The Roots Is In The Rhythm

Nelson Miller has been the drummer for Burning Spear's Burning Band since 1978. He has contributed as co-producer of every Spear album since Resistance and ranks as one of reggae's greatest, yet least known drummers. I interviewed him after talking to Spear on August 30, 1995.

You started on Hail H.I.M. playing with Family Man. Tell me about that time, how it came to then . . .

Well, I used to fool around with, I used to play with Meditations for a while, Cedric Brooks, and a friend of mine who was going around with Spear said Spear was going to form a band. So I started to get together and thing. In 79, he have to go into the studio to work on this new album which turned out to be Hail H.I.M. And I was just fortunate that I was selected. When I played, you know, Family Man (Aston Barrett -- Wailers bassist) was kind of happy and said to Spear, 'Bwai, nice drummer, hold on to him.'

You must have felt very honored to play with the Wailers . . .

Right. So it really felt good to be... Wailers world famous and ting and then I as the outsider like... It felt good, you know?

So when did you first start playing the drums? Was percussion your first instrument?

No, well, when I was in high school... I have some friends who were in a band. And one day I went by where they were rehearsing and (I) went around the drums and was fiddling around, and they said 'bwai, you sound like you've played.' And I started to go there every evening after school and watch. And that was basically how I picked up the drumming.

Then how did you get your first drums, first kit?

First kit was bought by my brother. I had access to playing. What happened is, fortunately for me, the guy who was the drummer in the band that was my friend, he had to move from Port Antonio . . .

That was playing with . . .

The band that my friend was playing with that I used to going around to listen to, right? He had to leave town and go to Montego Bay to live. So they had to find a drummer. So I had to just fit in. That is how I started to play with band. So I had access to a drum set, for a little while, until I had a big brother who, another friend of mine was selling his drum set, and he (my brother) bought it for me.

So what did you grow up listening to that had its most profound impact on the way you play the drums?

The main inspiration originally was Lloyd Knibbs, the drummer for the Skatalites. And from there I just had like a drum thing in my head. And then like Santa (Carlton Davis) and Mikey "Boo" - Mikey Richards. Those were the initial people. Of course there were other guys who I didn't really know about at the time . . .

Carly Barrett (of the Wailers)?

You know at the time I didn't really love Wailers so much. There were some Wailers songs that I like, right, but I didn't really love the Wailers so much. I preferred like In Crowd and Generation Gap. Those are some of the same guys, the important musicians down there, you have Robbie Linn was in In Crowd and Mikey Boo was in In Crowd and in Generation Gap you had Mikey Chung and Geoffrey Chung. And those guys are like stalwarts in terms of the direction that the music went, you know. So there were important people, you know?

From your perspective then, obviously Knibbs was the inventor of the ska beat, how did the rhythms, I mean transitions took place in a very short period of time, so who was responsible then for the change to the rock steady sound?

There were other guys, as I was mentioning before, that I didn't know about later on I got to find out like Hugh Malcolm and Winston Grennan, you know, those other guys that were in between the era of like the ska era and the reggae era. They were like the rock steady guys. Like Horsemouth (Leroy Wallace), in that period. You know, so, over a period of time, the music change with those guys. And then a younger set of guys come. That was just the way it work out.

Was it the same guys then who were responsible for the change then to the reggae. I mean like let's say like the sound in 1969 versus the sound in 1971. It was like two years period, and reggae had just like, you know . . .

Some of the same set of guys.

Let's say a young drummer comes to you... if you were to explain, as a percussionist, as a rhythmatist, the difference between a ska beat, and the rock steady beat, and the reggae beat. How would you describe those in your words as a musician.

Well, the ska and the rock steady are more on the downbeat while the reggae is more like just on three.

On the third beat of the measure, the drop . . .

On the third beat, yea, the drop. So that is basically the difference between the rhythm there . . .

So would you say, bass on one, snare on three . . .

Yea, and the high hat, umm . .
What about the triplet . . .

That's what I'm sayin. It depends. You have different variations in terms of your high hat playing that you can correlate to a different kind of pattern that your playing between your bass drum and your snare. You have different intricate things that you do with your high hat while your bass drum and your snare might be playing the same beat, like the one drop, where the bass drum and the snare drum is playing identically. Right? Or you might have the bass drum playing on the one and the snare drum on the two . . . You know, you have different, different different kind of motive how you arrange out the thing, ya know? But the important thing is for it to swing.

Right, right. So where did that triplet which is very distinct to the Jamaican sound . . .

You see wha happen. A lot a Jamaican musicians and drummers in particular, they listen to a lot of different music. And the jazz, a lot of Jamaican musicians are in tune to jazz. Jazz has influenced Jamaican music a lot.

So with that, would you say it could have come from jazz?

Jazz, the New Orleans sound, different . . .

Or anywhere . . .

Yea, ya know.

