Beatmaker Leonard Ware's living room is filled with about 100 of his favorite records snuggled into bookshelves and crates: Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, The Crusaders' Street Life, and Hugh Masekela's I Am Not Afraid are a few of his favorites in rotation.
"I keep the ones I play the most up here, but there's a ton more downstairs in boxes and crates everywhere," he says. A rectangular table near the couch harbors Ware's musical weapons of choice: a Pioneer turntable and mixer, an Akai drum machine, and an Apple laptop. Ware's girlfriend, Del, is on the other side of two white French doors in the kitchen, preparing a vegan lunch. For a person who spends many of his nights moving crowds at clubs or manufacturing sounds in his studio, the vibe of Ware's home is beautifully subdued.
Ware, who goes by the moniker Drummer B, has been steadily pushing his sound forward. Last year he signed with electronic music pioneer Derrick May's Transmat label. So far the relationship has produced 2018's The Diamond Project EP, a collection of techno- and hip-hop-fused tracks produced entirely by Ware; a second EP is due later this year. "The Diamond Project helped put me on the worldwide map," Ware says.
Before his musical accession, Ware was a neighborhood kid at Edison Elementary school on Detroit's west side, playing trumpet and drums in band. By 12, he grew tired of band and began to aggressively pursue making hip-hop beats.
"There was this guy named Kenny Mac in the neighborhood who had an MPC," he says. "I would go over there once a week and just experiment, just making the beats and putting them on the tapes and thinking of new ideas."
Ware continued to make beats and rap during his four years at Northern High School. After graduation he spent a year at Specs Howard School of Media Arts, a short internship with WJLB, and ultimately began working with his cousin 1st Born at Iron Fist Records, the hip-hop label started by D-12 rapper Big Proof, where he would DJ for acts like Purple G.A.N.G., Woof Pac, and Supa Emcee.
Iron Fist provided Ware with plenty of production opportunities, and he spent almost every second of his spare time in the studio perfecting techniques, learning equipment, and exploring different sounds, becoming a self-taught studio engineer in the process. Proof took notice, and signed him to the label. Ware looked forward to what seemed a bright future with Iron Fist.
Everything changed on April 11, 2006, when Proof was murdered following an argument at the C.C.C. nightclub on the east side. To keep money flowing while Proof's affairs were sorted out, the remaining members of the Iron Fist team started hosting weekly open mics at Alvin's, where Ware served as the resident DJ. He also picked up DJ gigs at venues like the Bullfrog in Redford, along with working at Foot Locker during the day. All the while he continued to circulate his beat tapes through his DJ gigs, and within a year his reputation as a producer had grown tremendously, producing Supa Emcee's project The Hood Hero and an as-yet-unreleased album called Detwah with the late Slum Village member Baatin.
He says he's working with the estate of the late Slum Village producer J Dilla to release the project. "Hopefully I can get somebody else if that doesn't work out, but I will put it out if I have to," Ware says. "It's my responsibility."
A year after Proof's death, Ware quit his job at Foot Locker, moved to the Calumet apartments on Third Street in Detroit, and turned it into a home studio. He paid his bills by renting the studio to others for recording sessions, which is when he befriended fellow beatmaker Nick Speed.
"Speed was living in Cass Corridor," he says. "We basically were just listening to each other's beats. It's the best thing for a producer to have somebody to spar with. He had just started working with Danny Brown." That's when Ware started a working relationship with Brown and his Bruiser Brigade, recording many of Danny Brown's main features; producing Dopehead's first album, Plaid Palm Trees; and serving as the Bruisers' DJ.
In 2010 Ware released his first critically acclaimed project, Me and Marvin — 11 instrumentals inspired by Marvin Gaye songs, integrated with hip-hop and house accents. Just as Ware seemed on the verge of breaking out, tragedy struck again when Ware's mother suffered a stroke in 2014. Ware decided to take year off from music to take care of her, and then took an additional year off to grieve after she passed away in 2016.
As Ware was climbing out of the dejection of his mother's passing, he took a job working in the shipping department at the fine art print shop 1XRun. "It got me heavily into the art scene," he says. "Like the art scene and the music scene are full of some of the same people."
Ware began to experiment in fusing '90s ghetto-tech, Detroit boom-bap, and traditional techno music. He says he wanted to create a Detroit sound that was in a different lane than J Dilla's Donuts, but well beyond standard breakbeats, a sound he dubbed "Space Bounce." In 2016 he released his EP People Mover, and in 2017 released a 7-track record called Space Bounce on Soul Touch Recordings.
That same year, a chance meeting with Derrick May altered his course once again. Ware was spinning at a 1xRun party during its Murals in the Market festival, when he met May. "He came and told me he loved what I was doing," Ware says. "The next day I saw his truck bending the corner and I gave him one of my People Mover CDs."
May loved what he heard, worked out a deal, and things have been moving forward since. "They're still trying to figure out the best way to market me in Europe," Ware says. "You know, it's not all the way hip-hop, but it's not all the way tech either." Ware says he plans to tour there soon.
In the meantime, Ware released Valley of Kings: Detroit to Cairo on Hizz Records in April. The album is accurately titled and even more sonically ambitious than his previous three releases, featuring Ware's "Space Bounce" vibe over traditional African and Middle Eastern drums and bass.
"I just want to make music," Ware says. "I'm still making hip-hop records, R&B, or whatever. But my sound is 'Space Bounce,' and it's here to stay."
Drummer B will perform at an official Movement afterparty with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May (as Hi Tek Soul Concept) with Patrick Topping and DJ Tribal Touch on Sunday, May 26 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com. Doors at 11 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Ages 21+.
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