Jazz drumming, with its loose, evolving rhythms, can sometimes seem a world apart from the samples and beats of hip hop. But when Mark Colenburg sits behind the kit, it’s easy to forget such distinctions.

The St. Louis native doesn’t just excel at both styles—he cross-pollinates them, blending virtuosic jazz technique with a deconstructed cut-and-paste approach influenced by hip hop beat makers. His credits include sessions with leading jazz players (Kenny Garrett, George Coleman, Chico Freeman, Kurt Rosenwinkel), R&B vocalists (Macy Gray, Lizz Wright, Lalah Hathaway), and hip hop’s innovators (Q-Tip, Common, Mos Def). And all those worlds collide when Colenberg gigs with the Robert Glasper Experiment, a jazz/R&B/hip hop fusion group currently riding high on their hit Black Radio 2 album.
Colenburg started out like many drummers: sitting on the kitchen floor banging pots and pans. “I don’t know why, but I just loved the drums a lot,” he says. “Even when I was little, I’d hear the radio and listen for the drum part. I remember being three or four years old and saying, ‘I only hear the snare and kick— where is the hi-hat?’”


By age six, Mark was performing in church. “My cousin played there,” he recalls. “He would sit me on his lap, put the sticks in my hand, and then guide my hands while he played.” But before long, other musicians were watching Mark’s hands, not guiding them.

Mark’s early influences were gospel and blues. “I didn’t grow up playing or listening to traditional jazz,” he says. “But I was influenced by people who’d had some exposure to it, so some of it trickled down. It wasn’t ‘til I got to high school that I started wanting to attain the level of sophistication that I heard from some other drummers. What made them do what they did?” Eventually Mark discovered a jazz recording tape at the local library. “Okay,” he remembers thinking, “I need more of that.”

markColenburg was already a gigging pro when he left St. Louis to accept a music scholarship at Mannes College in New York City. “I was kind of trying to be a straight, traditional jazz drummer,” he says. “But we would always have jam sessions where people would play anything. I wound up getting a reputation as ‘not your typical jazz drummer.’”

Meanwhile, rapper Common had just released his breakthrough album, Like Water for Chocolate, and he needed a touring drummer. Colenburg landed the gig. That was when he became a convert to Yamaha drums. “The drummers before me had played Yamaha,” Mark explains. “I said I’d play whatever was there. But once I played Yamaha, I was like, ‘I love these!’ And I’ve played them ever since.”

Soon Mark was working with a number of important hip hop artists and producers — and learning volumes. “I definitely experienced a feel adjustment, moving from the R&B I’d played in St. Louis to more of the New York/Philadelphia hip hop style,” he recalls. “The first adjustment was realizing how they felt the beat. It wasn’t necessarily straight—it felt kind of jagged, like everything wasn’t lining up perfectly. I liked it when I heard it, but I didn’t know what caused it or why it sounded so cool. I just tried to emulate it.”

A crucial influence was the late J Dilla, one of the key Like Water for Chocolate producers. “He was a world-renowned production innovator, and I learned a lot about how he made beats,” says Colenburg. ”You’d have a sample that was literally a live session of some guys playing. You’d take that pre-mixed and pre-mastered part, and add it to other drum parts you made up, maybe parts that have been quantized to a grid. But the sampled part wasn’t played to that grid, and that’s what creates the whole jagged feel. I soon realized how very musical and inventive that approach was.”

Now, Colenburg remains fascinated by the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic beats. “I’m trying to incorporate more technology into what I do,” he says. “After all, technology drives everything, from cars to phones to TV—and especially music. There’s so much technology in record production, but it’s difficult to get the same level of aesthetics when you’re performing those records. I have some ideas that are still in their baby stages, still incubating. Some of them involve things that may not even exist yet! But I’d like to be able to use triggering and loops in a more creative way, so I can create on the spot using those more technological sounds, the same way you can create on the spot using a regular acoustic drum kit. Right now, that’s my challenge!”