With over 60 years of experience wielding a pair of drumsticks, Mike Clark’s rhythms have defined genres and inspired multiple generations of drummers and producers. From post-bop to blues, funk, fusion and hip hop, the Bay Area native’s fingerprints are on it all. Along with Tower Of Power sticksman, David Garibaldi, Clark played a major role in bringing the syncopated, brain-twisting and entirely unique idiom of Oakland funk to the masses. That sound would find a second life via sampling in the ’80s and ’90s, forming the rhythmic backbone for countless hip hop records.
Clark’s musical journey has paired him with The Black Panthers, Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, Betty Davis, Brand X and (indirectly) the hip hop community – all of whom bolstered their sound with his dazzling left hand technique, impeccable time and creative phrasing. But at the heart of it all is a diehard jazz musician – steeped in the tradition of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams – who happens to be one of the funkiest and most distinct drummers to ever sit behind a drum set. Living in New York City and still gigging and giving lessons and clinics regularly, I was able to sit down with Mike and discuss it all.
When did you start playing and what was the motivation?
I started playing when I was four. My father was a drummer and there was always a set in the house. My first time on the kit I played the Gene Krupa tom-tom thing, so my dad took me to play in a Dixieland band that night! My father [was into] big band: Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Cozy Cole, Zutty Singleton, etc. I was a jazz drummer. I never even thought about playing funk.
Can you recall one of your earliest paid gigs?
When I was 15, a guy picked me up to play a gig with Albert King in Texas. I was thinking I was Philly Joe Jones; I brought my Gretsch Broadkaster kit. We played a show and I was pretty good, but my shuffles weren’t working. Albert turns around and says to me “put some bacon fat on it, Goddamn it!” [laughs] I knew what he meant, but didn’t know how to do it. An older drummer came up out of the audience while the song was still playing and showed me how to mash down on the stick with the thumb and get the shuffle to swing. Albert was a big guy and you hear stories [laughs], but he was very nice to me and saw I was just a kid. The gig paid $15 and I think I got $12. [laughs]
Your parents allowed you to go to Texas and play at that age?
Oh yeah, my parents loved my drumming. They were cool. They took me to play in nightclubs most of my childhood. My father would pay the drummer $5 to let me sit in.
How did you make the transition to playing rhythm and blues?
In my senior year of high school [in Sacramento, CA] there was this fake James Brown band. They were all jazz cats except for the singer, who thought he could sing like James Brown. So the guys were like, “Come on and play with us.” So I went with them and instinctively knew the beats. I had the coordination [from playing jazz] to play that way. I did so well on the funk thing right away that I started getting calls.
But even as a teenager, I was thinking, “Damn, this is gonna screw up my jazz gigs.” The other jazz cats I played with would always say, “You don’t wanna play that crap!” But as soon as I graduated high school, I went on a road with a million [James Brown-style] bands and we’d cover his stuff, Bobby Blue Bland, Arthur Conley…I learned to play several convincing shuffles. I graduated high school in 1964 and that summer I was making $200 a week playing soul music in Vegas and [Lake] Tahoe.
It’s been said a lot of the early funk drummers were jazz cats playing the popular music of the day to make a living and then they’d do their jazz stuff after hours.
That was exactly the case. [laughs] I did it for the love, though; the music was turning me on. I didn’t care if it only had three chords.
We didn’t like the British Invasion because then there were Beatles and Stones [cover] bands and they were knocking the soul bands out of work.
All this stuff was a lot more syncopated and greasy than pop music of the time like The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It was a totally different feel. Did you ever take gigs playing some of the ‘60s pop stuff even though it was in a totally different bag?
No. We hated The Beatles [back then]! There were two camps: The guys who liked The Beatles and the James Brown camp. I was even bugged that I was in the James Brown camp because I wanted to play jazz! But if we’re talking about making a living... We didn’t like the British Invasion because then there were Beatles and Stones [cover] bands with long hair and they were knocking the soul bands out of work. And I had already traveled to Texas and played with all the real blues cats so this didn’t sound like blues to me. I’m not putting them down; I didn’t care for their music.
