The "Phunky Drumma" Behind Countless Hip-Hop Beats


As hip-hop entered into its first golden era (say, 1986–'89), the introduction of sampling instruments like the E-Mu SP-12, or Akai's MPC60 and S900, dovetailed with—and in some cases propelled—the stylistic evolution of rap music.

With their expanded memories for sampling time, these machines made it possible for hip-hop producers to record longer snippets of audio, which made for more complex compositions. And as the demand for fresh source material for samplers and DJs grew, industrious curators like the duo of Lenny Roberts (aka Breakbeat Lenny) and Lou Flores (aka Breakbeat Lou) would release a widely influential series of compilations called Ultimate Breaks & Beats in 1986.

By pulling together tunes like ESG's "UFO," Please's "Sing a Simple Song," and "Ride Sally Ride" by Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band, UBB allowed bedroom DJs and producers everywhere to have access to the breakbeats and rare tunes that DJs had been playing at parties in the Bronx for years.

Fast-forward to the fall of 1993. Inspired by UBB and the hip-hop revolution, a veteran drummer/producer named Ralph Vargas entered into Firehouse Studios with the intention of contributing to rap music's rhythmic canon.

Paired with engineer Carlos Bess, Vargas recorded Funky Drummer Vol. 1, a drum break compilation that utilized live beats by Vargas and looped drum grooves contributed by Bess. Although only 2,500 copies of the first volume of Funky Drummer were pressed, the record's 18 drum grooves would end up being used on dozens of rap, R&B and pop songs, as well as films and television commercials.

Gravitating to the record's rough, grimey texture, beatmakers have used the drums from Funky Drummer Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 on a number of classic albums, like Outkast's ATLiens, Lil Kim's Hardcore, D'Angelo's Brown Sugar, and RZA-produced landmarks like Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, and more.

We spoke with Ralph Vargas about his early days in the music business as well as the legal and creative contradictions that arise from being one of the most sampled drummers on earth.

Snippets from Funky Drummer Vol. 1

For starters, where are you from and how did you get started in music?

I was born and raised in Harlem, around 141st Street and 8th Avenue. I started picking up a knack for banging when I was young. Banging my mother's pots and pans like all the other drummers. My dad decided to get me a drum kit because he saw that I was constantly playing. So he wanted to help me and bring that part of me out, that passion and ambition. So he got me a drum kit from a pawn shop.

Growing up in Harlem in the '60s, I'd imagine, there was just crazy music around you, right? What did you grow up hearing?

My influence was absolutely James Brown, me being a drummer. I had another passion at the same time that was collecting records. So, I loved purchasing records. James Brown was my biggest influence. Motown was the main part of my growing up too.

When you were collecting these records with James Brown and all of this. Were you knowledgeable of the different drummers that he used, like Clyde Stubblefield and all of those folks?

No, I was aware of that later on as I got older. The attraction was just the drum grooves themselves that pulled me in. I didn't know that he had several drummers until later on down the line, as I started getting older and started checking liner notes.

Once you started with the drums, I'm assuming you started playing in bands. What was the next step after you learned to play?

My first real musical situation was a local orchestra for the Harlem UAC [Urban Affairs Coalition, a community non-profit founded in 1968]. They were located on 7th Avenue on 141st Street. They had a big orchestra with a lot of horns, and they were doing stuff like early Kool & The Gang. So, I was playing with that orchestra and then from there it led to other local bands in the area.

How did you go from playing in the orchestra and these local bands to actually working in the music industry?

My first connection to the industry was through Larry Blackmon, the drummer [of Cameo]. He lived in the same building as I did. I was on the 20th floor. He lived on the 9th floor and one summer when I was about 16, he had asked me, "Ralph, what are you doing? Are you working?"

I said no and he said, "Come on out with us on tour. We just released our first 45 [1975's 'Find My Way']. I want you to come on out with us on the road. I want you to work for me and be my drum tech."

So, I did that for about three years. But before that, me and Larry would always run together, because he would do little shows in the school across the street, PS 123, and he would ask me to come there and help him and stuff. So, I looked up to him. He was somebody I admired way before that whole Cameo thing came about.

While I was out on tour with Cameo, I got a chance to experience the difference between an amateur band and a professional act, you know? I got to see the whole thing from the bottom up, so it was awesome for me. Great learning experience.

Cameo - "Find My Way"

As a drum tech, what did your job entail exactly?

Set up his drum kit, tune it. I learned the way he set it, the levels of the drums, and the height of the cymbal stands—and made sure he had sticks and everything ready. I also set up Tommy, Tommy was one of the lead singers in the group. He played a set of timbales, so I had to make sure his sticks were all together and everything and his timbales were setup. That was the extent of my job for Larry.

