Daft Punk could do no wrong during 2013. Critics raved for Random Access Memories, the French electronica duo's fourth album, which would end up winning Album of The Year at the 2014 Grammy Awards. Millions downloaded "Get Lucky," the album's first single, and millions more watched the popular video that accompanied it.
Pharrell Williams, guest vocalist for two tracks on the album, steals the spotlight during the clip, whirling and crooning in a shimmering sport coat. His backing band is equally impressive: Legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers mans the guitar while Daft Punk's robotic figureheads, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, play translucent bass and drums.
Rodgers doesn't lack respect from the music industry—his production credits speak for themselves—but "Get Lucky" marked a significant boost to his pop culture status, as younger generations less familiar with Chic's disco-era hits, and with little concern for who produced Madonna's Like A Virgin, could suddenly identify the dreadlocked axeman as the guy playing the guitar on one of 2013's hottest singles. Few wondered who played the bass line and percussion on the same song.
It wasn't Bangalter or de Homem-Christo.
Nathan East and Omar Hakim have worked behind the scenes for years and have little name recognition (among casual listeners at least) to show for it. Such is the life for a session musician. The pair—East on bass and Hakim on drums—have played on hits before. If music were a conspiracy theorist's game, operatives like East and Hakim would be the Illuminati: Seemingly everywhere, behind everything, and the general populace will never have a clue.
Hakim told Music Times that a successful session musician takes solace in his own work rather than the warm glow of public affection.
"As a sideman, you know what your contribution is," he says. "It's easier today for you to go online and find out who's playing the music on every album, but it's cool when the artist gives a shout out to the guys on the album."
Whatever Hakim lacks in Facebook "likes," he makes up for it with the respect he receives from the big names that do stir public interest.
Producers for Kate Bush's 22-show "Before The Dawn" residency at London's Hammersmith Apollo mark Hakim's latest coup. The August dates mark the vocalist's first headlining performances in more than 35 years and tickets sold out within 15 minutes. Needless to say, promoters plan on perfection. Hakim had never met the reclusive English musician and expressed surprise that he received a phone call requesting his services.
"Surprising phone calls" repeats itself as a theme when listening to the percussionist describe how he ended up performing with some of the biggest names in music history. He shared his experiences playing alongside some of these names—David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Miles Davis to name a few—with Music Times, as well as the experience of changing suits and releasing his own album, 2014's We Are One.
Hakim might have been surprised every time a big name reached out, but read his resumé and you won't be shocked at all.
"Get Lucky" with DAFT PUNK (2013)
Hakim found the phone call from Daft Punk to be (surprise) a surprise.
Finding a drummer more suited to the robots' previous style seems unlikely however. Hakim had spent years experimenting with different styles and toys, including electronic drum kits, the method that he assumed Daft Punk would be interested in hiring him to use. That theory proved incorrect.
"Thomas and Guy are very creative, very thoughtful guys," Hakim says of his French hosts. "Thomas wanted to use live musicians to explore the possibilities of what wouldn't happen working with machines: the unexpected."
The drummer flew out to Los Angeles to work with the duo and a band for a week. Bangalter, a keyboardist by nature, would play four or eight bars of a groove idea to Hakim and company, prompting jams with the goal of finding the perfect beat. Hakim never entered the booth knowing any of his rhythms were final cuts. The headliners had recorded all of the jam sessions and used clips from them for the final project. The pair built Random Access Memories from samples like many a previous electronic album, but they had harvested all of these samples themselves. The unconventional recording process left enough ambiguity in the air that Hakim didn't realize that he was listening to himself the first time he heard "Get Lucky" on the radio.
"I didn't recognize it as anything I had done," he says, laughing. "I thought 'wow, that sounds like Nile playing and wow, that's Pharrell singing.' Then I recognized the hi-hat pattern and realized I was drumming."
The song followed Hakim from New York to Europe, and all he could do was chuckle when listening to fans the world over sing along.
He may not have gotten on the music video, but Daft Punk didn't forget about those who helped push the song to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The duo invited Hakim and crew to perform the track live onstage at The Grammys. Viewers could see the drummer happily playing along to the left of Daft's impromptu onstage recording studio during the performance.
Hakim didn't get lucky landing the Random Access Memories gig—his run of historic albums goes back more than 30 years.
