The early 1980s were an interesting time for drummers. With the rising prominence of studio technology, the ever-polarizing metronome and eventually the drum machine, record producers hoping to ignite dancefloors worldwide were in search of pinpoint accuracy during the recording process. Making records became so meticulous that the inconsistent yet charming human feel that defined the music of prior decades was snipped at the cutting room floor. Flashy tom fills, odd meter breakdowns and rudimental solos may have been at the core of most drummers’ hearts, but those able to play hypnotically and compete with machines were the ones able to keep their jobs.
This group of blue-collar timekeepers were known as studio drummers, and although they kept the party pumping and the records on the charts, their names rarely went further than the album credits. Brooklyn native Leslie Ming was one of the key rhythm innovators to usher in the dance groove that defined the R&B charts during the Reagan era, but his musical training on the streets of New York in the 1970s gave him a back pocket full of funk that places him squarely in the pantheon of great funk drummers – studio or otherwise. From drumming through a turbulent childhood in the 1960s to helping craft Madonna’s debut album, Leslie Ming is a true groove savant.
You had an interesting childhood growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. Things were a bit turbulent for you early on. How did you discover music through all of that?
That was heavy, man. I came to Brooklyn in 1963 – my parents are both from Cuba. I was born here, but we were back and forth. My mom died around ’63, I saw her die and that was…whew… Those were terrible days for a hot second. There was so much going on with the Bay Of Pigs invasion, with the political climate and everything. So I started banging on stuff just to let go of the anxiety. I moved to a foster home in Bushwick around ’64, right after Kennedy got assassinated, so it was very tumultuous times.
So basically what made me discover music was being displaced from my family and being in a new environment [where] I didn’t have many friends. The friendliest thing to me was the radio. The ’60s were a time of figuring out who I was, and I was totally into the flower power and love. I’d be listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder [and later], Sly Stone. I was around a bunch of musicians in Bushwick and [at school] I started out with sax and trumpet. But then I stumbled into drums because they had no saxes and trumpets left, all they had was sticks! I didn’t know I was going to be a drummer [at that point], but the drums always made me feel alive.
The Vietnam War was going on at the time, and I saw a lot of families decimated by it – music was a dreamscape. It kept your mind off the craziness.
You mentioned Bushwick being a hotbed for musicians in the late ’60s and early ’70s and that’s not the first time I’ve heard that.
Crown Heights Affair was around the corner and there was Willie Feaster & the Mighty Magnificents before that. They were into showmanship, so I got into the theatrical aspect of rhythm by watching them. Every other block was a band. We had Latin bands, funk bands, rock bands, fusion bands. I would go to some of these block parties. They would have two or three bands that would come in for competition and these concerts were like, right in the middle of the street. You’d have the fire hydrant going on one side and down the block, you have an impromptu stage with two or three groups playing. I would watch these groups in awe. Coming up from 1963 to about 1973, I learned so much from just watching street drummers. The Vietnam War was going on at the time, and I saw a lot of families decimated by it – music was a dreamscape. It kept your mind off the craziness.
How did you first get out there as a drummer? How old were you when you finally started gigging?
I got started with these guys Jeff and Larry Smith, they had a group called New Breed and would play with Ben E. King. On the weekends they’d do the chitlin circuit and burlesque clubs in different cities. I was underage [at the time], but I could play the beats, was really into rhythm and would listen so intensely. So in 1970, Jeff came and got me because they were looking for a drummer. Ben E. King actually went to my foster parents and [told them] he’d chaperone me if I could play with them during the summer. So I played two summers with Ben E. King, playing Atlantic City, Las Vegas and that kind of stuff.
How old were you then?
That was before junior high school, that was like sixth grade. By the time I got to junior high school I wanted to play with local bands but I couldn’t get into clubs [due to age]. So I just started recording and rehearsing with people instead. Being I was into keeping beats and patterns, they’d let me play with them and it gave me a good foundation in just playing pocket.
Kashif (then known as Michael Jones) was another young local musician who also came up through the foster care system around this same time. You two would eventually develop a long working relationship. How did you first meet?
Kashif was basically in a rival group in the neighborhood. I say rival because we all kept a competition. There were nine, ten groups in the area and we all would keep a competition to keep our musicianship up. He became a friend when we actually got in a group called Future 2000, which was a group that had more participants in it than normal. Most of the groups around that area at that time had four or five pieces. You know, two guitars, bass, drums and a piano. He got with [Future 2000] and said, “Hey, look, they really need a drummer. It’s a big group, they have like four singers, four or five horns, two guitars, drums, and bass. Do you think you can play with such a big band?” He actually got me with the group.
