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Music

Omar Hakim: The drummer who defined the sound of David Bowie's 'Let's Dance'

@SamWKemp

There are few session drummers alive today that have had quite the same impact on popular music as Omar Hakim. He was just one of the many talented drummers who worked the scene in the 1980s. Dave Weckl, Trilok Gurtu, Dennis Chambers: America was heaving with percussive talent. But none of them could rival Hakim for dexterity, professionalism, and good old fashioned rhythm. He was, to put it simply, top dog. After working on David Bowie’s 1983 track ‘Let’s Dance’, his blend of jazz, funk and disco came to define the sound of the 1980s.

Omar Hakim was born in one of the most musically rich spots in New York: Jamaica, Queens. For an aspiring jazz drummer, it was the place to be, a melting pot of musical styles with a long history of housing pioneering musicians. John Coltrane lived in Jamaica, Queens – as did James Brown, who owned a house in the neighbourhood. Hakim’s parents were involved in the New York music scene as well. His father, Hasaan Hakim, was a well-regarded trombonist who was close friends with Coltrane, meaning that, as a boy, Hakim had the opportunity to visit Coltrane’s home on a number of occasions.

At the age of five, Hakim’s uncle bought him a toy drum set as a Christmas present, which, when his father noticed his son’s natural talent, was quickly replaced by a real kit. Five years after that, Hakim was playing drums in his dad’s band, the name of which was altered to include the tagline: ‘featuring Omar the ten-year-old drum sensation’. It was during this period that Hakim met Nile Rodgers for the first time. The pair promptly started their own band and became firm friends. But Nile also had another group with an ambitious young bassist called Barnard Edwards, which was doing pretty well by all accounts. Barnard asked Hakim to join him and Nile for a show in Paris, but, not wanting to be a high school dropout, he turned down the offer. The next time Hakim heard Rogers and Edwards’ group, it was on the radio. What he was hearing was, of course, Chic.

Years later, Hakim’s friendship with Nile Rogers gave him a second wind. By this time, he had established himself as one of the best session drummers on the scene, playing for the likes of Carly Simon and Weather Report. Then came the call that changed everything: “The Bowie connection came from Nile,” Hakim told Native Instruments. “David had enlisted him to produce that record. The idea was to use the sheet rhythm section initially to record his tracks, but something was going on with Tony Thompson and Barnard Edwards and they weren’t able – for whatever reason – to make those early sessions. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember being very excited because I love David Bowie. When I get to the Power Station in New York City, the first song that we recorded was ‘Lets Dance’: that’s how the session started.”

Bowie’s 1983 disco hit saw the starcraft a new sound that his listeners back in the days of Ziggy Stardust could scarcely have wrapped their heads around. “I remember the drum sound being very unusual,” Hakim continued. “The engineer – a guy named bob Claremountain – had this Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum that was part of the studio stock. Back then studios had their own drumset stock, and he had taped some small contact mics to the rims, you know. He was a doctor, and he was cooking something up. He was a genius. The drum pattern in ‘Let’s Dance’ was really an improv that we organised. You know typically, with pop records, the drum beats are like two-bar patterns, four-bar patterns. ‘Let’s Dance’ was an eight-bar pattern. It’s very subtle, but if you go back and you listen to the two phrases you’ll hear that it’s really an eight-bar phrase, you know. And I think that that gave it an interesting foundation”.

Following the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ the phone didn’t stop ringing, and, soon, Hakim was one of the most sought-after session musicians working in America. Over the years, he has played for the likes of Madonna, Sting, Dire Straights, and Journey – all while recording his own jazz-fusion albums. He truly is a force of nature.

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