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Tour Tales | Darrell Robinson on Kanye’s “Glow In The Dark Tour,” drumming for Pharrell and more

As the son of a pastor, Darrell Robinson’s drumming prowess started in church and took him across the world and back multiple times with the likes of Pharrell, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan and more.

Kanye West Getty Images

Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’

As the son of a pastor, Darrell Robinson’s drumming prowess started in church and took him across the world and back multiple times. He’s had to make sacrifices over the last 20 years in order to make history with the likes of Pharrell, Jill Scott, and Jazmine Sullivan.

“I said, ‘My daughter was born today,’ and [K. Michelle] was like, ‘Oh my god, she is going to be so mad at me,’” Robinson told REVOLT. “That haunts me to this day. That’s part of the game. When my oldest was born, we were at Comerica Park.”

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Robinson discusses a teenaged Jazmine Sullivan performing for Clive Davis, why Kanye West’s “Glow In The Dark Tour” is the best tour he’s ever worked on, and helping Jill Scott’s live sound. Read below.

How did you get into drumming for major artists?

Steve McKie is a great friend of mine and we went to same high school, University City High School. He graduated four years before me, but he would come back to the music room and check on a teacher. He was playing for Bilal at the time and told me, “Dude, you have a lot of talent. You’re going to be on soon.” I was like, “Alright, when?! When?!” I wanted to be on right then and there.

There was an event The Roots used to throw every year. Rich Nichols, the manager of The Roots, would throw an event called The Black Lily at the Five Spot in Philly. It was 2001, I was 16/17 years old and Steve would sneak me in. I went into this world where I saw Ahmir (Questlove) playing the drums; Jazmine Sullivan at 13 singing. Jill Scott was there, Bilal was there, Musiq [Soulchild] was there. There was all of this talent, but it was a secret because it was a small venue and no one really knew about it. It was on Tuesdays. Getting in that space was big for me. I ended up getting the Jazmine Sullivan gig as her MD (musical director) when she was 13/14 and we did a lot of shows.

What were those early shows with Jazmine like?

Her family lived in The Strawberry Mansion, which is actually a historic place, but they got to live there (laughs). We would rehearse there. She pretty much had a set together. What I would do would be to come in and reorganize the set. If she wanted to do a new song, I would come in and put some intros and outros. I put together her showcase show for Clive Davis that got her signed. This was 2001, but you couldn’t tell us we weren’t the truth (laughs). The showcase was so dope. We were coming from Philly and really just doing local gigs — D.C., Baltimore, Philly — but you couldn’t tell us we weren’t the best band in the world and she wasn’t the most talented. So, when we went to Clive Davis to perform for a bunch of record executives, we were thinking, “This is fun.” So, we just went in. They were blown away. Now, I know who Clive Davis is and all of his accomplishments. But, back then, it was just some white dude that’s listening to us (laughs). She got signed to Jive Records then and there. When we were done, Clive was like, “How long have you been together?” He was ecstatic about us. They were telling us, “He doesn’t ever do that.” We had such a burning desire, we felt like was supposed to happen.

What was your next big drumming gig?

Back to Steve McKie. One day he told me, “Jaguar Wright called me to play for her, but I’m going to say I can do it until the day before and then I’m going to send. I walked in the door and the first person I saw was Adam Blackstone. I was like, “You on this jawn? Oh it’s over.” Omar Edwards — MD for JAY-Z, Rihanna, and others — was the MD for that tour. That was my first gig where we were actually going on the road and flying out. Jaguar really treated me cold for the first couple rehearsals. Detroit was the first show and my first show on the road. We’re in an amphitheater with thousands of people and she says, “Yeah, this is my new drummer Derrick.” She didn’t even know my name. She said, “I’ll give him a solo. If he does a good job and y’all like him, I’ll keep him. If y’all boo him, I’m going to send him home.”

Wait, she said that to the crowd?

She said that to the crowd (laughs).

Questlove (left) and Darrell Robinson (right)

What went through your head at the time?

At that time, I was starting to get nervous, but I looked at O and he said “Do you.” Once he said that, I gathered my nerves, did me, and everybody went crazy. After that, we were like best friends. I thank God she did that because she let me see how it really could be with certain people. Even though we’ve cultivated great relationships with artists, some artists don’t want to do that. They just want you to do whatever you do.

You also drummed for Jill Scott at the Sugar Water Festival, which she and Erykah Badu talked about in their Verzuz. What memories do you have from that?

That was one of my first biggest tours because we were on tour with Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu, and Floetry. Queen Latifah loved us. I’m from the hood, so we know about Queen Latifah. She showed us so much love. We called her “Dana,” it was crazy. We met Rickey Minor, he was the MD for her. He used to MD for Whitney Houston, too. That was big because Floetry and Jill both had Philly bands, so we had that tour on smash. I was 21.

What was the vibe backstage like with all of those great Black women?

We were staying at the same hotel as Queen Latifah and she asked, “What y’all about to go do?” We said, “We’re about to go swimming.” She was like, “Alright, bet.” We went down to the pool and she came down to the pool with her people. She was in the pool with us. We were dunking her and everything. It was crazy. For me, it was a real highlight because I had never seen someone that famous be that cool. She would say, “What’s up y’all? Want to come to my room?” It was amazing.