Both you and Kashif joined B.T. Express on their third album, Energy to Burn. How did that opportunity come about?
Kashif got an offer then to play piano with B. T. Express shortly after they did “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied).” They only had a guitar, drums, bass and two saxophones. They wanted to add [keyboards] so they could have other textures and had been using studio guys augmented for the organ parts. Kashif told me that the drummer had a slight drug problem, which was pretty unfortunate because he was really a solid player. But he told me to stick around and started giving me the B.T. Express tunes to learn because he felt that [the drummer] was eventually gonna mess up, because he liked getting high so much.
And sure enough, I was invited to a gig with [B.T. Express] at Nassau Coliseum; they were opening for Parliament-Funkadelic. [The drummer] was playing [“Express”] and he was just slamming on the drums! And right after the song was over, he kind of just fell off the drum seat.
I see Kashif waving frantically [and yelling] “Les! Les! Come here! Come here! We gotta play the next set!” And this guy wouldn’t get off the floor. He was laid out. Thank God I knew the songs because Kashif had been feeding them to me. So that was my first gig with B.T. Express at Nassau Coliseum, because this drummer fell out.
Opportunity knocks in different ways!
From there, they worked me into the group - and that’s the story behind the fruit gum-striped outfit on the back of the [Energy to Burn] album cover. [laughs] They gave me the [prior] drummer’s outfit, so I just tucked it in and wore it.
By 1976, Kashif and yourself were the newest members of B.T. Express, and also the youngest by a large margin. Both of you were still in high school or just finishing. Jazz saxophonist Carlos Ward was also in that band, and he was close to 20 years your senior. Was that age difference dynamic a help or a hindrance?
That’s a good question. Carlos was a mentor. He helped tame down some of that wildness. I just had energy. Carlos taught me about phrases and colors – that everything wasn’t a roll after four or eight bars. Not just straight-up banging, but to get a groove within the banging, a synchronicity between the bass and drums. If it wasn’t for Carlos taking me under his wings, me being that young and being exposed to that many women on the road, I would’ve been a wild child [laughs]. And Dennis Rowe, the percussionist, rest in peace. Dennis was very verbal with me about not overplaying. I was into fusion when I got to B.T. Express. The guys said “You play so much, we’re gonna take away all your tom toms.” They took away all my drums and left me with a cymbal, a hi-hat, a snare drum and a kick, gave me a bunch of James Brown albums and told me to get funky. [laughs]
I’ve been told by a lot of seasoned drummers since I started playing that keeping the groove keeps the band happy and if your groove is good, you’ll always have a job.
I wanted to get paid, so I played pocket. All the guys playing the skittery-skattery stuff were talking about getting gigs, but I had gigs and was traveling. I was a happy camper. Once people started recording me, I started getting on because I sounded like a drum machine before it came on the scene. It was a sad day when the drum machine did come around, because I was starting to be out of a job, but I learned how to program those things to sound like a drummer! [laughs]
I want to talk about the term “pocket.” I’ve always felt it was overused, misused and misunderstood. Considering you were actually a seasoned studio drummer during the golden age of studio drumming, I figured your interpretation of what pocket is would be valuable.
I was told as a youngster, with pocket, that the space in between is as important as notes that you hit. To be consistent in what you do makes more of a hypnotic trance. Pocket became an understanding of what makes it hypnotic to dance to. What makes someone really want to just zone into a beat. When you’re playing steady, they can understand where the spaces and the playing is. It makes the understanding of dancing really easier. The way that I came to play in pocket was actually playing with a metronome, practicing little things like paradiddles and [double stroke rolls] at different tempos anywhere from 60 beats per minute to 150 beats per minute. Playing with a metronome is definitely the thing to be able to play in pocket because you assume you have good timing when you’re counting, but if you ever played to a [metronome] you either speed up or slow down.
By practicing with a metronome, you get a chance to see where each beats fits, where each beat hits... 1, 2, 3, 4. Anything in between there is just fluff. You try to keep that steadiness because it makes it feel as if you’re doing a march or you’re being hypnotized. If you play in the pocket enough, unbeknownst to themselves, the people that’s listening will fall into a basic trance that follows that beat. That’s pretty much a mystery of what makes a hit. A hit is persistence and continuity and repetitiveness so that it stays in your head.
R&B was trash, it was garbage. It lost all of its sparkle.
