than bad in my estimation. I've gotten more work as a result of it. A lot of people, like larger companies that do movie soundtracks, want to have all kinds of loops from their favourite drummers, but I think the other real musicians understand what I'm saying about getting in the room. They understand the concept of collaboration; the recording of a live drum set is not only the collaboration of the players but it's also an engineering collaboration. Yes, I can record drums by myself but is it better when I have an engineer? Absolutely yes.”
Hakim uses loops as inspiration as a producer himself. “The funny thing is that we're actually using my Loop Loft loop package to work on the new Oz record” [‘The Trio of Oz’ project with keyboardist wife Rachel] “It's been a lot of fun because when she's working on ideas and I'm not around, she can bring the stuff up. She's been dealing with electronics and these things for a long time, so I’ll hear her take a loop and cut it up in an odd way that I never thought of, and use it to create ideas, so it's fun to actually watch somebody that I live with actually do creative things with my loops.
“If I'm not using loops, the V Drums also plays that role for me. I can capture midi data out of the V Drums and work on rhythmic ideas and concepts pretty quickly, sequencing the midi data into song forms that I can write over. So we're using both ideas to create. The fun thing about the V Drums is that I can go back and use the original performance in the final production, but I have the opportunity to kind of tweak and refine the sound before I commit to the final version. I really like the flexibility of what I have at my fingertips right now. I think that's where the technology has helped, it's kind of streamlined the idea of the writing drummer.”
Desert Island Drums
When it comes to all-time favourite drums, what acoustic kit would Hakim take if marooned on a desert island? He turns without missing a beat to the Reference Series kit from Pearl. “They really got it right with this kit. It's a composite shell drum set where they figured out the right blend of woods based on the size of the drum to accentuate the best properties of the drum for the purpose and the size. I've been using this kit for the last 5 years or so in all of my work. It's an incredible drum set.” Add to that the brass Steve Ferrone signature snare drum: “If I'm doing rock records, that is the snare drum that I’ll how up at the studio with. It sort of has the classic sound, I guess the closest thing would be the Ludwig Black Beauty, the ring and the open-ness of a brass drum, but then when you mute it down, it has a really nice focused sound. When you tune it lower, it sounds really huge. Other than that, the other drum is a steel, what they call custom alloy sensitone drum. Both drums are 6.5 x 14. I always use two snares with my kit. Cramming a lot onto his deserted island beach, he’d also take a 5 x 13 African mahogany snare drum, “a drum that I designed for Pearl that bears my name, I’d kind of call it an alto snare drum. It resides tuning-wise somewhere between a piccolo and 5 x 14 drum so it's very versatile.”
The Fun and Joy of Making Music
Returning to reality Hakim reflects on an incredible career both drumming and producing, and comes back to his familiar refrain of adapting to change.
“The thing that got me through this whole thing is my willingness to keep growing, learning, and expanding, and to stay open-minded. I think that was the key to the whole thing. I really didn't want to be typecast as a musician, Omar Hakim the jazz drummer, Omar Hakim the rock drummer, Omar Hakim whatever. I wanted when people saw my work or thought of me as a musician, for them to go "that's a guy I want to work with", "that's a guy I want to collaborate with, no matter what music I'm doing".
So the best advice he’d give young musicians today? “Listen, listen, listen. Become a sponge, listen to everything you can. If you're a drummer, don't just keep your study focused on the rhythmic but learn a melodic, harmonic instrument as well and expand your musical reference beyond the drums so that you can collaborate in a sensitive way with other people, whatever instrument they're playing.”
In typically cool and modest fashion he sums up: “In my mind, my job is to frame the musical moment with a proper rhythmic idea. It's not about me as much as it's about what the music wants, and I’ve discovered that there's a lot of joy in that approach because it takes the pressure off me being the drummer. I become a conduit of an idea. I'm given the opportunity to adopt your idea and help you refine it in the best way possible, to capture hopefully what it was you were looking for musically. That is the fun and joy of making music.”
To fuse some of Omar's sound into your production, or to jam along with one of the greats and improve your skills as a drummer, check out Omar Hakim Drums Vol. 2