Finger drumming is an under-appreciated art. Any hip-hop head can plug notes into a beat machine. But it takes a true master to do it live — and do it well.
Jeff Logan, aka Jel, the 37-year-old co-founder of L.A.-based hip-hop label Anticon, has been tap-tap-tapping out beats in real time for over 20 years. He started out in the mid-'90s, spending a year and a half saving up to buy an E-mu SP-1200, a classic sampler first issued in 1987 that was adopted by everyone from RZA to Ultramagnetic MCs throughout the late '80s and '90s.
In the years since, he's honed his sound to the point where he's essentially become a Mr. Miyagi of the beat machine, balancing technical breaks with beautiful textures and lots of soul.
“It is second nature, really,” he says. “I haven’t really practiced for a show in the past year or two. I just get up there.”
Jel is probably best known for his work with Anticon-affiliated groups like Subtle, 13 & God and Themselves, his duo with motor-mouthed rapper Doseone. But he’s also a prolific solo artist, and this week he’s celebrating the release of Greenball 5, the latest in a series of beat tapes he’s been putting out since 2002. The album — available for download on Bandcamp — offers up two original tracks, plus the instrumentals for remixes of artists as diverse as Brooklyn pop bruisers Sleigh Bells and Bay Area hip-hop group Latyrx.
For a remix of “Blurry Up the Lines” by choral rock group The Polyphonic Spree, Jel created his own robotic beat, replete with buzzing sci-fi movie synths. “I just chopped up all of his vocals and relayed them in a different rhythm, kind of half-timed everything,” he says.
“I usually just do whatever I want, unless someone has a specific thing in mind that they ask me to do,” he adds, explaining his remixing approach. “I just try to make it sound completely different from the original.”
Jel lives in El Cerrito, outside San Francisco, but Anticon is headquartered in downtown L.A. The collective came together in 1998 and has gone through major iterations over the years. But even with its niche specialty in avant-garde rap and experimental electronic music, it’s weathered the industry upheavals of recent years well. The 2010s have been particularly fruitful, with the label helping build the legend of Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis alter ego and propelling the career of local beatmaker Baths.
Anticon’s enduring success probably has something to do with the fact that it has always had a strong online presence, Jel says. He remembers spending hours on hip-hop message boards back in the day, connecting with other artists and partaking in endless shit talk while working a dead-end desk job at the Charles Schwab offices in San Francisco.
“I think we were ahead of the game in a way — online, pushing our shit. [That’s] the reason how most people found us, if it wasn’t through a tape trade or something,” he says.
After work, he’d spend hours honing his finger-drumming skills. He devoted himself to the craft while he was in college in Chicago, after getting some sobering advice from a girl he was dating. “I was playing a bunch of beats that I was making for these rappers, and she was like, ‘All of this sounds good but your drums all sound the same,’” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
With his friend Mr. Dibbs, a Cincinnati hip-hop producer who led the 1200 Hobos turntablist crew, Jel would dig up breaks and samples and archive his finds, making lists and trading loops. The buttons on his SP-1200 started flying off from all his playing, so he moved to the Akai MPC, and it wasn't long before he was driving his roommate crazy with endless hours of tapping on the MPC's rubber pads.
“I’d be doing some weird breathing thing too, just humming shit when I was in headphones working on stuff,” he says. “He would be upstairs, like, ‘Come on, man! You’re fucking clicking and humming down there!’”
Today, the great sensei says it’s hard to explain his technique; he’s been doing it so long that it just comes to him. But for pupils who aspire to be finger-drummers themselves, he speaks highly of using a machine over software and simulators, and also encourages changing up styles if you sound like somebody else — which is all-too-common in this age of ubiquitous DJing and beat-smithery.
As for his final lesson, it's simple: “You gotta love your beats."
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Jel celebrates the release of Greenball 5 with AWOL ONE, Giovanni Marks and Omid Walizadeh at The Satellite on Thursday, March 19. More info.