"The whole soul and funk, gospel, blues ... man, that's why us Chicago musicians have something special - it's built in us to have a lot of soul."- Keith Harris
Chicago often separates itself from other metropolises by way of its people - we are friendly, humble and take great pride in our city. So it should come as no surprise that even an international superstar like Black Eyed Peas drummer and Chicagoan Keith Harris has his feet firmly planted on the ground and his heart in Chicago. I had a chance to speak with Harris and find out what Chicago means to him and his music.
Harris has been playing drums for about 23 years now and has toured all over the world. But it all started on the south side of Chicago, where he was born and raised, and at New Friendship Baptist Church on 71st and Halsted. "The church definitely helped me as a musician, and just overall as a person," says Harris. "It helped me to stay morally grounded [especially] spending the last five years on the road. Playing in church you get to play all different types of music, all different styles ... it's a lot of improv. So you have to be very vigilant - you have to always watch the choir. That translates to the Black Eyed Peas, as far as following Will, Apl, Taboo and Fergie across the stage. It's my job to watch them, feed off their energy and translate that musically."
Harris is known for his ability to play several different instruments, which also started at New Friendship Baptist. "I learned them all in church. Hey, we don't have a bass player? Okay, I'll play bass. We need somebody to play organ? Okay, I'll learn how to play it too. Overall, it makes me a better musician," says Harris. And being an all-around musician has helped him develop relationships and collaborate with other big talents like John Legend, Mary J. Blige, even Michael Jackson, who left Harris a bit star-struck. "Just being in the same room as him - he's definitely an inspiration. He's a percussion guy, he lives for the drums. He can pull things apart we don't normally pay attention to."
From the church, Harris went to high school, where he continued to develop under the tutelage of teacher Reginald Willis, who has helped many Chicago musicians get their start. Willis then helped Harris make a demo tape, which eventually led to his admission to Berklee College of Music, in Boston. And from there to New York, where he caught the attention of the Black Eyed Peas and started touring the world.
But Harris makes his way back to his hometown as much as he can. "Every time I have some down time, I always go back home, see the family and just hang out there. I love Chicago."
Being a member of the Black Eyed Peas, you might think Harris would be hot on the club scene. But that's not the case. "Most of the time when I'm at home I go to the movies. I'm the most non-clubbingest, hang out at the bowling alley dude ever," he says. "I do like the [Hotel] Sax. It's more of a lounge."
But Harris also takes time to reconnect with his city and the Chicagoans who helped make him who he is. "Every time I come home I see people that always have been there from my beginnings as a musician - just to let them know that all is well with me and I do appreciate that." There's his high school teacher, Willis, and Henry Jones, a source of knowledge and inspiration for Harris. "He was a drummer in my Church and used to play for The Soul Children back in the day. Now he's with The Gentlemen of Leisure. That's a guy I look up to, someone I learned everything from." The Gentlemen of Leisure is a favorite of President Barack Obama.
Of course, Chicago is not only known for its music, but great food too. "You need to put this in the article," Harris tells me. "The best pizza in Chicago is from this place on 95th street, called Barraco's. Every time I come home I have to have my ceremonial Barraco's hot pepper and pepperoni pizza - the best." Barraco's is found at 3701 W. 95th Street in Evergreen Park.
Harris will soon be touring again with the Black Eyed Peas - ahead of the release of their upcoming album. "I think everybody is going to be pleasantly surprised when they hear the new stuff," says Harris. "Everybody's back for another year on the road."
In the meantime, check out Harris' new project. He's working with a group called Prototype. You can find them at http://www.myspace.com/weareprototype. Keith Harris' MySpace page can be found at http://www.myspace.com/keith_harris.