Both you and Kashif left B.T. Express in 1978-79 after the Shout! (Shout It Out) album. And speaking of pocket, you became an in-demand studio player shortly after, with a lot of your work being on Kashif productions. You played with Madonna, the Spinners, George Benson, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Howard Johnson. You even played with Kenny G!
You know, what’s kind of freaky about that is that it wasn’t that I knew these people, per se. Instead, I knew a lot of producers and managers and so by me talking to them, [it was] “Hey, come by to the studio.” I’d go to the studio and play like 10-12 songs in a sitting, in two or three hours. Then, a year later, two years later, I found out that four of the songs went to the Spinners, four of the songs went to… That’s how most of that stuff happened.
Howard Johnson’s “So Fine” was a major hit from your time playing on Kashif productions.
The Howard Johnson stuff was different with Kashif because we basically played drum machine beats and I was just really playing the hi-hat. I learned to use the hi-hat as an accent to build up anything that’s like a crescendo. It was the salt, so to speak, of whatever I was doing on the drums. That gave me an appreciation of what you can do with a hi-hat to make things sound as if they’re breathing. When you listen to the hi-hat on “So Fine,” it’s actually pushing everything.
You also played on two huge songs for Evelyn “Champagne” King: “Love Come Down” and “I’m In Love.” Do you have any specific memories about those sessions? I know you played on the road with her as well.
She was exuberant. She just had this young energy like, “I’m gonna take the world.” When Kashif introduced the title to her, “I’m In Love,” she ran with it. She was so happy. It made me feel like the energy for that song needed to be like if you were strutting, just marching with your head up, and you’re proud and you’re just happy just to be in love. The drum beat is just basically a straight full hi-hat to make it sound as if you’re pushing it, like a cowbell. The drum beat is basically 2/4; 2/4 is like a universal beat. They call it the One Beat, almost the same thing that drives disco. I had some very good experiences with her. She was a bundle of joy and very experienced in her vocal range for that age.
In “Love Come Down,” I think at that time we were listening to a lot of Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones, he would have like sound effects in his songs. I think they call them arpeggios, like when you’re making a sound like the piano’s falling. That kind of thing. Well, [Kashif] started doing that on synthesizers and when she said the words, “Love come down,” we’re doing that kind of stuff. It was more expressive because the keyboards then were taking up the parts of different orchestrations that would normally be done by oboes and piccolos and flutes, that kind of stuff. [Kashif] was doing that on the synthesizers and, oh man.
It was just like an exciting period. It was an exciting time because the music was changing. We were actually at the forefront of a lot of synthesizer-based music. That space, that rhythm, that funk if you want to call it, that 2/4 allowed a lot of stuff to go on and still just be straight in your face.
You know, when we did the Evelyn King, Kashif actually perfected that drum machine thing. I would play a drum beat into the Synclavier, and then they would take voltage regulators from the beats. When the beat hit, the voltage regulator would go into a MIDI thing, they’d put it into the MIDI thing and combine any kind of beats to make the sound of the kick drum and the snare. Then I would add live cymbals. That’s when that whole switch took off from drum machines and drummers to actually getting the drummer to play a rhythm and then making that rhythm MIDI and then putting live cymbals on it. That brought a strength to music. It changed drums. It changed the way people were doing drums at that time for dance and pop music, you know? It was a big thing at that time.
You worked on Madonna’s first album playing drums. What was that process like?
Madonna at that time was hanging out at the Musicians Building down on 38th Street and 8th Avenue. We were in the building and I met the producer that was working with her at that time, Mark Kamins. He said, “Man, I found this young girl that has this explosive new voice, but she’s a little bit wild tiger.” I said, “What do you mean, wild tiger?” He said, “She’s wild. She has this energy.”
Mark Kamins, when we did “Everybody,” we basically did live drums and made a demo for Sire [Records], for [Madonna] to get the record deal. Once she got the deal, she wanted to go with a more experienced producer, which was Reggie Lucas. With Reggie Lucas, the process that we did, I would play live drums and once they got the live drums they would quantize the drums. They would put it into the Synclavier, which was, at that time, a state of the art digital workstation. We’d tune the drums up, slide things slightly over for timing-wise, then we would do live cymbals.
Do you remember which songs off of that first album that you were on?
I played on “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” a majority of the album I played on. It’s only maybe two songs that I probably didn’t play on because they did drum machines and I did live cymbals, but all of that is live drumming with replaced sounds in the Synclavier, and then live cymbals and hi-hat.
Was she around at the time or were you guys doing your things separate?