Darrell Robinson (left), Jill Scott (center), Monique (right)

What was your contribution to Jill Scott’s live show?

Coming up when I was still playing with Jazmine, Jill had the hottest band. To get that gig after they did that [live album] in 2001 was big because she already had a hot show, so what are these young bulls going to do with it? What I added to the show was my feel. A lot of the beats I added and changed, they still do today. So, I did that in 2005. If you ever hear her play “Cross My Mind,” I created that in 2005. She loved everything I played over the music. She would go, “Oh, Darrell, keep playing that. I want to play it like that now.”

In rehearsals she’ll be running over vocals so the band would be quiet, but I’d be changing the beat up having fun. She would get excited and say, “I like that! Let’s do what Darrell is doing.” I won’t lie, but one of her drummers called me and said, “You’re amazing because when I first came to drum for Jill, she made me listen to how you played the stuff and mimic how you played it.” That’s a really big deal. I also co-produced “Golden,” that’s me on the drums. Jill’s one of the people I have no issues with. It’s awesome. She loves how I play everything.

What are Jill Scott’s tour hits?

The first one is “The Way.” When we were in amphitheaters, they would be at the vendors getting food, but when that song comes on, they would run to the front or their seat to stand up and go crazy when they hear that intro. Another one is “He Loves Me.” They love that. It was amazing because Jamar Jones was on keys and he would take a solo on that. Every night that was the highlight.

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Jill Scott At Sugar Water Festival

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From Jill Scott, how’d you connect with Pharrell?

I was about to say, that’s who was next. We come home from that and Pharrell comes out with his album In My Mind. We did the gig in Japan and it was supposed to just be that gig because The Roots couldn’t do it. At that time, The Roots did all of the TV stuff. Snoop was on those shows, too. It was three shows: one in Tokyo, Osaka, and I can’t remember the third. After the second show, we went back to the greenroom and Pharrell told Eric ‘Boots’ Greene and I, “I need y’all to be my drummers.” That was the beginning of what we’re doing now. We started playing with N.E.R.D. Adam Blackstone played with Pharrell, but he went back out with Jill. I said I was going to chill and stay with P. I’ve basically [been] loyal to him throughout that time.

How involved is Pharrell with putting together his live show?

He leaves that to us completely. He loves what we do so much. One of the key things I got from him is he knows what he knows and that’s what he controls. But, what he doesn’t know, he follows the person who does. His mindset is all production. Only thing he would critique is a sound.

Darrell Robinson (left) and Pharrell (right)

How has touring affected your family life?

I have a wife and three children. I have a 17-year-old, an 11-year old, and a 6-year-old. I was just missing so much. I wasn’t there when my oldest or my youngest were born. That sucks. But, at the time, my rationale was, “I’m getting this money, I’m going to need that.” That really started to get to me... I was the MD for K. Michelle and that was how I missed my daughter’s birthday.

Did you tell K. Michelle that?

I told her. I said, “My daughter was born today,” and she was like, “Oh my god, she is going to be so mad at me” (laughs). It was the first day of the tour. It was nutty and I missed my daughter’s birth over that. That haunts me to this day. That’s part of the game. When my oldest was born, we were at Comerica Park. I was with Jaguar on a show with R. Kelly and I was with Black (Adam Blackstone). But, I got to bring my kids to L.A. They got to come on stage with Pharrell. That’s crazy. When we were on the “Glow in the Dark Tour,” one of the best tours I’ve ever been on, Rihanna kidnapped my son Darryl and took him to rehearsal. That was back when she was messing with Chris Brown, so he was dancing with Chris Brown. That was crazy.

The “Glow in the Dark Tour” is considered by a lot of people to be the best hip hop tour of the first decade this century. What was special about it?

In person, the Glow in the Dark Kanye West show is the best show I’ve ever seen. It was Michael Jackson status because he knew every detail. If a light came on wrong, he would call out the light person on the mic. If someone [played] the song wrong, he would be like “Not right now.” He had a spaceship on the show that would spit him out every night. It was a three-hour show. It was right after his mom died and he would freestyle every night. Chris Brown danced with [N.E.R.D.] every night. He would come out and dance during “Spaz.” Everybody was on our bus. Rihanna, Kanye, Chris Brown, and everyone.

I got cool with Ibn Jasper, Kanye’s barber. I told him, “Damn, I need a cut.” He was like, “Alright, bet.” We did our show and then Rihanna was next on the show and that’s when he said, “Alright, I’ll cut you right now.” The only person he cut was Kanye. So, I’m in Kanye’s chair, in his room, getting a cut. Kanye had this 100-inch TV and big sound system because he’s watching every part of the show. There were all these people in his room; it was crazy. While everyone was partying and chilling, he was working out. He was working out before his show. They had a bike and treadmill working out watching Rihanna.

What was the craziest moment on that tour?

When we went to Virginia because Pharrell’s mom had a cookout at his studio. I went in the studio and it was Kanye, Pharrell, and Timbaland standing at the mixing board together. That’s when they did “Everybody Nose (Remix).” It was crazy just to see them vibing. That was exciting.

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