To me as an outsider, I listen to what happened in the 70s, and it seemed then that the rhythms that came in the 80s didn't have the same spirit. I asked Edi Fitzroy this question, and he said it was because the nyabinghi sound wasn't there.

That is true also, but in the 80s, the influence again of American music again of disco and thing coming in that time period meant that your gonna change a groove sometimes. You know Jamaicans cover a lot of American tunes and that has been going on for years, so is the same sort a ting where the music tend to evolve.

Look at now. You hear some of the Jamaican songs now, you think is some American rhythm. You hear some "Boombastic" and some Shabba and them sort of things and is not straight up reggae, is something different, is a hybrid of reggae plus the hip-hop thing.

So how do you feel about it being presented as a programmed rhythm?

Well, everybody have their likes and dislikes. Other people love it. I like it a little, but I don't love it a lot. But who is me fe say, bwai, and the next mon, the next couple a million cyan like that?

Just the same like how Spear not into the computer style. Is the same kinda thing. You have to have some people who hold on to certain tradition. Ya cyan have everybody see a ting going down there and everybody run gone. Ya have everybody run gone is something that is dangerous for them, and all of them parish. If you have a couple who stay . . . and so it go, you know?

On some of those albums it seems, the rhythms got tighter. Was that an attempt to modernize the sound at all. But you never, did you ever program any?

No, no, no, no, no, nah.

But you played it in a much tighter way . . .

Is around the evolving of the music. You try to play as tight as you can because you are going to be influenced by what is played out there by the drum machine and stuff. So, seeing that the drum machine, the drum programs are . . . into a more direct timing thing in terms of how the drum machine present and the computer present the thing to you - a more kind of more kind of refined, not even refined, I shouldn't even use the word refined, but is a more directly on the beat thing, going, going, going, going, going, and ya try.

So subconsciously, you're going to try and think and play seh bwai, ya haffe try an make this music. You're not playing the drum machine but, you're going to have to try an mek it more precise - as precise as you can.

As far as working with Spear, you've been kind of like right there as co-producer since very early on.

Well, since we did the Resistance album, me been jumping around a little, here and there and organize musicians.

He must have great respect for your ears . . .

Mmmm, well, and the musicians too, where we come up with different... that is why the input is important from different different people sometimes - people who have different perspective on where some things supposed to go. That is why I was saying to you before when you have five force of people putting together something.

Is a hard time when you just have one person. His perspective alone you're getting most of the time, especially if it's for drums, keyboards, percussion, horns. But when you're going and everybody just put in, and you feel out a thing, and you run down a tune, and you feel nice and you play something, and a man might say, 'play something,' and you might say, 'no, try that,' and is a different thing from what you had in your mind still. And you try that, and it nice. So it work out, you know, cooperation.

Social living is the best, right?

Right, yea, you know.

Do you see Spear just keeping on working and working and working?

When you're doing the right thing, sometime the right thing is not very popular, but the right thing is the right thing, and it has proven over the years that the right thing show longevity.
While a lot of the music just come like some burger thing. You just run quick and grab a burger and fries and gone. While the Burning Spear thing is like a gourmet dinner. You just have a seat and drink some wine and different different things.

Yea, the best, the best, gourmet reggae.

What would you say for you personally, out of all those Spear albums, let's say we're going to get them out and listen to them all, which rhythm that you played did you feel like you had the most of your own creation of a rhythm on the track that was the most crucial. That you thought, 'Man! In the groove.'

Mmmm. I'm not even sure, because there have been quite a few.

Okay, start naming them!

Lately, lately, I loved "My Roots I Never Forget" and, um, is a, you really pose a difficult question to be honest, right, to be honest. There have been quite a few, and some of them I don't even remember now, but as I said to you, you pose me a difficult question. But I know a lot of them, a lot of them I really felt . . .

They were yours.

Well, to be honest in life, nothing is really yours. Everything is coming from somewhere, somewhere.

To me, no artist is really, truly, truly original. Everything come from the Father. And the Father is the only original. The Father is the only original, but everybody has some influence seeping in from somewhere.

Everyone, regardless of whatever you're doing, you're cooking, you're driving, you're doing whatever. Every little thing in life you do, because you had to...regardless of whether you turned out to be a master . . . or people term you or deem you to be a master, you had to have somebody influencing you.

To inspire you . . .

Originally. And some of that is going to come out into what you do. If you're born in a cave now, and him don't have any influence from the outside world, and then him come out and present something to you, bam! bam! bam! bam! bam! and then you see it and you say, WOW! Then him original, you know? Yea.

Until that happens . . .

Until that happens, nobody is original, you know. Only the Lord original.

If you put a man in a cave with some drums, he might not even play them.

You're right. He might want to eat out of them.

Copyright 1995 Carter Van Pelt
full text originally published in Volume 1, Number 1 of 400 Years

photos of Nelson Miller compliments of Sonia Rodney