James Brown drummers like Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Clayton Fillyau, Nate Jones and Melvin Parker were early purveyors of that jazz-like independence and syncopation in a backbeat context. Did you ever catch the James Brown Orchestra when it came to town during that era?
A lot! And they would play straight ahead jazz before James Brown came out. They covered a Bill Doggett tune called “Hold It” and they would kill it. Ike and Tina Turner had a hell of a band and Fred Wesley was in it for a while. Their drummer came up to me at a show where we opened up for them and taught me how to tune my snare [for funk]. Drums weren’t miked then and I had my snare tuned for jazz, so he showed me how to get it to crack through the house.
You grew up in the Bay Area in the 1960s, when there was so much political and racial turmoil nationwide. But that region had so much diversity within its bands at the time. (Sly and the Family Stone, Tower Of Power, etc.) Did the musicians ever acknowledge the racial dynamic in the scene considering what was going on in the rest of the country?
We all knew each other since we were really young. Nobody mentioned it, but when [bassist] Paul Jackson’s father got us a crib to [rehearse], it was in the hood where Huey Newton and them were. So I did a bunch of Black Panther gigs with Paul and a guy named Waheem Young – we had a band named The Chant and we played a lot of those [Panther] rallies! Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson would come around. So people like myself who weren’t black... I’d be on stage listening to what was going on. I’m a young man, I’m smoking weed and I’m really hearing it! [laughs] It was a whole new world to me. This awareness – “Black Power” and “Black Is Beautiful” – became mainstream knowledge, but I learned about it in Oakland playing those gigs. But they treated us great. I never had any trouble. I’d go to Panther Headquarters to get the equipment. I didn’t feel out of place, but I knew I wasn’t black! [laughs]
This was really an absorption time for me. I knew about [race issues] because I read about Charlie Parker and I was in other bands and guys would say things here and there. This is America, so you’ve got to know. But this was really pulling the covers off things I had no idea were going on like [police brutality].
The 16th note thing was the war cry of all funky music in Oakland.
Drummers of that time period from that region like David Garibaldi (Tower Of Power), Sandy McKee (Cold Blood), Greg Errico (Sly and the Family Stone), Gaylord Birch (Pointer Sisters), Ray Torres and yourself all brought something unique to funk and soul drumming. What do you remember about those guys? Who were some of your other peers of the time? Did you guys all shed together and trade ideas?
Oh boy, did we. Gaylord and I did a lot of shedding. He wanted to play jazz, so he’d come over and I’d show him Tony Williams and Elvin Jones licks. But his funk thing was always great. There was another dude in Oakland who never made it big named Sam Cox. He could barely roll [on the snare drum], but he was so funky and so nasty you didn’t even wanna sit in with him. [laughs] He’d also do that broken 16th note Oakland thing, a homemade chop. Oh my goodness!
Garabaldi and I... We didn’t know each other then, but we heard each other play at Jack London Square and could relate. The 16th note thing was the war cry of all funky music in Oakland.
People invented terms like “linear drumming,” “playing around the bar line,” etc. for that Oakland funk drumming. At the time they were just embellishments that came naturally in your playing, but they must’ve been a trip to the untrained ear. Did you ever catch out of town musicians off guard when they came to play with you guys?
They would get mad at us for [not being able to find the “one” beat in a measure]! We were all mad scientists and we all played with the same people. I was playing with Bobby Freeman; Sly [Stone] had a radio show and heard me play the Oakland funk thing and asked about it.
You also played on Betty Davis’ They Say I’m Different LP. What was she like? How was that experience?
That was a call I got out of nowhere. I met [drummer] Buddy Miles when we stayed at the same hotel. [Buddy introduced me to] Betty and [the producer] and they were talking all this slick New York stuff I’d never heard; my ears were on fire! They took me to the record plant in Sausalito. The musicians were young guys without much experience, so it was a bit like riding a bike uphill. It wasn’t swinging like I wanted it to and I had to talk to them about the time. But we eventually got it. Buddy played guitar on the date and he brought it together.
