Born into a family of award winning musicians, Emanuel Harrold grew up within a rich musical heritage and was exposed to a variety of instruments from a very young age.
His move to New York brought him under the mentorship of drumming greats such as Bernard Purdie and Charlie Persip, and was the beginning of a multi-Grammy award winning career. Today Harrold not only works behind the kit, but is also involved in multiple writing and production projects spanning various genres.
I caught up with Emanuel to chat about his upbringing, his own journey of writing original music and his work with the Harlem Jazz Machine which later became the Gregory Porter band.
I read you have over a hundred musicians and singers in your family.
Yeah man, a hundred plus, it’s our legacy. My great-grandfather was a pastor and he was the minister of the community. Through that, the legacy came about.
So you grew up in church, playing wise as well?
Yes, playing, singing, everything.
You also grew up in a bugle corps?
Yes, it was like a professional marching band ‘Memorial Lancers Drum and Bugle Corp’ but way more organised and a lot more strict.
Is that where you learned your technique and rudiments?
No man, I actually played the horn there but I always wanted to play drums. My grandfather wanted us to learn a harmonic and melodic approach to music though. Shedding later helped me get those rudiments and technical drum stuff a bit better.
You later moved from St. Louis to New York to study jazz.
I moved to New York just to further pursue what I was already doing in St. Louis. I was kind of a understudy and mainstay of the late, great Willie Akins at the time.
Musicians that came out of his band was very successful in going to New York between the 1990’s and 2000’s. Willie used to hang out with Booker Ervin, and Alan Dawson was Booker’s drummer. Alan Dawson was the teacher behind Tony Williams.
Willie Akins was exposed to all the vibes and brought that history and skill back to St. Louis. Willie offered that wealth of knowledge to myself and the many others like me early in our careers. It was just like getting the music handed directly down in a sense.
Had jazz always been in a passion of yours then?
Yeah, it started in my teenage years because my brothers Keyon, Steve and Damon were really into it. At that time they were really into learning the music and pursuing it to another level. So I just started to dig and dig, teaching myself how to read and write music, and just buy the hundreds, and now thousands, of albums I have listened to.
So before I even went to university I was already set on just doing my thing, but I wanted to take it one step further where I could feed off other masters such as Charlie Persip, Bernard Purdie, Reggie Workman and Joe Chambers. The New School and New York provided a great resource for jazz musicians who were passing their knowledge on. That’s why I wanted to do it, just to get in a little bit deeper.
It was all more of a mentorship because with the cats I dig, it really wasn’t about getting lessons. It was more about sitting, watching , observing and learning. Or if you do something they don’t like they’d go: “Why did you do that? That has no meaning!”. Like an old school way of developing. Nowadays it’s more flash – YouTube, GospelChops.com and that kind of stuff. Not knocking GospelChops because I know where it comes from and why, from my experience of many days and nights in an Afro American Church setting.
My first tour travelling nationally was always the summers with the Drum & Bugle corp. But yeah, the first jazz tour, we did a lot of stuff around New York, the States and then finally got to Europe. The good thing for me was that it was so organic. James is legend and one of a kind, who has been heard with Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, Max Touch and too many greats to name. He is a master musician and teacher. James just wanted me to mind the music, mind the melody and just play. We got a lot of creative freedom. He just outlined the song and allowed the band to go where it needed to go.
I think what’s really lost these days is that people don’t understand the true role of the drummer. Drums are the heart beat of the band. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn , Rolling Stones, The Meters, Parliament Funkadelic, Ray Charles , Aretha Franklin , Motown Records, Stacks Records on and on. Without that heartbeat, what would that music be? A band live or recorded is only as good as the drummer. Many greats have said this way before me.
Besides jazz you also do some work in hip hop.
Yes, I started touring with a band called Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and we would do stuff with MosDef, Gorillaz, De La Soul and a whole lot of other people. There was a lot of stuff happening but between tours I would always come back to New York.
It’s crazy how that all came about just from doing what I love to do and not being afraid of stepping into unknown realms. I’m one of the guys who grew up to Michael Jackson doing his first moonwalk on TV, watching hip hop unfold and witnessing groups breakdancing. I’m kind of a hybrid of all that stuff and having seen it and now getting to play it just feels so familiar and you just have to lock in your drum patterns to what you want to hear. There is always an evolution of the beat and whether it’s swung 8ths or straight 8ths.
Is there a genre you would like to step into or are you quite contempt with the jazz and hip hop side of things?
I’m into whatever. Like Tony Williams said, his favourite drummer can step into every situation and do well.
Your main gig at the moment is Gregory Porter and you’ve been there from the beginning. Tell me more about that.
Myself and the piano player Chip Crawford had our own bands and were part of bands, doing shows, showcases, and gigs all round New York. We had a residency at St. Nick’s Pub with Melvin Vibes and Kay Mori/The Harlem Jazz Machine. It was a gig/ jam session on Mondays. On Tuesdays they presented special guest artist and singers such as Brian Carrat (vibraphone ), Warren Smith (drums/vibraphone), John Hendricks (vocalist) and Gregory Porter. As time went on it was just Gregory and Kay Mori. Everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Olu Dara would come and sit in on it regularly. We were now called The Harlem Jazz Machine and that’s where everybody first heard of us. We started touring around the US a little bit, went to Japan a couple of times, and over time I noticed record labels coming around.
