These days, Daru Jones lends his funky, passionate drumming to everyone from Jack White to Pete Rock. Growing up, though, Jones didn't listen to rap, or rock'n'roll, or anything approaching popular music. In fact, for the bulk of his formative years behind a drum kit, he was forbidden from listening to anything that wasn't church music.
"I came up with a really strict foundation where everything outside of gospel, we couldn't listen to it," says the drummer, whose extended family used to attend nightly services at a Church of God in Christ congregation outside of Detroit. Looking back, Jones doesn't feel like he was deprived, at least in retrospect. "You know what's crazy?" he chuckles. "It wasn't until later that I started dissecting the music and I was like, 'Man! Gospel music was funky!'"
It turned out, the same deep grooves that Jones had used to keep churchgoers singing the Lord's praises each night throughout his teenage years translated extremely well to his eventual explorations beyond the steeple.
A ferocious performer who towers above a bed of steeply angled drums, Jones blends classic gospel chops with a jazz touch and drum machine-style breaks. It's a unique and colorful sound that initially acted as a magnet for big-name rap acts, and has transformed into a whirlwind of opportunities in virtually every genre.
After a series of touring gigs, Jones' first break came with legendary Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village in 2005. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he began sharing the studio and stage with musicians like Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and Detroit rapper Black Milk. Then, in 2010, at a show in Nashville, an epic drum solo on a Black Milk song called "Losing Out" caught the attention of Jack White.
"Jack was in the back of the room," Jones says. "After that song he came to the front of the stage and put his hands up and was like, 'Yeah!'"
A few months later, White was recording a song with RZA from the Wu Tang Clan, and needed someone to lay down drums. Jones made his way back to Nashville, but RZA cancelled at the last minute. White felt bad about flying him all the way down there for nothing.
"He said, 'Well I've got a couple of solo things we can try out,'" Jones says, "and from what I was told, that's what started his solo career and the Blunderbuss album."
Two tours and two critically acclaimed albums later—plus another release to come later this year—Jones' drumming remains a prominent part of White's lively musical aesthetic. But he hasn't lost his hip-hop gigs, either. He is currently serving as the musical director and drummer for a new project from legendary producer Pete Rock called Pete Rock and the Soul Brothers, and is performing in Portland as part of a special improvised tribute to the late, exalted beatsmith J Dilla, with local producer Galaxe.
But despite how far he has come in the world of secular music, Jones still claims his faith impacts every note.
"I have to let the music tell me what to play, and also step up to the plate," he says, "That came from church."
SEE IT: Daru Jones plays with Galaxe as part of The Night Before Dilla at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 East Burnside St., with Brown Calculus and Abyss Infinite, on Tuesday, Feb. 6. 9 pm. $10 advance, $15 day of show. 21+. Get tickets here.