ERSKINE HAWKINS  -  RECITAL HALL TO RIHANNA

HOW DOES A PIANIST REARED on gospel and trained in jazz and classical wind up playing keyboards for top rap and R&B acts like Eminem and Rihanna?
“Honestly, jazz was never my first love,” says Erskine Hawkins with a chuckle. “And classical music and I have been enemies since my freshman year in college. I was a gospel player growing up, and that’s what I loved. I just knew I was going to tour the world playing gospel—but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Hawkins grew up in a religious household where secular music was prohibited. Pop music was barely on his radar. “It was church music only until I turned 18 and went to college,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, there’s R&B in the world?’ I still get caught by that every now and again, when I don’t know a song all the other players know.”

“SOME ACOUSTIC PIANO SOUNDS CAN GET BURIED ONSTAGE, BUT THE MOTIF PIANOS CUT THROUGH, EVEN IF THERE’S A HUGE WALL OF SOUND.” 

As the son of two ministers in the small North Texas town of Wichita Falls, Hawkins grew up playing in church. “I actually started off on drums,” he says. “We had a main drummer in church, but sometimes he wouldn’t show up, so I would always be there with my sticks, ready to play. I hated it when I didn’t get to play, so I switched to keyboards. My dad played as well, and he helped me out a bit. And that’s how I really got into playing.”

As a student at North Texas University, home to a renowned jazz and classical performance program, Erskine excelled at both styles despite their sometimes conflicting demands. In fact, at his senior recital he performed a memorable mash-up of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight.”

erskine-sideBut Hawkins has no regrets about straying from his training. “I never wanted to be a starving musician,” he says. “Some people I went to school with are trying to make a living playing jazz, but it’s hard. Besides, I can still play jazz gigs for the love of it. My mom sometimes says things like, ‘You’re not being challenged.’ But it takes discipline, say, to play three-note chords with Eminem and not embellish them. You have to be disciplined enough to say, ‘I’m on this gig today, and I’m going to play it authentically.’”

Hawkins generally works as a “mains player,” which means he performs the foreground keyboard parts while an “auxiliary player” covers the secondary ones. “For the most part,” he says, “I’m the piano player. I don’t know if that’s because of my degrees in jazz and classical piano, but it’s what I usually do.”

With Eminem, that means playing the ominous piano parts that propel many of the rapper’s hits. “His music is very piano-driven,” Hawkins notes. “That’s why Yamaha Motifs work for me. Some acoustic piano sounds can get buried onstage, but Motif pianos cut through, even if there’s a huge wall of sound. Yamaha is the only company that really nails the pianos. The Motif Rhodes sounds are perfect too—and the strings, leads, and pads are also great.”

When he’s not touring with Eminem, Erskine serves as musical director for several other artists, including Disney teen star Zendaya and GRAMMY®-winning Motown singer Chrisette Michele. And Hawkins will rely on his skills in all those styles when he plays keyboards for both Eminem and Rihanna on their co-headlining tour this summer.

“They share the same music director,” Erskine explains. “He’s Adam Blackstone, and he also works for Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Jay-Z. He’s a good friend of mine, and my mentor.”

Right now Hawkins is at home in LA, learning parts and programming sounds on his Motif XF7 and XF8. “Normally I start learning my shows up to two months in advance, because I don’t like being surprised,” he says. “I go through all the songs at home, programming everything on my Motifs: the sounds, the performance patches, the panning, everything. By the time I get to rehearsal with the band, I can just pop in a flash drive. I’m done learning by that point, and we can get on with the creative process.”

You can follow Hawkins’ progress on this mega-tour via his Twitter feed, @erskinehawkins. You might also pick up career tips, both technical and professional. “I post a lot of music theory things,” says Erskine. “I hashtag them ‘#musiced.’ And whenever I hear about an audition or anything, I post it. I always share, because I remember how it was when I was starting out. My attitude is, ‘There’s no reason why everyone can’t be doing this!’”