St Nicks Pub closed down, then Gregory got his own gig at Smoke Jazz Club which took it a notch up. Now we were midtown, with a safer atmosphere, controlled sets and newer audience. I would look up and Jimmy Cobb would be sitting right next to my drums at Smoke Jazz Club. I played with my eyes closed so I could focus on everything going on. That’s surreal and overwhelming if you dig Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ record. So many variations of greats were digging the the vibes we put out each week. The ‘ Smoke’ Sound – it was raw, fresh and was moving in good direction. Soon, we recorded ‘Water’ which was a more jazzy record and it got nominated for a Grammy. Then we recorded ‘Be Good’ which was also nominated but we were beaten by Beyonce. [laughs]
Gregory then switched label to Universal and the next two records graciously both won Grammys.
As you can see the development of what is now Gregory Porter evolved over time with patience and deep contributions from the band and GP. A labour of love. It can’t be roses without thorns though. We all know as working artists there are things that can always be better in all categories. Look for the silver lining and enjoy your time because it doesn’t last for ever. No sleep, crappy food, long travel, hurrying up to wait, and meaningless sound checks are all misery in the minds of working musicians.
Isn’t that always the case though after a while?
Yes, the road blues is what it is. As professionals we have to take the bad with the good. Redirect and try to make something meaningful from your time with your band, touring and gigging. There will always be politics. Try not to be drowned in them. Be respectful, musical and positive all the same.
You’re a singer/songwriter in your own right too.
Yeah man. You know, all these years I’ve been supporting so many guys and I went to school for contemporary music, performance and composition. I now shedding more to write, play, compose, so I can do a little bit of everything in time to get my message to the world. I’m mostly known for playing drums and making people feel good from my drum beats.
But also, I just thought maybe I have to start investing back into who I am as I have my own message as well. So I’m just writing and putting together the baddest cats I can to bring my story to life. Rocco Palladino from UK is on a few songs and lots of other upcoming amazing jazz, r’n’b and hip hop musicians. Chris Turner who you may have heard with Esperanza Spalding; Saunders Sermons you have heard with Maxwell and Jay Z; Kenneth Whalum who you heard with Jay Z, Maxwell and Mary J. Blige, Chip Crawford (Donald Byrd, Four Tops, GP), Jahmal Nichols (Fontella Bass, Eric Roberson) and many more that I’ll name in future as the songs release.
These are all cats I can call because they are my friends first, and they know the quality of musician I am, so they’re always down for whatever I need them to do. Even just that is a testament to who I am and it wipes out all the BS that may come from industry politics. A lot of my latest releases have been given really good reviews from Sounds So Beautiful, Jazz FM, Beats, Rhymes & Basslines, Vents Magazine and Afro Punk. I’m not with a label though, I’m indie, so there was nobody to take it or plant it and my music has done really well for an independent venture. I have no complaints.
The latest single is called ‘Luv Hurt’ and I’m currently working on an EP which will be released in October. My idea was just to put out some good music right now so in the future I’ll be able to look at a solid paper trail of personal things I’ve been doing on my own. This is all to get into the realm of booking my own shows, doing my own tours and putting a band together that respects its members and is a collective where nobody is being picked apart or made the star by labels. It’s just about coming in, playing good music, having a good time and kicking ass on stage. I’m always looking for new artists to collaborate and write with. I just want to get back to making amazing, killing, raw music. It’s all just me trying to do my thing, while limiting the BS that will come my way.
You’re singing on it too, right?
Yes, I’m singing on some of them. Unfortunately over the last years I haven’t spend much time on my singing so I’m kind of just doing a little background stuff except one tune.
Let’s talk about your concept ‘Forward Motion’.
Ok. Forward motion is basically taking the energy of all the things that can’t or can go your way and just look forward. Take a step forward, don’t look back. When you look back that’s the weight and the gravity that is pulling you backwards. So looking forward is always observing how you can make the situation better or how you can turn it around to meet somebody new, to help somebody else, to collaborate with somebody else.. just repositioning. Forward motion to me is repositioning where you are and allowing you to direct that path to where you’re going.
Are you planning on putting this philosophy into workshops or is it more just something for yourself?
It’s definitely in it’s beginning stages but eventually I would love to do that.
You’re also involved in Key Kat Productions.
That’s a collaboration of me, Keyon Harrold (trumpet player for artists like Jay Z, Maxwell, ‘Miles Davis Movie’), and younger brother Jasson Harrold – we are the main people involved. Music has been created for 50 Cent, Queen Latifah, Mobb Deep and a lot of Hip Hop and Pop artists. We’ve been doing that for a long time. I’ve been a platinum winning producer alongside my brothers for a nice long time now.
How do you find time to write and produce when you’re touring so much?
I travel with my porto-setup, I have everything: my Mac which is fully loaded with instruments, my midi keyboard, headphones… When I show up my whole room is fully loaded to work on music, it’s crazy. Maybe a year or so ago my brother came into town because he needed Gregory to sing vocals on something. The touring schedule was hectic so he met us in Seattle and we cut the vocals in my hotel room. The song is called Refuge Song’ ft Common and Gregory Porter.
Finally, what’s next?
Basically getting back to practising because I would definitely like to do more masterclasses and teaching, and just generally getting into solo drumming more. I think I would have a lot to offer about rudiments, placement, spacing and chops. Plus, how to get to this point and how to support and create for artists – just enabling the drummer to succeed.
Touring wise I have about two weeks off at the moment which is precious downtime where I just want to chill, put my plans in motion and do what I need to do so later on I can have greater control of my time.
Thanks a lot for your time Emanuel!
Interview by Tobias Miorin