Chad Smith


Last August, more than 5,000 drummers from across the country signed up to compete in Guitar Center’s 25th annual Drum-Off competition. Among them was four-time competitor from Lake Elsinore, Calif., and this year’s winner, Dawud Aasiya-Bey—also known by his stage name, D-M.I.L.E. Aasiya-Bey first signed up for Guitar Center’s Drum-Off in 1999—15 years later, he took home the crown, joining the elite list of Drum-Off champions who have gone on to play for such artists as Prince, Beyoncé and JAY Z.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” says Aasiya-Bey. “It was something I mentally prepared for, but to [finally win] was pretty unbelievable.” As a Drum-Off finalist—a position he’s been in twice before—Aasiya-Bey had five minutes to show off his skills, win over the audience, and most importantly, impress the panel of judges that included such respected musicians as Cora Coleman-Dunham, Dave Elitch, Peter Erskine, Keith Harris, Eric Hernandez, Chris Johnson, Thomas Lang, Trevor Lawrence Jr., Aaron Spears, Nisan Stewart, John Tempesta, Brooks Wackerman and Adrian Young. “I wanted to come up with something that would be memorable, [something that] people would want to listen to pretty much past any time period. And I wanted to try to at least touch on a few different styles and genres, and I wanted just to do it in a musical song format that would make people feel good about what’s being played on the kit … I wanted it to just flow like water.”

In many situations, both live and in the studio, it’s safe to say that drummers especially are often told “less is more.” Guitar Center’s Drum-Off is a unique opportunity for those drummers to shine. According to Aasiya-Bey, that’s a good thing. “The importance of Drum-Off is to show your versatility, and show that you can perform under pressure and [in a] different type of environment,” he says. “It’s just a test of your overall musicianship—it’s everything, you know, it’s there for you to show the total package, and [to show that] you can provide as an artist, along with being a musician … and it’s also to show that you can work with artists and you can survive in [the] music industry and that you have a passion to make a difference with your craft.”

In a world saturated with reality TV and competition television shows, Aasiya-Bey affirms that Drum-Off has a special quality that keeps its participants, judges and audience engaged. “Any drummer can do it. And there’s so many different drummers … there’s a lot more drummers than there are players of other instruments … [and Drum-Off] creates an opportunity to where, if you really, really focus correctly, you can benefit from it. So that’s the good thing about it.”

And just as today’s music seems to include more and more electronic elements, Drum-Off finalists have followed suit, expanding their performances to include a plethora of percussion sounds. “At least since JP (Bouvet, previous Drum-Off winner) won, so the last few years, it’s been based on, I think, not just [electronics] but musicality with electronics … that’s kind of also becoming prominent nowadays,” says Aasiya-Bey. “There’s some really good music with an electrical, technical feel … there’s really good stuff out there … that’s the reason why it’s so relevant, the Drum-Off, because they’re always doing something different to make it better every single year. It just gets crazier.”

After being crowned champion of Guitar Center’s 25th annual Drum-Off, one might reasonably assume that things are about to change for Aasiya-Bey—though he himself has a more humble opinion. “The only thing that’s changed is that my grind is gonna get [a lot] harder,” he laughs. “I have to grind harder. I have to work harder—that’s the change right there. The adjustment is just knowing that [I’m going to get] a lot less sleep, and that since I’m adding things to my plate, along with what I’m obligated to do and also with what I want to do … just be prepared to be working really hard.” That hard work may not be too hard for Aasiya-Bey, however, as his desire to play music has always come from a place of pure passion. “[Music] blesses my soul because it quells everything, you know? No matter what you’re going through. And if you’re a musician, and you have the power to create, then the possibilities are endless.”

For a quarter century, the Drum-Off has celebrated the country’s best, undiscovered drummers, growing to become one of the most loved events in the drumming community. Music icons Travis Barker, Gregg Bissonette, Gorden Campbell, Gerald Heyward and Nate Morton made appearances on the Grand Finals red carpet, and as part of the 25th anniversary, Guitar Center honored Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Average White Band) with an induction into the legendary Guitar Center RockWalk.

A longtime supporter of the Guitar Center Drum-Off, Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers was in attendance for the Grand Finals, not only to see Aasiya-Bey’s winning performance, but to offer a special live performance himself, along with Chris Dave (Chris Dave and the Drumhedz), Ray Luzier (Korn), Steve Ferrone and Questlove (The Roots).
“The feeling of playing music, for me—and it has always been from the very beginning—[is] a feeling of freedom,” says Smith. “Of really being free, and something that you can do when you’re just in the moment. I love music so much, I’m so passionate about music and drumming, I have been since I was very little … the feeling of just having a passion that you love, and you’re so committed and dedicated to.” He continues, “There’s nothing better, man … being able to follow your passion that you found, for me, that I found early on in life … I’m just really lucky that I did, and I just followed it, and I love it, and I loved it then, and I love it now, and my feeling and fire for music has not dimmed in any way, in any little bit. In fact, it’s gotten even more and more, and I’m just really one lucky guy to be able to do what I love to do.”

Undoubtedly, it’s that feeling of love and adoration that Smith has for the art of music that keeps him coming back to Drum-Off year after year. It may be how he earns a living, but for Smith—just as for Aasiya-Bey—music is, above all things, fun. “Playing music has never really been serious for me,” Smith laughs. “It’s play, the play part of music … I just love playing in bands … it’s always been important to be in bands and play with other musicians … I think the human interaction is really important, and I love that part of it. It helps [to] be creative with other people, and bounce ideas off of other people—it’s just so much fun, man, it’s just like being on a team, or a gang, or your identity … [I’ve] been in bands since I was 11 years old. And I’m 96.”

An undeniably seasoned musician—though Smith may be stretching the truth on his age a bit—he still enjoys discovering new talent—something that the Guitar Center Drum-Off furthers each year. “There’s always new, great musicians, and new bands and new artists, and you just have to look for them,” says Smith. “There’s a lot out there, and it sometimes may be difficult to weed through what’s good and what’s not, but you just have to trust your instincts and be open to anything—something new and exciting, and if your gut tells you that feels good to you, then go for it … listen to it, and find out other things about it, and find out other people that influenced them, and go back, go forward … I’m fortunate to get to play with a lot of really great musicians, and they’re very inspiring to me, you know? It’s great to be a professional musician.” He laughs, “I finally realized, I felt like two years ago, kinda halfway through our last tour, I’m like, ‘I’m 50 years old. I guess I am a professional musician. This is what I do.’ I can’t go start working at McDonald’s now or something.”

A career in music—especially one as extensive as Smith’s—is no easy task. It’s an industry that is, according to Smith, intimidating enough, without excessive ego or attitude. The encouraging, inclusive and stripped-down nature of Drum-Off is something Smith finds engaging. “I’ve done some drum clinics over the years … I like doing them because it’s a chance to be able to see a guy that you, hopefully you like, if you’re there, and see him up close—not in a big concert venue … and be able to talk to him. And ask him questions, and say, ‘What’s it like?’ Whatever it is you wanna ask about—equipment, or the band, or how did you start doing it, or any of those sort of things. Those are nice opportunities, and Guitar Center does promote that … you should be able to make [people] feel comfortable [and say] ‘Hey, I’m a drummer like you.’” He adds, “If I can get somebody to go, ‘Wow, he really likes playing the drums. Chad really likes to have fun,’ and maybe pick up one thing I did—or, the best thing would be if they decided, ‘I really want to play the drums … I wanna start a band.’ That would be awesome.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter, Briand Guzman, Hadas

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