How did you go from these local gigs to hooking up with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters?
In the Bay Area I was one of the top calls to play that [Oakland] funk and Paul Jackson and I are notorious best friends. We lived together in that house in Oakland. Paul got a gig with Little Anthony and the Imperials in Lake Tahoe and Herbie’s manager was in the audience. He auditioned Paul and he got the gig. Herbie would call the house looking for Paul, but he was never home, so I’m taking messages and now I’m talking to Hancock all the time. We’re talking politics, music, boxing... Herbie is a great conversation.
Then one day he said Harvey Mason quit; he made the first Headhunters album, but didn’t want to go on the road. He says, “Paul tells me you have your own take on the funk and we’re doing some funky stuff.” At the time my jazz thing was on and I was making nice money; I didn’t have to play no funk unless I wanted to. But the next day Paul and I went over to play for him and he hired me right on the spot.
A lot has been written about the jazz community’s negative reaction to the Headhunters. Did their pocket-based approach and heavy use of modern technology and recording methods irk you, being a jazz musician at heart?
It was deep! Inside the jazz thing there were three camps: The Elvin Jones-Coltrane camp, the Miles Davis-Tony Williams camp and the Philly Joe [Jones] be-bop camp. They were all at war with each other. But when [Headhunters] started, all three groups got pissed off!
I did tell Herbie that doing Headhunters would screw up my jazz career because he was so famous. I wanted to do what he’d already done. He said, “Yeah, it might screw that up, but you’re out here in San Francisco and nobody will ever hear you anyway. But if you come with me you’re gonna get famous.”
I remember doing “Actual Proof” and trying to make it sound like [Hancock’s] Mwandishi or [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew, with that 18” Gretsch bass drum cranked. And Herbie had the guy put a pillow in the bass drum to make it more of a funk thing! [Going with Herbie] did kind of screw up my jazz career, but at the same time everyone got to know me.
The story behind “God Made Me Funky” is crazy!
When Paul and I lived in the hood in Oakland, around ‘71, there was a small BBQ joint called Everett and Jones right next door and we were eating that stuff every day. The owner said, “If you boys write and record a piece of music for an advertisement for me, I’ll feed you for a month.” So Paul and I wrote “God Made Me Funky” on a napkin while we were in the joint waiting for our order. We went recorded it in one take. I don’t know where that version is, but it’s the funkiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. So now, KDIA, the local soul station, is playing the advertisement and people are calling up asking for it. This was way before the Headhunters did it.
The Headhunters re-recording of “God Made Me Funky” became one of the most sampled drum breaks of all time.
That version had the Pointer Sisters and I appreciate all of them, but it was overproduced. It sounded like The Four Freshman’s version of “God Made Me Funky.” [laughs] Something you’ll appreciate – the snare drum [wires] on “God Made Me Funky” broke while we were recording and the snare was on tom-tom. The producer told me to keep playing and I’m bugging! It’s hard to groove like that, but I’m thinking we’re gonna do another take. They decided not to do the take again; they thought it was a good take. They said, “We don’t have no budget to do it again, go home!” Then the engineer put a microphone and speaker in a wastebasket and puts it under my snare, which is now repaired.
So every time the broken snare hits in the original take, the sound coming from the speaker vibrates the wires on a separate track to get the complete snare sound?
But it left out a ton of the ghost notes because it was an Oakland vibe. The hip hop guys loved that snare sound, which I hate because that wasn’t the full beat! The ghost notes are missing!
My first reaction wasn’t even to being ripped off; it was that snare sound I hated again!
Wow! It’s the pulse and sound behind countless late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop records. When was the very first time you heard yourself sampled? How’d you react?
