Author: Styles, Stephen
Date published: December 1, 2010
Like many drummers who play R&B and hip-hop, Rexsell Hardy Jr. began his drumming life in the church, starting out with the children's choir and progressing through the youth and adult choirs. Unlike most players, today Hardy can look back at a series of progressively heavier gigs with the top names in the biz, including the past six years spent with the undisputed queen of contemporary soul, Mary J. Blige.
When Rex was five, he began sitting in with his father's group, the Hardy Brothers, soaking up what the band's drummer, Donnell Vasser, was laying down. Following in the footsteps of his slightly older childhood friend Calvin Rodgers, Hardy began to study all the drummers on the gospel scene, including Joel Smith, Clyde Davis, Kevin Brunson, Teddy Campbell, and Oscar Seaton, and he set his sights on having a career doing the thing he loved most. MD recently sat down with the drummer, whose career path provides a template that any smart up-and-coming musician would be wise to emulate.
MD: You've toured with a number of major artists. How did you establish yourself on the touring scene?
Rex: I've been blessed. Every gig I've been on, I've always met someone who would end up playing a part in how I got the next gig. Networking and staying in touch helped. That's an important part of it. I also think I developed a reputation for having a strong work ethic, which has helped me a lot.
MD: How does a drummer demonstrate his or her work ethic, besides playing well?
Rex: It's just about being a professional and handling your business. For example, some years ago I got a call from Nisan Stewart to come to New York to play with an artist. The band had already been rehearsing for a week, but something had come up with the original drummer. I got my flight and was out there the next day. I hadn't had a chance to hear any of the songs, and the band was already a week into rehearsals, so that first day was kind of rough. Even though people knew the situation about me being called at the last minute, you could still tell they were thinking, Is this dude gonna work out? The excuse of being new to a situation only goes so far.
That night, I got the artist's record and went to my hotel room. I stayed up all night, from 11 P.M. until 7 A.M., learning the entire record, including songs we weren't even working on. The next day in rehearsal, I knew all the songs in and out, including breaks that the rest of the band was even playing. Everybody noticed how much better I was the second day, and from that point on, I was straight.
Besides playing, I do a lot of programming for the artists I work with. I've stayed up all night programming so that it's ready the next day. If an artist says they want to do something different, it should just be understood that it needs to be done immediately. You have to do anything and everything necessary to make sure you get the job done. It's not always about getting paid for it, either. You have to be willing to contribute to the team and be on point at all times. The show you're on needs to be as important to you as it is to the artist you're working for. If you treat every situation that way, you should be good.
MD: What are some of the things you've learned about playing professionally that you didn't expect before you got here?
Rex: One of the biggest things is the amount of time it takes to put a show together. I was used to rehearsing maybe two or three hours at a time. I knew the hours would be long, but to go from two- or three-hour rehearsals once or twice a week to ten-, twelve-, or fourteen-hour days in rehearsal every day for weeks was a major adjustment. It's all part of the learning curve. Learning music at this level is different, because you have to learn every single beat, break, accent, intro.... These artists know their music. They were there from the time the music was first created, and you're expected to play it exactly how they hear it.
MD: You've been with R&B superstar Mary J. Blige for over six years. What was it like corning into that gig after Gerald Heyward?
Rex: First off, I realized who some of my real friends were, because I got so much hate when I got on this gig. People from all over were throwing salt on my name, saying I wouldn't last, saying I wasn't right for the gig, saying I was disrespecting Gerald for taking the gig at all-all kinds of crazy stuff. What they didn't know was that I had already talked to Gerald and gotten his blessing. I still felt a lot of pressure, because Gerald had set the bar so high. I had even gone to see Gerald play with Mary back when he was still with her.
Once I had the gig, I was so nervous when I first got there that I didn't unpack my luggage for the first three weeks of rehearsals. I kept all my stuff in the suitcase because I felt like I might end up getting sent home any day. Everybody was used to hearing that music played a certain way, and it's hard to come behind that and hit people with something new. I started out playing similar to how I'd heard Gerald play. People kept telling me to open up and play the gig my way, but I didn't want to make big changes to the way they had been hearing the songs.
One day in production rehearsals I got pulled aside by Mary's husband. Mary wanted to talk to me. He took me down to her office and she said, "Just so you know, this is your gig now, and you're not going anywhere. If you weren't good, you wouldn't he here. I want to hear you. From this day on, I don't want you to play anything you've heard before. Do you." That was all I needed to hear, and it changed my life. From that point on, I was cool.
MD: What musical challenges have you faced while playing with Mary?
