If you’d like your children to score a Grammy nomination, one surefire way would be to drop them off early in their lives with Ronald Bruner and his wife Pam. At their home in the now world-famous city of Compton, Calif., the duo managed to raise not one, not two, but three Grammy-nominated children.
Tonight, two of his sons are up for Grammys: bassist Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner), 30, not only received a nod for his single “These Walls” (for best rap/sung collaboration), but he contributed extensively to Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly, which is up for a whopping 11 awards, including album of the year. His keyboardist brother — Jameel “Kintaro” Bruner, 20 — is a member of Odd Future extended family members The Internet, whose Ego Death is up for best contemporary R&B album honors. The two follow in the sizable footsteps of their older brother Ronald Jr., 32, a drum virtuoso who won a statuette in 2011 for best contemporary jazz album with the Stanley Clarke Band.
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So, what’s he feeding his trophy-magnet children? “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” joked 59-year-old Ronald Sr., a drummer.
“When they were infants they all had a propensity for music,” he said. “My wife [a flautist] said that when she was carrying Ronald Jr., he would pound to the beat in her stomach whenever music came on. I have a picture of him in Pampers — he has my sticks and we’re playing air-drums together. In another picture he’s sitting on a little box and has a tom-tom in front of him and a little cymbal. And Stephen, who is 2 years younger, is sitting at a little toy piano in his Pampers.”
Ronald Sr. is a veteran musician who played drums with the Temptations, Gladys Knight, the Supremes and jazzer Gary Bartz. He also had his own band, Chameleon, a “disco fusion” group who in 1979 dropped an album on Elektra Records that was produced by longtime James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley. Soon after, however, the percussion patriarch gave it all up — including a lifestyle that he said made him a “cokehead” — after he had a religious epiphany that led him to a more modest life with his family. The sons would often see their parents performing at their church, the Crenshaw Christian Center. “I was never one of those parents who was like, ‘You’re gonna follow in my footsteps you’re gonna do it my way,'” Ron Sr. said. “I always trained my kids to be free thinkers.”
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Over the years, that meant lessons at the Yamaha Music School, Guitar Center drum-off competitions for Ronald Jr. (he was nearly a national champion), high school award ceremonies with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, hooking up with fellow local musicians like Kamasi Washington (whose father was in a church band with Ron Sr.) and, later, getting involved in local scenes. These included Miles Mosley’s West Coast Get Down at the Piano Bar (which later became Kamasi’s The Next Stop and the Epic) and Flying Lotus’ Low End Theory nights (Thundercat’s excellent Them Changes EP came out on FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label last year). So musically omnivorous are the Bruners that two of the sons had long stints playing with SoCal punk vets Suicidal Tendencies — Ronald on drums for 4 years and Stephen for 10.
While Ronald Jr. didn’t get to bring a guest to the Grammys when the Stanley Clake Band won in 2011, this year’s ceremony will be a family affair. Thundercat is giving his ticket to his mother, while Ronald Sr. is going with Jameel.
“Of course I’m humbled, of course I’m proud,” Ronald Sr. said. “But it’s like looking at a phenomenon. I don’t take credit as far as being somebody that actually planned it or mapped it out for my kids. It was just, ‘Let’s just enjoy music and be good.’ I took them to their gigs, we talked about it, but they’ve been very instrumental in re-educating me.”
“The other side of it,” he added, “is now I’m famous! Not for being a musician, but for being their dad.”