Jazz prodigy Blaque Dynamite, also known as Mike Mitchell, has been blowing up the drum kit his entire life. Just 25 years old, he’s already collaborated with artists like Derrick Hodge, Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu and legendary jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. As a graduate of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the Texas native has taken a wide range of musical influences and created a sound all his own. We talked to the Grammy-nominated artist about jazz mentality in modern music, playing with his heroes and his amazing custom-made DW Purpleheart drum kit.
You attended the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. How did that shape you as an artist?
Booker T. was a huge focal point for my life. A lot of cats came through that program. Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, Shaun Martin, Robert "Sput" Searight. A really crazy lineage of musicians. Fortunately, I got a piece of the same system with the same teachers. So, a lot of us have a similar mentality of how we create. The teachers at Booker T. never made me play a certain way. They saw that I was extremely ADHD and hyper-focused on a bunch of things at once. So, they were like, “Just do it well. If you’re gonna do so much, do everything with that much intention. Be that sensitive. Be that dynamic.”
How would you describe your musical aesthetic?
I grew up in the church and also studied jazz at a really early age. Then I got into metal, then R&B and hip-hop. I got into electronic music, into production, into dance music … it just goes on and on. I played in salsa bands, in African ensembles. It’s never-ending. I try to reflect that in the music that I play. Not everything has to be one thing. Not everything has to be just metal, just R&B, just hip-hop, or just anything. You can have elements of everything. You can play for everybody. I want to be able to play my music to people that only like country, for example, but happen to also like my music. I want to spread my message to people that only like death metal but happen to also like elements of my music, or people that normally only listen to gospel.
You also sing as you play, which requires an additional layer of skill. Who are your vocal influences?
My goal is being able to play in the vein of Billy Cobham, or Tony Williams, or Dennis Chambers, but still sing like Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke. I’m really into both sides. I love beautiful, melodic structure, but I also love the flash of a really sporty drummer.
You’ve been playing with jazz bass legend Stanley Clarke for a while now. What has that experience been like?
Playing with Stanley is like a really cool school, because it puts you in a class of musicians like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Lenny White. They’re inviting you to be a part of that. A lot of those people are my heroes. It’s an honor to be associated with that energy of music, and the mentality of music that they put out.
What other collaborations have stuck out for you?
Playing with Erykah Badu is awesome. So, so awesome. She’s like a modern-day Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan, or any amazing jazz singer.
It seems like you’re always busy, but what are you focusing on currently?
I’m recording a new live album with a collective of people from Dallas that I never get to play with. I’m from there, but I’m always randomly doing things with other people in other states, other cities. It’ll come out probably next year, and it’ll be sick. It’ll be things from my first three albums, Time Out and Killing Bugs, stuff like that.
You have a very unique drum kit from DW. What inspired it?
The DW kit I have now is a Purpleheart drum set. I got it because it was the prettiest wood, and it’s actually naturally purple. I love Prince, so that’s dope to me that my shell is purple. Don Lombardi, the founder of DW, he took me to this place called Candyland, which is basically the DW showroom. I saw this piece of wood that was just sitting in a corner. I asked, “What is that?” He told me it was called Purpleheart and let me play one of the snare drums. I was blown away by the projection and sensitivity. It was a smaller snare drum too, for it to have such a massive sound. I wanted to have a whole drum set like that. So now I have my Purpleheart Ironman Sparkle drum set. They sing perfectly with everything, every situation.
What stands out most to you about the kit?
The most important thing about this kit is the feel. I don’t like to fight a drum set to get a sound out, and I don’t want to feel like I have to overcompensate to get more sound or get less sound. It feels pretty natural for the amount of dexterity that I try to exert when I’m playing on a kit.
How does the kit help you get a specific sound you’re going for?
A lot of the sound that I chose to get from my kit is reminiscent of old records that I would listen to. Most of those had an 8" tom, but I also loved the Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke kind of old-school drum sounds, so I like to also have bigger drums and flatter-sounding drums. I also really enjoy a great metal band. Having a 23" bass drum, instead of a 20" or a 22", helps me carry out that big punch that I’m always looking for.
What else can you tell us about the kit?
The cymbal setup is all Zildjian cymbals. Coming from the lineage of a Tony Williams or an Owen Jones, your ride cymbal or your cymbal sound is a very specific thing. When people hear it on multiple records with different artists, they recognize your playing style immediately. Coming from a jazz background and also trying to be current with playing hip-hop and R&B, these specific cymbals are a really good middle ground for me to still have a traditional sound, but also a current sound.
The snare is a really sick snare, because it’s not the normal size depth. It’s actually a 14x7.5, so it’s not as obnoxious as a 14x8, but it also gives you way more of a beat than the average 7" depth.
How does this compare to your usual setup?
Depending on the music that I’m playing, I have different setups. I did Derrick Hodge’s album, and the setup was a little similar to this configuration. When I play with Maurice Brown, sometimes I’ll set up like this. When I’m playing my music, I normally have more drums in general. Like, maybe another bass drum, another 15 toms that I can find. Then when I’m playing straight-ahead, a lot of times I’ll either go with an Elvin Jones vibe where I play a regular six-piece, or a Tony Williams vibe where I play the three floor toms and two rack toms. If it’s really traditional, I’ll just play a Bop kit or traditional four-piece. It all depends on the music. It’s the same in the studio. It depends on what’s happening. I’ll sometimes go with a huge kit, and sometimes I go with an extremely minimal kit.
Tell us about your sticks.
The sticks I use are my Blaque Dynamite sticks by Vic Firth. They’re based off of a 5A grip. I sweat a lot when I play, so I need a stick that won’t fly out of my hands. They took the lacquer off it, so it’s a completely dry, raw stick, and the tip is a nylon tip. Instead of it being a white coat, it’s a black coat, so it’s a little bit less high end than the average nylon tip, but it’s more high end than the wood tip. It’s right in the middle.
I make music because it’s such a joyous thing for me. I love the energy it gives people and I love receiving their energy back.
How does having a custom kit help you make music?
Having a solid instrument is important for me personally. Having this specific kit, I don’t have to overthink because everything stays in place. Everything stays where it is, the tuning’s good, all the hardware is really straight and nothing ever moves. For someone that’s moving so much, I don’t have time to fix things. So this is perfect.
What inspires you most about music right now?
I’m eager to get out a different message. A lighter message of experimentation and creativity, sharing and getting to fellowship more through music.