I first introduced you to the band Soulfège through its leader -- musician, public speaker, entrepreneur and Oprah Radio host, Derrick Ashong -- in my piece "Oprah and the Voice of a New Generation." Now, I would like to acquaint you with the other phenomenally talented members of the band, who describe their sound as "the Fugees jammin' with Bob Marley on a street corner in West Africa." Each blog post will profile a new band member, as he reveals himself in an interview that explores how he came to music, how his career blossomed and now, how he chooses to give back and what direction he would like to see music education in this country take.
First up -- electrifying Soulfège drummer, Stix Bones, who also plays with his band, Stix Bones and the B.O.N.E. Squad. Stix' solos include nearly indescribable acrobatic feats, such as switching from playing facing the audience to playing with his back to the audience, then facing front again, without ever missing a beat:
LB: When did you first know you were interested in music?
SB: 8 years-old. I used to have imaginary drums when I was a kid. Two un-sharpened pencils -- because my mom couldn't afford a drum set -- were my first drum set. I had a little radio in my room and I would play to the songs on my radio. I played for everybody - Madonna, Prince, everybody -- in my room.
LB: How old were you when you started studying?
SB: At maybe 10 or 11, I had a couple of lessons, which didn't last very long. I remember the imaginary drums becoming real. Then, I didn't have any lessons until my older brother went to college. My brother who's 9 years older, had a drum set. All his friends were musicians. So, whenever I had a chance to play, I did. But I didn't have any lessons. I would play at church, as well.
Eventually, I went to SUNY [State University of New York at] Purchase - I knew I wanted to do something in music because when I auditioned, I auditioned for studio engineering, to make beats and stuff like that. I noticed they had a percussion department and I asked the dean if I could switch. But then when I got to the percussion department, it was classical and everyone had been doing it since they were 10 years old. The professor was like, "HOW THE HELL DID YOU GET IN MY CLASS?" But because the school had already accepted me, he let me stay. That first semester, I got an F plus. I failed with flying colors. A guy asked me to read what was on the paper and I said, "Mozart. Concerto #9." He was like, "No, the notes."
I was the only African-American drummer at the time on the whole campus. This was in 1992, that's when I got accepted. They kicked me out of the program.
What saved me was they started a jazz department, the next semester. The dean called me in, said, "We're not asking you. We're telling you. You're going to the jazz department. We're not even asking your mother." I still wasn't used to reading or learning technique. Everything I knew was stealing and listening to the radio. I had to learn everything I should have learned 10 years earlier -- they gave me a metronome, to teach me how to learn to keep time. Other students were coming in who had years of technique and none of them were black except for me. I had to do everything more than everybody else -- I had to practice more, spend more of my spare time. I didn't even carry books in college, I carried drum sticks. I failed Part I of Music Theory. Had to wait until the next fall to try again.
One thing the college could not grasp was the way of the streets, the way of hip-hop. They couldn't understand where my talent came from, they just knew I had some. They taught me how to play my part, keep my timing. If you ask any drummer who their favorite drummer was, they could tell you. When they asked me, it was all DJ's - DJ Mr. Magic, DJ Cool Herc and DJ Red Alert. They said, "You don't know no drummers?" I was like, "No!" They named the drummer who played for Miles Davis, Tony Williams. Elvin Jones played for Coltrane. They named the drummer who played for Duke Ellington, who at the time I didn't know was Louie Bellson. These are all white boys [in my class at Purchase], so they named rock drummers, as well. But I came from Brooklyn.
There was one DJ in particular, performance-wise, DJ Scratch. My solo is influenced by his solo because I grew up with Scratch. When I started to go to college, he would say to me, "What do you want to do when you have the spotlight? How do you entertain an entertainer?" He taught me showmanship. When you see me perform with Soulfège - it's a show within a show. Scratch said, "What I do on the turntables, Stix Bones does on the drums."
I'm coming from a world, trying to teach [the music department] what hip-hop is. They're coming from a world, trying to teach me what drumming is. It wasn't until my junior year that my grades started to go into the A and B range because it was more performance classes than theory classes. I buddied up with the more advanced students.
My theory teacher was a phenomenal classical pianist. The key is to sight read. He said, "This young man here, he didn't even look at the paper and he played it." If I heard it once, maybe twice, I could play it. The third time, I could play it without looking at all.
My recitals, I put together a whole show, lights, dancers, musicians, rappers, DJ Scratch. Truth be told, my technical style is not proper. It's one of those Aretha Franklin things or Anita Baker things, where you have this God gift, [but no formal training]. I had to learn how to play jazz, I had to learn how to swing. I had to learn how to do that for hours. Afro-Cuban rhythms.