Let's Dance with DAVID BOWIE (1983)
Session work is, like all fields, more about who you know versus what you know. Talented drummers exist the world over, so having connections with some of the industry's biggest names can't hurt anyone trying to get ahead.
Hakim had known Nile Rodgers since middle school, playing with the guitarist as a child in a Top 40 cover band at the Great Adventure theme park in Jackson, NJ. Rodgers left one year later, hoping to stake his name in Paris. Hakim received an invitation to join but opted against, attending high school instead. The drummer recalls recalls hearing Chic's "Le Freak" several years later and kicking himself. Still, Hakim's former bandmate didn't forget him.
Rodgers and fellow Chic founder Bernard Edwards had a successful run of production hits, including Diana Ross's Diana—"Everything he touched turned platinum," says Hakim—and the guitarist had signed on for what would become David Bowie's Let's Dance.
Rodgers typically opted for Chic's rhythm section, but as luck would have it, they were busy. He phoned up old friend Hakim, who was, of course, "surprised."
Much like with Random Access Memories, Hakim split drumming duty—this time with The Power Station rhythm man Tony Thompson. Much like with Random Access Memories however, Hakim ended up on the choice cuts, including "Modern Love," "China Girl" and the title track.
The regard held for his talent became evident when Bowie offered the drummer a spot playing on the "Serious Moonlight" tour. Hakim had been holding down a position with jazz fusion legends Weather Report, and the Bowie offer put him on the spot.
"At that point, David Bowie had offered me more money than I had ever seen," he says. "But I asked myself who were the drummers for David Bowie...and who were the drummers for Weather Report. Weather Report had Chester Thompson, Dom Um Romão...a history of great drummers. I figured I'd better stay with this band."
All's well that ends well however. Bowie invited Hakim back for the follow-up album, Tonight and "I was able to get a raise from Weather Report," he laughs.
Having David Bowie in your network can't hurt your curriculum vitae as a musician either.
The Dream of The Blue Turtles with STING (1985)
Any drummer would have been wary of a relationship with Sting circa 1985. The bassist was coming off the release of The Police's Synchronicity that, despite being one of the greatest albums of the '80s, was fraught with conflict between the vocalist, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland. The trio recorded its respective parts in separate rooms and performed overdubs individually, with Sting and Copeland coming to blows during the recording of "Every Breath You Take."
It was no surprise that The Police folded during 1984 and Sting immediately set about preparing for a solo release. Drummers could be forgiven for fearing Police-traumatic stress disorder from the star, but Hakim saw opportunity when it walked in the door.
He was performing an emergency session with rockers Dire Straits when he met the bassist. Straits percussionist Terry Williams had been ill (according to Hakim's story at least...others allege poor playing) during the recording of the band's classic Brothers In Arms album and Hakim was flown to Montserrat to fill in. Sting swung by AIR Studios, coincidentally the same location as the notorious Synchronicity sessions, to provide vocals for single "Money For Nothing." He revealed to guitarist and producer Mark Knopfler over lunch that he was looking for a backing band. Hakim, who had been listening from down the table, swallowed his bite and called out: "Well, you found your drummer."
Introductions were made and fate revealed: Sting told the drummer that his agent had recently left for New York to pitch him for the record—Hakim's last minute gig with Dire Straits had altered his plans.
He joined Sting for Best Album-nominated The Dream of The Blue Turtles and accompanied the performer on the ensuing tour. Copeland came out to catch a show and Hakim reports emotions had eased since the split. Watching the two icons exchange pleasantries reminded the drummer of thoughts he often mused upon when working with big names.
"To observe these people who create work on that level and put their work out on that level...it's amazing to watch," he says. "I've worked with quite a few quote-end-quote 'superstars,' and it's no joke. Putting yourself out there is no joke. It's something you have to be up for."
Hakim admires superstars for standing under the bright, hot lights. The superstars admire him for doing just the opposite.
Tutu with MILES DAVIS (1986)
"As a child growing up in a jazz house, one of the first people I remember hearing was Miles Davis."
The music legend might have been a fixture in Hakim's household, but Davis helped provide the first jazz experience for millions of listeners, even those who weren't born to parents entrenched in the scene. Kind Of Blue has sold more than double the second best-selling jazz album of all time. Marcus Miller, a bassist and producer whom Hakim had known since high school, called him to take part in The Prince of Darkness' Tutu and, for the first time during the interview, the drummer doesn't suggest surprise at the invitation. Considering the awe with which he considers his work with various superstars, Hakim's approach to his sessions with the greatest musician of the 20th Century seem unusually calm.
