A musician’s white whale: perfectly re-creating the ‘Funky Drummer’ beat
By Elisabeth Vicentelli
Dylan Wissing has been making a living as a versatile session drummer since the early 1990s and earned credits on tracks by Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Drake, Eminem and Rick Ross. Yet there’s something he hasn’t achieved that he just can’t give up: reenacting the drumming on the James Brown track “Funky Drummer” as faithfully as possible.
“It’s my Moby-Dick, my Mona Lisa, my Mount Everest,” Wissing said.
If you have heard any new music over the past three decades, you have heard part of “Funky Drummer,” which spawned one of the most sampled breakbeats ever (the website WhoSampled puts the number at 1,637). It has popped up on songs by artists as different as Public Enemy and Ed Sheeran, and appeared on work by Sinead O’Connor, N.W.A and Melissa Etheridge.
Wissing does not want to simply cover what Clyde Stubblefield did back in 1969, though. Using vintage gear, he wants to duplicate every inflection and micro-pause, the finesse of Stubblefield’s ghost notes and his metronomic timing. And he wants to sustain the effort for all nine minutes of the track’s full version.
“I’ve been playing this song forever, and I still can’t play it at the album tempo all the way through without my arm feeling like it’s going to fall off,” said Wissing, 50. Speaking on Zoom from his studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, he did not sound so much frustrated as energized by a challenge that calls on all of his qualities as a musician.
Indeed, Wissing is not just technically excellent but a bit of a forensic detective. Over the past 17 years, he has used his skills, and his extensive drum collection, to create vintage-sounding loops and perform sample replays. (In the pipeline: downloadable packs inspired by 1970s disco and Stax house drummer Al Jackson’s beat-keeping on Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ “Tramp.”) He calls replays a “crazy little hyper-specialized corner of the music industry.”
Clearing samples to incorporate them in new songs can get expensive if you follow the proper legal channels. Since music involves two types of copyright, one for the musical work (the composition) and one for the recording (the capture of a performance), producers came up with the cost-cutting idea of recording new versions of those vintage fragments.
“One reason a cover version is automatically easier to license than a sample is that it only implicates one of the copyrights, the composition one,” said Peter DiCola, a law professor at Northwestern University and co-author of the book “Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling.”
Wissing was introduced to sample replay by producer and engineer Ken Lewis, and in 2003 the duo successfully re-created a drum part from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” for Alicia Keys’ hit “Girl on Fire.”
“There’s only that one bass drum and that one snare drum and it was, I think, three or four days of solid work,” Wissing said. “And it’s literally six notes.”
Lewis said the effort involved a mountain of equipment. “We set up maybe 20 microphones in Alicia Keys’ studio and brought down probably 20 snare drums and 20 kick drums, and we just started capturing everything and comparing and fine-tuning and adjusting,” he explained on the phone. (Wissing had to rebuild his stockpile of drum components after losing most of it to Hurricane Irene flooding; you can check out some of his goods in the hypnotic gear-nerdery video “50 Snares Drums in 5 Minutes: The Heart of the Breakbeat.”)
At least with “The Big Beat,” from 1980, the pair knew the original version. The exacting process requires super-hearing and sleuthing. “You listen to the sample you need to re-create literally hundreds and hundreds of times, picking out every single minute detail: every timing, every inflection, every note, every off-pitch note, every late snare hit,” Lewis said. Room echo, crackles and pops are also mixed in.
This analytical bent came early to Wissing, who was raised in a music-friendly family — his great-grandfather, Clarence Stout, was a songwriter and drummer — in Bloomington, Indiana. Listening to his parents’ copy of the 1973 Pharoah Sanders LP “Village of the Pharoahs” when he was young, he realized the record featured a bell with “the exact same sound as the bell at my grandparents’ farmhouse,” he said. “The connection stuck in my head. That was kind of the first time I understood that stuff.”
After graduating from Indiana University, Wissing spent 13 years crisscrossing the country with the band Johnny Socko. When that project ended and he had moved to Hoboken, he reconnected with Lewis, who had produced the group’s last studio album, and the two men became regular collaborators.
Sample replay does not come cheap — Lewis said it can range between $1,500 and $15,000, based on the complexity of the task — and even then it can be discarded at the last minute. Wissing replayed the drum part of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” for the initial version of Kanye West’s “Power,” in 2010, but West ended up using a sample.
“That was kind of heartbreaking, although I am on the remix with Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz, an acceptable consolation prize,” Wissing said. “Being able to handle rejection can definitely be a useful skill in this line of work.
As a working musician, Wissing handles a lot more than sample replay. He does session gigs, goes on the occasional tour — his concert dates with violinist Alexander Markov fell through, like so many, after the COVID-19 shutdown — and tutorial videos. He also creates, usually with engineer Cooper Anderson, royalty-free packs of beats and loops for Sounds.com.
“Beginners just starting to make music generally don’t have access to expensive instruments, don’t have a big network of musicians to call on,” Sounds.com’s senior partnering manager Justin Myracks explained in a phone interview. “Dylan democratizes music creation.”
Wissing’s sound packs have titles like “50s R&B Drums” (described as “a full collection of shuffle beats and fills, heavy on the vintage drums and cymbals, dripping with ribbon mics and tube preamps”) and “70s TV Drama Drums” (cue visions of “Kojak” and “Police Woman”). In addition to his Stax module, he is putting the finishing touches on a pack inspired by Queen’s drummer.
“Imagine you had Roger Taylor with his 1977 kit and you wanted him to play on your song, and you can’t afford to actually hire Roger Taylor,” Wissing said. “I dissect what they’re playing and I try to match the feel, the sonic vibe, and do some variations from my imaginary outtakes.”
And then there is that white whale. On his sound pack “The Junky Drummer,” Wissing deconstructs that famous breakbeat “using garbage, so the hi-hat sound would be ripping paper or a Slinky from my son’s toy box,” he said.
Wissing is naturally ebullient, but his enthusiasm rises even further when he talks about “Funky Drummer.”
“I’ve devoted my life to this damn track,” he said. “Just how the (expletive) did he do it? He’s Clyde Stubblefield, that’s how.” He laughs. “Probably on my deathbed I’ll figure out how to do it.”