It’s easy to talk about drummer/producer Destin Johnson in terms of contrasts: Acoustic and electric, simple and complex, old school and contemporary, rhythmic and melodic. But the real wonder is how seamlessly he brings it all together. When you hear Johnson play, the contrasts disappear in favor of a smooth, captivating style that has made him one of the hottest up-and-coming drummers in New York City. Using acoustic drums rigged with triggers and a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad, Johnson (aka dbxsupreme) pulls from diverse sources, including worship standards, 808-style drum machines and intricate synth patterns from the ’80s and ’90s. This unique skill set landed him gigs almost immediately after arriving in New York from South Florida, including a performance with Chance the Rapper on SNL. We talked with Johnson about his hybrid style, unlikely influences and reasons for making music.
What edge does having a hybrid setup like yours give you in a band context? What about as a soloist?
There are a ton of pros to combining acoustic and electronic elements in a setup. It’s always a cool feeling when I can replicate certain moments in a song without relying on backing tracks. In addition, layering with acoustic drums gives the electronic sounds more life and depth. In my solo live set, it makes for a fuller sound. I can go in and out between the two worlds, or even combine them to make this new vibe.
How do you think about melody as a drummer?
Melody is a huge component I like to devote my time to. I always try to find ways to intertwine melody and rhythm to make something intriguing sonically. I love to “visualize” music and try to place myself in a particular scene or moment. Most of my ideas usually come to life with this process.
How do you go about crafting the perfect hybrid kit?
I’m a huge student of the art of sampling and manipulation of sounds and textures. My setup is always evolving, taking different shapes based on the musical space I’m in at the time. Whether I’m playing huge, larger-than-life chords, or fast static drum machine hi-hats, being comfortable is the number one goal in creating an ideal kit. To me, it’s not about how many sounds I can play at one time, but rather what deserves the necessary attention to execute the idea efficiently.
What specific pieces of gear have made a difference for you?
My first piece of gear was an Akai Professional MPC that my brother let me borrow. It changed my life. I was playing straight-up 808 drum machine stuff. Then, getting my Roland SPD-SX sampling pad opened so many doors. The ability to sample sounds and transfer those sounds into a live performance, just elevated my playing to another degree. Forever grateful for my Roland. It’s one of the brains of my kit. At my crib, my setup has all-mesh heads by Remo, using Sensory Percussion sensors to trigger the sounds, and I use Ableton to do playback from my laptop. I do all my backing tracks on there, and I run everything through my Focusrite 18i20 audio interface.
What advice do you have for drummers who want to start incorporating more electronic elements into their kits?
Don’t be hesitant to experiment! Even if it’s just a single electronic pad, find ways to explore what you’re trying to produce. There’s a ton of resources that offer free sample libraries, tutorials and even setup ideas. The best teacher is experience, being able to make mistakes, and just diving into the unknown to create something amazing.
You were a music director at your church in South Florida. How did that influence your approach to your art?
I’ll always be grateful for my home church, investing in my craft since I walked through the doors in high school. Being a music director showed me the value of communication, relationships and self-development, and how to take a tune to the next level as a team. The same skills I gathered being at church, I pretty much apply to every musical scenario I jump into presently. Preparing and leading a team to execute a session or live performance is always a rewarding time.
You mentioned Cartoon Network's Adult Swim as a musical influence. How does the concept of sound design intersect with your work?
The ability to capture attention sonically is a goal of mine. Adult Swim’s minimal black screen commercials always had me in awe, because it immediately drew me into the music. The music was compelling, chaotic and sometimes soothing at points. It had all the elements I wanted to convey eventually in my playing.
I make music because I want people to feel something. I love the idea of captivating someone's attention, in the span of a few minutes or the span of a show. I feel like music is one of the most powerful, if not THE most powerful instrument we can use in the world today. So, if I can be a part of that, that’s fine with me.
How has quarantine affected you as an artist?
Our industry is kind of shut down, so during this time I wanted to hone my craft. I also started a band with some of my best friends from South Florida. It’s called da22. Check out our new single “Calling All Cars”—it's available on all streaming platforms. I think it’s pretty good. I’m a little biased, but who cares! It’s a good song.
Keep up with Destin Johnson on Instagram.