I was submerged in the jazz world and living in Harlem in the ‘90s. I had a girlfriend who did lighting at the Schomburg Center and she’d mentioned to one of the guys [doing a hip hop show there] that I was living with her. Someone came over to my house that was [an associate] of Doug E. Fresh and played something for me [with the sample]. My first reaction wasn’t even to being ripped off; it was that snare sound I hated again! Like, “Oh God!” [laughs]
I’ve never been paid for any of that. Here’s what I don’t like about hip hop. The early message was “[the system] screwed us over.” Then they screwed the musicians over. I’m not mad about the [content of] hip hop music; artists have a right to express themselves. It’s just if you can’t play a beat and want to use mine, I want to be paid for it!
You left Herbie Hancock around 1975.
After “Actual Proof,” we were all over the 1/8 and 1/16 note thing and we were hittin’. But then it became about money and “you have to play the pocket.” Herbie’s band became real commercial and sounded like had four or five guys playing for a singer who never showed up. I couldn’t solo or adlib anymore. Now if there’s a soul singer, then [I’ll play pocket]. But a band of improvising musicians playing time, I didn’t care for it. Everybody was saying, “If we keep playing commercial we’ll make millions of dollars.” But I knew we wouldn’t see any of that money, so I left. I was unhappy.
What was it like having Herbie as a boss?
Herbie’s a genius of humanity. He can feel what you need to hear to encourage you and speak to you like that. Rather than “sit your ass down!” That’s what Miles taught him. One of the reasons he’s so successful – besides how great he is as an artist – is he speaks to everyone the same, regardless of who you are.
Art Blakey was like that, too, with the Jazz Messengers – grooming younger musicians. Then you made the leap to Brand X. That must’ve been liberating.
They were a sight for sore eyes because they let you play your ass off. Whatever you were thinking you could bring in there. I’d never played rock in my life, but Brand X was playing what I’d call “art rock.” Phil Collins had to leave because he was getting really busy with Genesis and out of nowhere I get a call from [bassist] Percy Jones. I saw Billy Cobham and those guys doing fusion gigs and I had been [Buddhist] chanting to get a gig like that, but nobody knew me on that scene. I toured with them for about a year and I loved it. I felt like the cuffs had been taken off, doing stuff I couldn’t do with Headhunters.
Were there charts for any of that ’70s stuff?
Herbie never wrote a chart for us but he’d give us skeleton arrangements. With Brand X, I would ask them to write charts because the stuff was so damn complicated!
Yeah, some of that stuff on the Product LP is out there. Did you ever shed with Phil Collins? Who were some of the other drummers of the time you would share ideas with?
Yeah! Phil and I used to practice on chairs and I used to show him jazz stuff. He was a really nice guy and a good musician. I was constantly trying to get around Elvin, Tony Williams and Philly Joe. One time Tony saw me doing double strokes on a practice pad and he had me over and I played his drums. I was trying to play like him on his big yellow [Gretsch] kit! He said, “Don’t play my shit, play that funky shit!”
The late ‘70s and ‘80s brought drum machines, metronomes, sampling, etc. It was sink or swim for a lot of drummers, particularly session cats. The tuning and head choices favored that dead, boxy sound – entirely different from the school you came from. You kept a pretty low recording profile in the ’80s. Was this due to that change in tide?
After [Brand X] I got tired of things and wanted to play jazz. I went back to San Francisco and played with Eddie Henderson for a year. When that gig terminated, I moved to New York. I know about all the stuff you’re talking about, but I missed it because I played nothing but straight ahead jazz. I didn’t play a note of funk for years; I was done. [laughs] I did the jazz thing for 20 years and established myself as a be-bop and post-bop drummer in New York City [and Europe]. Somewhere in that time frame, we decided to get the Headhunters back together using some [new] guys from New Orleans like [saxophonist] Donald Harrison. We’ve been touring here and there.
Who are the five drummers who inspired you the most in your 60-plus years of playing?
Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Max Roach. And then there’s Clyde and Jabo! And those cats who played on a lot of those old blues records – they played those shuffles that’ll buckle your knees! I’m influenced by every drummer that ever played; I’m not a jealous drummer. If a guy can swing, shuffle, funk, any of those things I like, I like that guy. But I spent all my life in a jazz club wanting to be like those [jazz] guys. And I’m still that way.