Madonna was around during the time for every process. Madonna was one of those girls like, “I don’t like that.” She was very outspoken. She knew what she wanted and if she couldn’t get it, she was pouting and calling you all kind of names. The little rebel star. She was a bundle of joy, but she was definitely a handful because she was going to challenge the establishment and you could see that she actually did. It was a joy. It was a good experience. I loved that girl. That taught me the importance of believing in yourself and confidence, because she was the master of believing in yourself and confidence.
In the ’80s, through a lot of that time, you mentioned a lot of stuff that you might play and get a drum machine to emulate what you did or you would take the sounds and sample it. With electronic drum kits, you had to be able to play to a click. The whole dynamic went from like a jam band thing in the ’70s to something more mechanical.
Yeah, there’s a distinct difference from the [’70s] and ’80s drumming into the ’90s drumming. With [’70s and] ’80s drumming, you really had to know your craft. You had to be able to tune the drums in the way that it would stick out. The ’90s, they got rid of most of that stuff because you didn’t really have to know how to tune a drum set. All you had to do was know how to play a rhythm and once you played the rhythm, it would be transferred into MIDI, which you could make sound like any sound you wanted to and then put on live cymbals.
You spoke earlier about these technological advancements and drummers being out of work. Especially when actual sampling came around towards the mid-to-late ’80s, not only could you get the feel of the actual beat, but the sounds as well, because the sound of drums at the time had gotten pretty stale. You listen to those records and a lot of them just sound anemic now. You could just take the drums off of a James Brown record. People would just sample the stuff, so between the drum machine and an actual sample off a record, a lot of drummers faced hard times. I spoke to Mike Clark, who played with the Headhunters and Herbie Hancock, and he just went deep into jazz. He just totally left R&B, period.
I lost it at that time. Man, I thought it was the death of the drummers. That was a sad day. They weren’t calling. I was doing two recording sessions a day. Like $1,000 a day back in the day. Can you imagine making $1,000 a day? You play for four hours and you have two hours of traveling and you’re making $1,000 a day for weeks. Then, all of that just comes trickling down because everybody starts doing their own drums and sampling. I had to learn how to sample. I sampled my own drums and started selling different parts of my samples for different production stuff. I started learning how to engineer.
I can’t remember their full names, but Joanne and Bobby from Unique Recording Studios put me down as an assistant engineer and that’s when I really started getting chops together with learning how to do samples and placing the beats and stuff like that, but other than that I was lost, man. We forgot how to play together. R&B was trash, it was garbage. It lost all of its sparkle. The only people that was playing live music was the pop and the alternative stuff. That was a sad day, I ain’t going to lie, but it’s come full circle. People now are appreciating real music.
You did go back to full-on drumming in the ’90s when you played with a hard rock band called Sophia’s Toy.
Oh my God! We actually did get signed to Epic. I know at the same time they had Gloria Estefan and Alanis Morrissette. They were doing kind of like a crossover rock thing and they wanted us to do that. Sophia is [Hispanic] so they wanted her to do like almost a J.Lo kind of thing, and she wasn’t having it so we lost the deal. But Sophia’s Toy was a chance to do almost like metal rock from a female [perspective]. She was raunchy at times, but all the things that she said were pertinent to what was happening with women at that time and just human beings period. It gave me a chance to explore that rock side. I never had a chance, everybody was just... Once I did B.T. Express they figured I couldn’t play anything but chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom.
I’ve seen you really stretch out playing live and it’s a joy to watch. The chick-a-boom stuff spawned all the ’80s success, but I’m learning from all these interviews I’m doing that so many hits were actually demos that the musicians had no idea would become hits.
Other drum sessions came from the Mtume stuff. That’s when they found out that I can halfway sing, so I was doing some singing stuff, just background vocals on Randy Crawford stuff like that with the Spinners back in the day. They were like, “Hey, listen to all the tunes. We don’t care,” but I wasn’t business-wise. I was thinking just art-wise, so that’s why I got into stuff because I wasn’t really demanding any money. I was doing it for the fun. They were like, “Sure, kid. Do whatever you want.” I feel like an ass now, excuse my language.
It’s all good.
It was a business, but I was into it more just because I just loved playing and you get taken advantage of when you look at it that way. But you learn a lot and if you don’t get bitter, you’ve got a lot to give. You’ve got a lot to draw on. This is crazy fun right now. Whoever thought somebody would be asking me about my past... I feel like I missed out on a couple of things, but there’s no regrets. I had a good time, I’ve seen the world. I’d like to give back. I’d like to be able to give something to the kids that want to know.