Travis Barker: Inside His Hip-Hop Passion Project
Travis Barker outshines Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Game and Swizz Beatz on his debut single, and he does it without saying a word. On the track "Can a Drummer Get Some," which hit iTunes on Feb. 1, the Blink-182 percussionist delivers a swing-and-smash drumming performance punctuated by snare rolls and cymbal clicks, while the rappers spit over fuzzed-out production helmed by Barker himself. The kinetic rush of the percussion makes many manufactured hip-hop beats sound passive by comparison-a reason why "Give the Drummer Some," his debut album (out March 15 on Interscope), is an impressive new hip-hop record-and not just a tribute to it.
"Hip-hop was an important part of my childhood . . . but I never thought I'd get a chance to contribute to it," says Barker, 35. "I always wanted to make beats . . . it became more and more a part of my life. Something I loved became something I could do, not only for fun, but to make an album."
There are drummers in popular music who have stepped into the spotlight after starting out behind the kit - Genesis' Phil Collins, Nirvana's Dave Grohl and the Band's Levon Helm all made the jump-yet few have tried to transition into a completely different musical style at the same time. But this is just the latest ambitious move for Barker, whose resurgence as a coveted studio player came after Blink-182, the pop-punk trio whose cumulative album sales total 13.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, released its self-titled last album in 2003. Among others, Barker has been featured on tracks by Mary J. Blige ("Stairway to Heaven," 2009), Avril Lavigne ("Runaway," 2007) and B.o.B ("Fame," 2010).
Barker had already starred in MTV's "Meet the Barkers" in 2005-06. He also pioneered a DJ/drummer live show collaboration-TRV$DJAM-with DJ AM, aka Adam Goldstein. The duo produced two mixtapes and served as house band for the 2008 MTV Music Video Awards. Tragedy struck when Barker and Goldstein were the only survivors of a South Carolina Learjet crash that claimed four lives on Sept. 19, 2008. Goldstein (who was found dead in his New York apartment a year later, apparently of an accidental overdose) and Barker both suffered severe burns. Barker's assistant, Chris Baker, died in the crash. Barker has cited the catastrophe as being a catalyst for Blink-182 reuniting in 2009 for a 41-date world tour.
A new Blink-182 record is expected later this year from Interscope, but "Give the Drummer Some" is an all-Barker showcase with vocals provided by artists like Raekwon, Swizz Beatz, and Malice and Pusha T of Clipse, as well as from his soon-to-be touring partners, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. The I Am Still Music tour, which also features Nicki Minaj and is produced by Live Nation/Haymon Ventures, kicks off March 18 in Buffalo, N.Y.
"Travis is iconic," says Shawn Gee, producer/business manager of Lil Wayne's successful 2008-09 world tour. He's also onboard for the I Am Still Music outing. "We didn't want [the lineup to be] one genre. We wanted it to be diverse . . . Travis added that different type of flavor."
Barker isn't new to hip-hop. He dabbled in it with his rap-rock project the Transplants, whose last album, 2005's "Haunted Cities," has sold 147,000 copies. During the same week that the Transplants went on hiatus in 2005 to work on other projects, Barker received a request from UGK rapper Bun B to collaborate on the song "Late Night Creepin'." Barker started receiving credits on songs like T.I.'s "You Know Who" and Game's "Dope Boys," while issuing well-received remixes to other rap singles. His guitar-laden remix of Soulja Boy's 2007 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," has sold 513,000 copies.
Barker had already finished two songs for a solo album when he boarded that plane in Columbia, S.C. "My assistant wanted this album as bad as I did," Barker recalls. "It was really unfinished. If I was to go, 'You know what, the plane crash happened and my band's back together, so forget about my solo project that I started . . .' I had to do it for Chris, for me . . . to blur certain lines, and work with all these incredible musicians I've had the opportunity to work with when I wasn't in a band."
While Blink-182 was on its 2009 reunion tour (which brought in $21.2 million, according to Billboard Boxscore), Barker spent his downtime piecing together beats on his tour bus before finishing the music at his home studio in Los Angeles. After years of appearing on other artists' songs, the drummer didn't have trouble putting together the album's eclectic guest list, which also includes indie-rap duo the Cool Kids, Wu-Tang Clan's the RZA, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Slipknot singer Corey Taylor.
An album track like "Saturday Night" featuring the Transplants, who started recording again last year, may be pegged as a future single to segue the album into alternative radio, although co-manager Paul Rosenberg (who also manages Blink-182 and Eminem) says the primary focus is crossover and urban radio. Barker produced all of "Give the Drummer Some," except for the Neptunes-helmed "Come N Get It," and plays drums on all tracks, but doesn't contribute vocals. How, then, can a casual radio listener figure out that a new single with Lil Wayne exists as part of a Travis Barker album?
"That's the challenge any time you're doing a compilation," Rosenberg says. "People don't know necessarily what the compilation is. In this case, it's going to be all about connecting the dots. Fortunately, 'Can a Drummer Get Some' has references to Travis in the verses, so that's one of the ways that people might become aware of what it is. You've also just got to go out there and get great visuals."
In addition to recruiting visual artist Brian "Pushead" Schroeder (well-known for the artwork he's done for Metallica) to create the album's skull-and-drumsticks cover image, Barker has tapped a collection of artists to design visual representations for each album track. "Travis is going to have a few art shows," says co-manager Lawrence "LV" Vavra of Deckstar Management, who also manages the Transplants. A video for "Can a Drummer Get Some" is also expected in late February.
Famous Stars and Straps, the clothing and accessory company that Barker founded in 1999, is not primarily involved in the promotion of "Give the Drummer Some." The drummer remains a hands-on president/CEO of the company, making design decisions for what he describes as "a true lifestyle brand that lives in so many areas-punk rock, skateboarding, BMX and graffiti."
"He wants our affiliation with artists to be credible because of the artist, not because Travis happened to do something with them," COO Bill Rosal says. "He doesn't want this to be a celebrity brand based solely on that celebrity's activity. He wants it to stand on its own."
While the decision for Barker's music to remain completely removed from FSAS may seem like a missed marketing opportunity, the move isn't likely to hurt the 11-year-old brand, which Vavra describes as "a multimillion-dollar enterprise" and has distribution across the United States as well as in Europe, Australia and Japan. And "Give the Drummer Some" will receive a push from appearances on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Conan" near the week of release. Barker will perform on the first date of the I Am Still Music tour three days after the album hits.
Vavra says that Barker was originally going to embark on a headlining trek for the album, but the timing and reach of the Lil Wayne tour made it a more attractive option. For Barker, who will be joined onstage by veteran DJ Mix Master Mike, the tour will build upon the innovative DJ/drumming live rapport that he originally developed with DJ AM.
"I'm going to have different guests come out for a week at a time, [like] Yelawolf, Bun B," Barker says. "So between that, and me and Mix Master Mike, it should be exciting."
Barker is now recording a new Transplants album along with working on Blink-182's first full-length in eight years. Bassist Mark Hoppus and singer/guitarist Tom DeLonge aren't included on the list of collaborators for "Give the Drummer Some." "Everyone's been waiting so long for a Blink album, it would be unfair for the first song from Blink to be on my album." And Barker hopes that the average Blink fan will pick up "Give the Drummer Some."
"If that kid doesn't like it, I'd give him a high-five and tell him not to listen to it," Barker says. "But I'm not just [in] Blink-182. I play in the Transplants. I have a new thing I do with Mix Master Mike. Blink is a piece of me that a lot of people know me for. But that's not all of me."