It's 4:30 in the afternoon at Sunset and Bronson Studios in Hollywood, and a packed audience grooving to Daft Punk's “Get Lucky.” This isn't a Daft Punk performance however, and really it's not a concert at all. It's a Monday afternoon taping of the Arsenio Hall Show. (And yes, the audience still does the “whoo whoo whoo” dog pound chant arm thing when Hall takes the stage.)
The song is being performed by The Posse, Hall's house band. This five person group is helmed by Robin DiMaggio, a drummer and L.A. music industry veteran of an early '90s L.A. band called Sexual Chocolate and the White Cream. (He was the only Caucasian member of the group, and thus the white cream.)
The Posse also includes bassist Alex Al, also a former member of Sexual Chocolate and the White Cream. They played clubs where Prince would play, and Vanilla Ice would come sit in with them, DiMaggio says. Arsenio was a fan and friend. (In fact, he and Eddie Murphy borrowed the band's name and used it in their 1988 film Coming to America). When Hall came back to late night TV last September, he asked DiMaggio to put the band back together.
While everyone's always talking about The Roots and their Jimmy Fallon gig (though, screw all of them for taking The Tonight Show back to New York), late night talk show band isn't the most glamorous gig in the world. Sure, there are lights, cameras and the occasional movie star, but it's a very technical job that requires The Posse to constantly be on their toes. DiMaggio says the group has 90 songs in their back pocket. They get 30 minutes a day to rehearse the almost 20 cues the show requires.
Tonight the group's main task is to warm up the audience and to provide the intro music for the guests, which today are The Butler director Lee Daniels and actress Naomie Harris. DiMaggio bases each day's song selection on the vibe he gets from the audience and the tone he wants to set for each guest – a Somalian actor gets east African music, a gaggle of reality TV stars doing a pole dancing demonstration gets “hardcore R&B.”
When Hall cuts to a commercial, the group goes zero to 60 on a funked-out version of Drake's “Just Hold On, We're Going Home”, which gets women in the audience on their feet and dancing. The group later plays “Return of the Mac” (which inspires an audience singalong) and then Prince's “Irresistible Bitch.” While TV viewers only hear a few seconds of these segue songs, the band plays on during the break, giving the audience a mini-concert while everyone at home watches commercials. The group looks like they're having a good time.
In a way, they're a cover band, but what Rickey Minor at Jay Leno's show, Paul Schaffer at Letterman, and, yes, The Roots, reveal, is that the job requires both top notch musicianship and the ability to play almost anything at the drop of a hat.
[DiMaggio has been playing drums since he was a kid. His father was conductor of the National Orchestra of Paris and DiMaggio's family moved from France to L.A. when he was 12. He got his first touring gig when he was 16 and has since played in the backing bands of David Bowie, Dianna Ross and Paul Simon. “If you could get into his clique,” DiMaggio says of Simon, “you were set for any other band, because his brand of music goes from American folk to African to Brazilian to blues to Americana rock and roll.” He's also worked with Dr. Dre, Jonny Cash and Sean Lennon. The rest of The Posse are also industry vets – Alex Al toured with Michael Jackson for ten years, and DiMaggio nabbed keyboardist Victoria Theodore from Steve Wonder's band.
While someone else is responsible for booking the show's musical guests, The Posse often back up these artists, as Hall has a rule that no musical guests can use backing tracks. The group has played with Nas, DJ Quik, Billy Ray Cyrus, Flo Rida and others.
DiMaggio has also been the Music Director for the United Nations since 2009, after being offered the job by former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. This position involves organizing music for galas and general assemblies and also grants DiMaggio diplomatic immunity – meaning that he can travel without a visa and easily gets out of speeding tickets. It also allows him to hang out with presidents and foreign dignitaries He speaks four languages, has an arm full of tattoos, is distantly related to Joe DiMaggio and begins a sentence with “the Dalai Lama once told me… ” Now 42, in his free time he still checks out upcoming local music, goes to the movies and hangs out with his son at his house in Agoura Hills.
The members of The Posse might not be marquee names, but they're psyched for the steady gig, playing to enthusiastic audiences five times a week.
Hall, for his part, says he is “blessed” to have the Posse and calls DiMaggio “one of the baddest drummers in all the land.”
The Arsenio Hall Show airs weeknights at 11pm on KTLA.