Ralph Vargas, also known as Da Phunky Drumma, has been defining and providing sounds in Hip Hop for decades.
This well-known percussionist and drummer generously donated one of his drums to the Universal Hip Hop Museum. Accompanying his gift is a detailed, inspiring piece written by Kevin L. Goins. It provides the origin story, and then some, of Ralph’s and Carlos Bess’s “Funky Drummer” project. To know what’s behind something in Hip Hop – its roots, its mechanics, its purpose – enhances everything we hear when the record, track, or musician plays.
Speaking for UHHM, we are very grateful and truly inspired. Thank you, Ralph. And for the feature, thank you, Kevin.
What follows is what Kevin wrote for us. To learn more about Da Phunky Drumma, and his work, go to http://daphunkydrumma.com/ — Kate
HOW & WHY THE “FUNKY DRUMMER” WAS MADE
The goal was to sell this recording as a specialty record, aimed at remixers, producers, and DJ’s. Vargas wisely chose NYC’s Chelsea-based Firehouse Recording Studios as his retailer. He identified it as the facility of choice for rappers, which he learned when he read album credits.
With studio engineer, drummer, and neighbor Carlos Bess, Vargas cut “Funky Drummer” which, in his words, “went for a dirty, raw edge.” That was music to the ears of those making Hip Hop records. When “Funky Drummer” was finally released in early 1993, Vargas knew right away it would be successful when he found out that all the album’s display copies at Firehouse were stolen! Released on the Queens-based JBR label, 2,500 LP’s were pressed, all of which sold immediately. Soon after, Vargas recorded and released a second volume of “Funky Drummer”; all 3,000 copies pressed sold quickly.
With both editions of the vinyl long since out of print, “Funky Drummer” Vols. 1 & 2 have since fetched up to $800.00 each in the collector’s market. Ralph Vargas has since become known as Da Phunky Drumma.
HOW THE “FUNKY DRUMMER” TRACKS FIT INTO HIP HOP’S STORY
The timing of “Funky Drummer”’s release could not have happened at a better moment. When both volumes were issued, the Staten Island, NY-based Wu-Tang Clan was in the process of cutting their successful debut album, “Enter the 36 Chambers”. This Hip Hop collective’s producer, the RZA, sampled Vargas’ drum beats for tracks such as “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Wu-Tang 7th Chamber”, as well as a then-unreleased version of the hit “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).” Wu-Tang members such as Raekwon (“Rainy Dayz”, “Ice Water”) and the since-departed Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Brooklyn Zoo”) incorporated Vargas’ works into their solo hits.
Others soon followed, among them Sunz of Man (“Concrete Jungle”), Q-Tip (“Believe” – featuring D’Angelo), J. Cole (“Fire Squad”, “Apparently”), Guru (“Life”, “Momentum”), Lil’ Kim (“Queen Bitch”), and Method Man (“Tical”). Over 100 tracks (at least those that have been legally documented) have featured Vargas’ live, acoustic drum beats from his “Funky Drummer” series.
Ralph Vargas’ Snare Drum donated by him to the Universal Hip Hop Museum
HOW THE DRUMS FIT INTO HIP HOP’S STORY
For the “Funky Drummer” project, Ralph Vargas used two specific snare drums on the recording. One was a 1970’s 8 Lug Gretsch snare (Model # 4153- 14”x7 ½” deep Wood Shell) with a Remo 14” Coated Power Stroke 3/W Dot Head. Another was a 1970’s Rogers Dynasonic snare -14”x5” Chrome Shell 10 Lugs with a Remo white head.
Each snare was calibrated and set to create different textures. The sounds heard on the “Funky Drummer” project ranged from rough to smooth, popping to edgy. These different “flavors” are vital for a track to come across as aggressive and in-your-face as an MC’s delivery, if not more so. Vargas was very creative in doing this: he and Carlos covered the snares with t-shirts to create that muffled sound heard on many recordings and even recorded his drumming in the hallway outside of Firehouse’s third floor studio in NYC to capture that area’s natural reverb (echo) on the tracks.
HOW THE DRUMSTICKS FIT INTO HIP HOP’S STORY
Drumsticks used on the recordings were the Regal Tip 5B brand with nylon tips. Drumsticks, in general, each have different types of tips based on their shape, all of which make distinct sounds. As far as the Regal Tip drumsticks used on “Funky sound between the high, mid and low range Drummer”, the nylon material used to make up the tip is not only the most durable, it provides a harder, brighter, and articulate sound when used.
The hits on the rim and the hi-hat are defined. The snare has a fat sound while the nylon tips also bring out more brightness when hitting the cymbals, all of which can be heard within the tracks. All of which are also the result of the oval size of the nylon tip, which creates a well-rounded and balanced sound between the high, mid, and low ranges of the drums and cymbals.