One night, we were in Atlanta, Georgia. I had been with the group for a good while and I knew their repertoire. Larry had missed his flight and the manager had pulled me to the side and said, "We may need you to play tonight, because Larry missed his flight. Would you be willing to do it?" I said sure. I took off my shirt and we huddled up and prayed. Just before we got ready to walk on stage, I lift one of my legs up to get behind the drum throne, and Larry came from behind the curtains.

Wow. That's wild.

Yeah. But I did rehearse with them in LA a lot of times, because Larry was producing and they would rent SIR studios in LA and I would rehearse with the band until Larry got there. I'm also on the Ugly Ego album, but I never got credit. But just doing clapping and a party scene.

After touring with Cameo, doing the drum tech thing, you get into pyrotechnics. Are you still doing music around this time?

Yeah, what happened was after being with them for about three years, I realized this was cool, but I wanted to pursue drumming for myself. I spoke to David, the manager, and I said, "David, I really want to try to get my career together. So I wanna leave." He says, "No, no, no. Don't leave. We got a lot of gigs and we need you." He begged me, and I said, "Nah Dave, I don't wanna do this no more."

That night they had a bus accident. The bus had turned over. So, it was a blessing for me. Maybe God was telling me.

Sometimes it's like that. You have this urge, like, I gotta get out of whatever situation it is. There's a reason that you have that instinct.

Yes. So, from there, I was with a group called Questarr. We did a 12-inch on Disconet records [1983's "She's Got You Going Down"]. We had a manager, his name was Rick Roberts. He brought me into the whole New Edition situation. He was managing them when they first started. And that was how I got into that situation. And that was three years with them. [Ed.: Ralph was a member of the QBand, New Edition's first backing band.]

And you were drumming with them?

I was drumming with them, yeah. The first live drummer they had.

What was that like?

It was awesome. It was an awesome experience. A lot of kids screaming all over the place.

How did playing with New Edition shape your career moving forward?

For me, it was just a gig. It was nice for a while. And then I had to move on and do other things. I got on the wedding circuit for a while—for about 16 years—to make money. And then Rick… he owned an independent record label outta Queens [JBR Records], and he brought me on as an A&R, quality control, and also as a producer.

They were putting out stuff on the label, but it didn't quite—none of the stuff really hit big. So I went to my boss and I told him, I have an idea, "I'm thinking about putting a record out, which is just drums." He said, "Why?" I said, "Well, I've been studying hip-hop and I noticed a lot of hip-hop artists—they want the drums, basically, so I want to give them the drums by themselves." So he said, "Let's do it." And that was the beginning of Funky Drummer.

Were you hip to break records that came before Funky Drummer? Ultimate Breaks & Beats and that sort of thing?

Yes. I have a whole collection here of all of that stuff. Yes, absolutely I was aware. I had been doing my research way before I did my stuff.

So, in September of 1993, you came to Firehouse Studios to start working on Funky Drummer.

Once I got the approval from Rick at the record label, and he gave me such a small budget—we both put our money in together to do this—you know, it was a half-and-half situation there. So, finally I brought the tape and I called Firehouse to make an appointment to record.

Once they gave me a date, I got there and I met Carlos Bess—he was the engineer and he was very excited when he heard what I wanted to do, because he was also a drummer too. He said, "Wow. I was thinking about doing something just like this, man."

So, as time went on he asked me could he be involved? At some point I said OK and he was bringing a lot of used loops—loops that had been out there already—and I said, "I really don't wanna do that. I want to do some live stuff, some new stuff. Fresh." Well, I gave in, and then it was a little of both if you listen to the record.

Yeah, it's a mixture.

And Carlos was a blessing too because of his connection to hip-hop. I came in as a drummer. I didn't come in to be a hip-hop drummer or anything like that. I was just a musician—a drummer—and I had an idea. Never thought in a million years it would take off, John. Never. Never.

Didn't even know what it would be.

Yeah. I tell people it was the right time, and a lot of it was luck… A lot of it was luck, for sure.

With some of the beats that you're playing, were you just improvising or were you trying to recreate grooves from other records?

Yeah, that's what I had wrote on my record, that we was gonna revisit and recreate what was already out there, you know? It was just my particular version of it, but it is just copying what already existed out there. I don't take no credit for that at all. I wasn't the originator of a lot of those beats, so they've always existed. It's just a different texture of it now.

I'm curious about the live stuff that you recorded for Funky Drummer. What was your kit set up like? Could you break that down?

Yeah, I had brought in a bass drum, a snare. I remember talking with Carlos when he was mic'ing it up. He didn't really mix it like the way I was used having my drums mixed, because I had been in the studio many times, and they would take hours and hours, get a nice kick sound, a nice snare sound, overheads, cymbals. They sort of mashed it up all together. It was a crappy sound, but I went with it. But they loved it. The crappy sound.