Rex: Before I got there, I had plenty of experience playing with R&B loops. But Maw's music is hip-hop heavy. Playing with hip-hop loops is very different because hip-hop loops are usually sampled by a producer, which means the loop is usually not made on a metronome. They'll try to line it up the best they can, but I was used to playing with loops that were right on the beat. A lot of the loops we were using were behind the beat.
For a few rehearsals. I went in three hours early so I could work on parts I was having trouble with. That was probably my biggest challenge, because I was so used to being on the 1 all the time. Transitioning to the hiphop side was definitely hard for me. Once I got it, I was cool, but I struggled until almost the end of that first tour. I listened to different guys that play hiphop well, especially Questlove, which helped a lot.
MD: How did you put your own stamp on that music?
Rex: I just think my style is different. For exampie, I play a lot of splash fills. Drummers used to ask me, "Why do you have so many splashes?" I'd be like, "Why do you have so many toms?" Of course I still play toms, but I might take a fill that most people would play on the toms and play it between the 8'', 10'', and 12'' splashes. It's cleaner, and it adds to the feel.
I think there's a difference between being heard and being felt, and I always prefer to be felt, because the audience isn't there to see me anyway. I might play a fill that I think will fit at a certain spot, and at the same time Mary goes to do an embellishment that fits that fill, without ever talking about it before. She'll turn around and look, like, "Whaaat-that was dope!" And then we keep it. From that point on, every time we get to that particular point in the song, we do that same accent. Things like that help add to the vibe I play with.
There weren't a lot of electronics being used on Mary's gig before I got there. My first time out with her was the Love & Life tour in 2004. I took a pad out on the road, but there was a live percussionist on that tour, so I didn't use it much. After the tour the percussionist didn't come back, and that's when I started incorporating more and more electronics. I play a lot of claps, finger snaps, and other effects that weren't part of the show before. Also, I use a lot of triggers so that I can duplicate the exact sounds on the records. Mary is an artist who sings what she feels. I play what I feel, and the chemistry is really good, so I'm blessed.
MD: In mainstream R&B drumming, it seems most of the fills are based on triplets and 16th-note combinations. Why is that, and how do you develop enough variations of those patterns to avoid sounding repetitious in a two-hour show?
Rex: Certain licks fit certain genres. I think those two patterns just happen to work the best. You can try to fit certain other rudiments into the music, but some of them just don't fit. Once you find something that works, it's natural to use it a lot. I think avoiding being repetitious starts with not filling as much. A lot of my fills are inspired by Phil Collins and Ricky Lawson. Those guys don't play real fast. I use a lot of triplets, but I might start on beat 2 in the measure instead of beat 3, or at a certain place in a phrase, and that gives it a whole different feel.
MD: You have great placement that doesn't get in the way of the groove. How did you develop that?
Rex: Thank you. It comes from listening to music. Some of my biggest influences are producers like Teddy Riley, Warryn Campbell, and Rodney Jerkins. I'm also a huge Phil Collins fan. He'll play eight bars solid and then play just one note on the tom, and it feels crazy. I take a lot of what I hear from different producers and try to incorporate it live. I do the same thing when I'm getting music from whatever artist I'm playing for. You have to listen to the record and honor what the producer and artist were going for when you play it live, because that's what the audience wants to hear.
I pattern a lot of my licks and fills after catchy songs or a catchy melody from different songwriters. Simple, catchy melodies sell records because everybody can identify with them, not just musicians. I prefer that approach to playing stuff that's complicated, because when it's catchy, the audience can understand it. I want to be a drummer's drummer, but I also want to be a people's drummer, where even if a person doesn't play drums or understand music technique, they hear what I play and think, I like that drummer!
MD: You play a huge setup, which is different for R&B. You even have a gong drum. What's behind the size of your kit?
Rex: Mary is a really diverse artist. One moment we might be playing hip-hop, and the next we might go into a rock tune. Even though Mary is mainly known for being an R&B artist, her music has a lot of influences. Playing live, you don't have time to swap out drums, so with my setup, if there's a particular sound needed. I can just turn to one side of the kit and have exactly what I need for that song. I don't think there's a song Mary can pull up that I won't have the right sound for.
I use the gong drum for accents and distinct bass drum patterns. Ten times out often, if I play something on the gong drum, I'm playing it on the bass drum as well.
MD: Your sound has matured a lot since you've been on the road with Mary. How can young drummers gain maturity in their playing?
Rex: It starts with listening to the guys that are ahead of you and learning what's keeping them there. There are a lot of drummers who look at the cats who are consistently working, and they might think, I could chop his head off. That's cool, but they're working, and you're at home. You have to learn from the guys that are at the forefront as well as cats that are behind you.