Sidemen to the Stars

Successful Berklee alumni show that you don't have to be the star to have an impact.
February 19, 2010

If you've watched the Grammys, you know: Get a star like Lady Gaga or Kanye West on stage, and you don't have eyes for much else. But if you squint and look to the side, you'll find talented collaborators pursuing successful, albeit less-visible, careers: sidemen. Happy sidemen.

Berklee alumni are front and center on the side.

We spoke with Keith Harris '98, the drummer for the Black Eyed Peas, the day after the Grammys. It wasn't a bad night: The Berklee alumnus played "Imma Be" to about 26 million people watching on TV in the United States. It's a song he produced for The E.N.D., which won Best Pop Vocal Album plus two other awards.

"I got in at about four in the morning," he said.

It's not that Harris, 33, needed Grammy validation. He's had a pretty happening career. Drum magazine called him the hottest drummer in hip-hop. He's worked on over 30 songs for the Peas, Fergie, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, and many others. What he thought would be a temporary thing—he was asked to drum for the Peas six years ago on a summer tour—turned into a full-time gig. The situation gives him many opportunities for outside work, as well, as a writer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist.

Harris's musical life didn't begin at Berklee—as a kid he played piano in his hometown of Chicago at the New Friendship Baptist Church—but Berklee provided the springboard. The college gave him the musical versatility that's essential for a sideman. "At Berklee, you learn everything," he said. " can call me to do strings, a gospel song, traditional harmony, counterpoint."

Even more than the music, Harris benefited from the musicians. "Just the experience and the networking of being around a lot of talented people. You don't get that anywhere else starting out in music. I met so many of my peers on the road who'd been at Berklee—Johnny Najara, who plays guitar for Usher; John Blackwell, who was the drummer for Justin Timberlake's last tour; Charles Haynes ('99), who's the drummer for Lady Gaga."

Or who was the drummer. Haynes played for five months on the Fame Monster tour; his final gig with Gaga was on the Grammy stage. She won two awards. "They say, 'Go out with a bang,'" said Haynes.

For Haynes, the Gaga job demanded a certain amount of artistic self-sacrifice. "My job was to make sure her music felt good every night. It was not necessarily for me to grow with her career. She'll have several drummers after me."

He wasn't complaining. That's the nature of the business. "It felt great," Haynes said of his time with Gaga. Other Berklee alumni who have performed recently with Lady Gaga include guitarist Adam Smirnoff '99 and bassist Mitch Cohn '06. "New artists are willing to work, and she's a hard worker."

And he's not leaving the sideman's semi-spotlight. Later this year he'll rejoin Kanye West, whom he performed with in 2008–2009. That hookup happened in a flash. Haynes got the call on a Sunday from friend and fellow alumnus Jeff Bhasker '99, a songwriter and producer who regularly toured with West.

"Monday, around 3 p.m., I'm running around looking at day care for my little girl. He calls, 'I need you to do the gig. You're on a flight that leaves [Logan Airport] at 5:45. Bring your passport,'" Haynes said. Destination: Japan. Add to the list of things a busy sideman needs: flexibility, a passport, and a have-instrument-will-travel mindset.

Haynes's key lesson from Berklee came in a music business class. "It shows you how to deal with people," said Haynes. "That's the hard part about this business. Some people say it's 70% musicianship and the rest is your attitude."

You've been hearing bassist Stu Brooks '00 play on Hasidic reggae-hip-hopper Matisyahu's "One Day" since last fall; it's been the long lead-in to the Olympics broadcast on NBC. "Matis," as Brooks called him, played in Vancouver, then took off to tour Hawaii, Australia, and South America.

Brooks, 31—who has also played with Gaga, Mike Patton, 50 Cent, Slick Rick, Macy Gray, and many more—has his own Brooklyn-based instrumental group, Dub Trio, which has explored everything from reggae to doom rock. A few years ago, he met Matisyahu; they jammed at hip-hop parties, and formed a friendship. They went on tour together last year, with Dub Trio opening shows and then serving as Matisyahu's backup band.

Dub Trio won't perform on its own this time around—"We got kind of tired," said Brooks—but they'll still have a unique, creative contribution. His own band, said Brooks, "takes the traditional sounds of dub and we incorporate it with pedals, effects, microphones, manipulating each other's sounds. The number-one thing about Matis is he lets us incorporate that sound into his music. He used to warm up to our records before the show. It's very flattering."

The friendship not only encourages the artistic collaboration, it also makes life on the road more comfortable. "He's a real down-to-earth guy and a friend. He likes to create an environment where we're comfortable on the road. There's a bus for the band and one for families."

Brooks agreed with Harris that the connections he made at Berklee were key. "All our friends, the family in New York and all over, is based around the network that we created."

A family that's more than just metaphor: Brooks married alumna Janice Cruz '00, music director for Dora the Explorer, last month. Two days later, he started rehearsals with Matisyahu for the big tour.