RIP Ndugu Chancler

This past weekend the drumming world lost a giant when Ndugu Chancler passed away. Chancler was a Grammy-nominated artist who worked with some of the biggest names in the recording business to include Frank Sinatra, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. I will remember Chancler’s brilliant drumming on the Michael Jackson hit “Billie Jean.” Not up to then, or since, has such a simple beat given a song such feeling. In straight 4/4 time Chancler drives the song in perfect synchronicity with the bass line. The rhythm section’s accompaniment is followed by a repetitive synth line with deep reverb added for effect. Jackson’s vocal rides perfectly atop all of the instruments. Throughout the song the drums become hypnotic: Bom-Bap- Bom-Bap-Bom-Bap-Bom-Bap…

The co-producer Quincy Jones is said to have told audio engineer Bruce Swedien to create a drum sound like no other one before. According to Swedien he constructed a drum platform and inserted a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood between the snare and the hi-hat. In an interview he proclaimed that “There aren’t many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is. That is the case with “Billie Jean”—and that I attribute to the song’s sonic personality.”

After Chancler recorded the song in the studio Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett took over and performed the song live as Michael Jackson’s steady touring drummer. Although he added a little flavor Moffett never strayed from the original version recorded on the album Thriller. With the untimely death of Michael Jackson the only version of the song that remains is the studio version. Following his own death, “Billy Jean” will remain as an example of Chancler’s work and a testament to the sonic contribution he made on this unforgettable song.

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