"I'm not thinking 'Ohmygod it's Miles,'" he says. "I'm thinking about the music before me and how I can do my best work. Afterwards I would actually sit down and reflect on it. Definitely an amazing, surreal experience."
Hakim ended up on just one track: "Tomaas," a synth-heavy number demonstrating the percussionist's experience with an electric drum set (as well as the standard variety). Much of Tutu reflected Davis's desire to hybridize jazz with new wave, and much of the album's percussion is supplied by machines as a result. Hakim provides the same "unexpected" he played for a different Thomas nearly 30 years later on Random Access Memories.
Hakim reveres Davis as any music fan should, but he holds similar reverence for other jazz heroes he's played with, such as Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin, plus fellow Weather Report members like Wayne Shorter.
Another benefit to freelance music work: never having to choose between icons.
HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I with MICHAEL JACKSON (1995)
"Me neither," Hakim laughs when Music Times tries to pinpoint where he shows up on HIStory, Michael Jackson's last album of the '90s.
Good-humored moviegoers often jab at cinema's ever-lengthening credit sequences and Jackson's list of contributors reaches the same altitudes. The album itself clocks in at nearly 2.5 hours, with orchestras, horn sections and raps ranging from Notorious B.I.G. to Shaquille O'Neal. Hakim falls into a drummer/percussionist list that includes a dozen other contributors.
"I worked on so much stuff that I don't ultimately know what got used. It was all electric drums, no acoustic drums," he says. "I know my name is there and I've listened to the album, but I just don't know."
Jackson showed up for one one of the recording gigs at The Hit Factory in New York, but Hakim's description of the process lends to the notion of mystery that surround the performer. Producers scheduled plenty of sessions and cancelled many of them. Those that came through resulted in long hours.
He only regrets that his primary employer didn't swing by more often. He holds a reverence for Jackson, emphasized by their six-month age difference. The future King of Pop floored ten y.o. Hakim, who saw a boy his age performing at a high level and taking hold of massive audiences. That awe only continued throughout Jackson's legendary run during the '80s. Hakim spent eight years touring with Madonna and he met Jackson when her entire entourage took a bus to watch his '93 concert run at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca.
Hakim leans back into his chair and into his memories with a smile. He might not know where he fits into the saga of Michael Jackson but he's got proof that he was part of it.
We Are One with...OMAR HAKIM?
Employers don't exactly submit session musicians to tyrannical conditions. Most cases involve the "boss" presenting an idea and tweaking the output they receive from "employees," similar to Hakim's experience with Daft Punk. So what is it like to be the foreman after so many years as a reliable sideman?
A rarity, for one thing.
"If you want to be an artist, you have to quit your day job," a business manager once told the drummer. He concedes, having released three albums over 25 years, that his advisor spoke true. Less established performers might not be able to raise enough funds to record a solo album (Hakim's debut came in 1989, nearly ten years after his first contributing credit). Finding the time serves more of a problem now, between calls from Grammy-winners and Kate Bush.
Hakim and other session superstars have at least one thing working in their favors: networking. He didn't have to think too hard when recruiting his team for We Are One and, as the result of playing with them for decades, didn't need to act the boss role.
"It feels good to recruit a group of your friends, who are all incredible musicians in their own right, to help you realize your dream," he explains. "Once I played the compositions for them, it's like they instantaneously knew what to do."
Perhaps familiar with the feeling of being relegated, Hakim spreads the attention around. We Are One plays its title out, serving less as a showcase for exorbitant drum figures than for his overall songwriting. Hakim relays complaints that his solo work doesn't focus enough on his chosen instrument, but a Jon Bonham-style solo bonanza won't be coming anytime soon.
The album art does a better job of summing up Hakim's production ethic. The trifold opens to a three-panel collage of photos displaying his costars at work (there are a few shots of Hakim sprinkled throughout). The "thank you's" extend across another whole panel, including a grateful nod to Daft Punk, the duo to whom he provided Grammy-winning rhythms and was consequently left out of a music video for. Certainly no hard feelings here.
We're sure they thank you too, Omar. All of them.