The day of my graduation from Purchase, I had a show for the Black Expo in front of 4,000 people, playing for Jessica Care Moore, who won 5 times for poetry at the Apollo on TV. [That success] led her to perform at the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan, where I played for her. I got my diploma, walked off stage and went straight to the Javitz Center. So out of all those kids, the kid who flunked the first year and got kicked out of percussion performed a 4,000-person show the day of graduation. The kid with no technique, with no drum set.
LB: What musicians influenced you most?
SB: My #1 influence: DJ Scratch from EPMD. Elvin Jones, once I finally learned about him. Truth be told, my brother, Anthony Heyward. If it weren't for his drum set, I wouldn't have ever played. I would watch him and his friends all the time and whenever he went to work, I would get on his drum set and mimic him.
My brother is proud of me overall for taking what I learned from him and taking it much further. When I went to college, he gave me the drum set to take to Purchase. I took that drum set to Europe with me when I went on tour. He would have liked to have been a recording artist. He's 14 years now as a corrections officer at Riker's Island. He's proud overall that I'm feeding my family through this.
Through [the legendary hip-hop showcase,] Lyricists Lounge, I was able to play with a lot of people. Derrick [Ashong]'s friend Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro founded it. Their mission was to get signed artists to play with unsigned artists on the stage. Doug E. Fresh would introduce us. They didn't want to use a DJ; they wanted to use a live band, which is how they got me. So, I brought my band. Shared the stage with Common, De La Soul, (some of these guys, I became friends with), Mos Def, Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest, Doug E. Fresh, Rahzel from the Roots (I went on tour with him before Lyricists Lounge), Black Sheep, and many, many, many more. It was a true crowd. If you were wack, they would boo you off. I felt like I was good at what I do, like I was a great drummer, finally. I have to credit the overhaul I got at Purchase. It made me feel like a professional. If you're paid for what you do, you're a professional. I don't have a 9-5. I have a wife and three kids.
LB: Tell me a little about the music teacher(s) who most impacted you.
SB: Two of them. The deans of the [SUNY] Jazz Department, Douglas Monroe and James Mcelwaine. They dragged me from the classical department and said, "Look black kid, we don't care what you want to do, you're coming to the jazz department." "Ok, big white guys. Whatever you say."
LB: Did you have music education available to you in your public school?
SB: I didn't know what a drumline was until I saw the movie in 2001. There was no music class and there was no sports, growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. The only music class I had was going to Pentecostal church with my mom. If I'd'a went to a Baptist church, I would have been screwed - they didn't have drums. And a Catholic church, I would have been really screwed. East New York, to this day, doesn't have a music program.
My mom didn't have money. As I'm older, I'm a father, I'm learning how expensive it is to get your kids into something. Whenever you're in the arts, you may be there talent-wise, but if you're not there financially-wise, you gotta take the hits. It costs to be the best. It takes money to make money. If you don't have the money, you better have the time. If you don't have the time, you better have the money.
LB: Do you teach music now?
SB: No. A couple years ago, I started getting students. Private lessons. DJ Maceo from De La Soul - he asked me to teach his son to play the drums. My kids go to the instruments and make noise. When I was teaching back in '06 or '05, the problem was, I never had the real training. So I taught kids how to keep the beat and how to play through a song. But the technical aspect, I can't give them something I don't have. If I would have had music in school, it would have been different. But because I have a degree, I can go to any school and apply to be an instructor. I've learned over the last year that music schools are in the suburb neighborhoods. I wish I'd had a high school band. Out in Long Island, they have high school bands, athletic departments.
But, like, kids who go to Juilliard, they don't make what Lil Wayne does. It just makes you wonder. What is that industry really based on?
LB: What direction would you like to see music education take in this country now? Why?
SB: I would like to see more of the successful musicians come to teach music education. I would like to see Quincy Jones and Clive Davis and Mary J. Blige instructing classes. Be a mentor. Because once a lot of these artists retire, Chaka Kahn, Patti LaBelle, they get a cooking show or reality show, but those are the people who should be working with the kids in the public schools. Are you kidding me? Chaka Kahn could blow out half the people singing today. More successful musicians and artists becoming mentors in education.
If the opportunity comes, I'll do that. But the schools aren't interested. It's not important to them. I have a friend who's a music teacher. At the end of the year, he had us professionals come out and play for the kids in his class. Half of these kids don't know who Q-Tip is.
Hip-hop, though, did one thing for this generation. It interested us in music through sampling. If I hadn't heard a song sampled by my favorite hip-hop artist, I would have never learned half these songs out there because there was no access to them in my neighborhood. How come Lil Wayne doesn't do a song with Big Daddy Kane, to help young people learn hip-hop history? The record labels ain't trying to keep anybody in the know. When Mary J. Blige sings with Aretha Franklin, she introduces her to a younger generation.
Stay tuned for the next Soulfege interview, with wunderkind bassist and Berklee School of Music alum, Alex Staley . . .