That's the thing that people liked about it, man. The texture.

Yeah. That was the sound. The thinness of it. The rawness of it. Come to find out that was what attracted so many people. So I give that credit to Carlos.

What was the mixing process like for Funky Drummer? How long did it take?

It was very quick. Carlos was good. He knew what he was doing. I left it up to him once we recorded it. He had pretty much every song on one track. So, I wasn't used to that. I was used to having separation. Kick on one, snare on one, hi-hat on one… but he mashed it all up together, but it worked. It worked.

Sprite's 1994 "Obey Your Thirst" commercial featuring a Funky Drummer break.

The drums from Funky Drummer ended up on a lot of those Wu-Tang records. When did you, when did you start noticing that people were using the drums from your record?

To be honest, John, I never knew because, first of all, let me go back to when the Sprite commercial came out. [Ed.: Sprite's 1994 "Obey Your Thirst" campaign featured A Tribe Called Quest and a beat that sampled "S.C.R." from Funky Drummer Vol. 1.]

I had been seeing the commercial when it came out and I kept saying it sounds familiar. Had no knowledge (that it was a sample from Funky Drummer Vol. 1). It wasn't until Carlos called me and he said, "Hey Ralph, congratulations." I said, "For what?" He said, "Your beat is being used for this Sprite." I said, "That's why there was an attraction there. I couldn't figure it out." And then from there, it took off—everybody and their mother started using it. Left and right, man.

I had the opportunity to meet RZA after one of my drum sessions. I was leaving the studio. He was coming in. Carlos introduced me to him. I remember him coming in with his sequencer keyboard. (He was working on the 36 Chambers at that time.) He brought it into the control room. And we met and we went through the cordials and everything. And that was the extent of it.

But a lot of those beats wound up being on the album because of Carlos. Carlos gave them the beats without my knowledge and it would've been cool. But he hadn't communicated with me, and that was the beginning of our relationship going sour.

Because I says, "We can be making money off of this.Why are you just giving it away?" He just wanted it out there in the world. Everybody was grabbing it. It got everybody's attention. Everybody wanted to know where these beats were coming from. They started doing research. They started going online.

Then I started seeing stories that wasn't true about the whole situation, but I never commented on it. I never threw anybody underneath the bus. I just left it alone. My wife told me, "You need to get out there and you need to put your face out there, and you need to let people know that's you."

Wu-Tang's "Bring Da Ruckus" samples "CB#2" from Funky Drummer Vol. 1.

How has that felt for you? A lot of these samples people haven't cleared. People have sampled 'em and used them, selling all these records, and they haven't cleared a lot of this stuff.

It's sad, John. It's sad. It's really sad because I'm on an independent label. Nobody respects that. They know labels come and go, they disappear. So they grab it and they go, excuse the expression, "F-him—let him come after me if he wants."

See, they can't do that if it's on a major label, because you gotta get clearance.

The majors have resources for legal action. I was gonna ask you if you have taken any legal action against certain artists.

It is so expensive. I went after Pfizer because they were using my stuff in commercials.

Pfizer? Wow.

Pfizer Pharmaceutical—and it took a lot of my money. It was a three party suit. They bailed out. They said, We don't want no part of this, because the advertisement agency was responsible for putting the music together. So here's a few dollars and we outta here. That's what they did with me.

There was a CD that was put out, a production CD put out for DJs, engineers, remixers. And the guy, I forget his name, it's a white dude. He sampled at least 12 of my tracks from Funky Drummer, you see. And he and everybody doing commercials was sampling my drums—it got crazy. It got really crazy.

BT? The Techno guy? [Ed.: In 2002, the producer BT and EastWest released Breakz From The NuSkool, a sample CD that heavily sampled Vargas and Bess' Funky Drummer.]

Yeah. He won the case. He had a better lawyer. So, I lost that case and it really discouraged me. And I didn't wanna really go after anyone after that, because we were just going after the artist.

So, the only people that I got paid for since my sampling came out was RZA. Because RZA called me personally and wanted to try to settle. And I told him, I says, "Listen, speak to my administrator and y'all work it out." And they worked it out. And it was Bruno [Mars]. That was another out-of-court settlement.

How are things for you now? Like you've gone through all of this stuff, people using your music, lawsuits. Are you working on any new music or what's, what's the deal now?

Yeah, people call me and they ask me if I'm producing. I say no, I'm just playing. I'm playing with a Van Morrison tribute band. I'm just playing music. Yeah. I'm just playing music. That's all I'm doing. I'm going on with my music life.

Learn more about Ralph Vargas, his current work, and legacy at

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