Oct. 31 2012 09:01 AM

These guys are the best rhythm-makers you’ve never heard of

Michael Raymond Russell (left) and Ian De Cerbo of Dirty Drums
Photo by Peter Holslin

In a hulking church in Bankers Hill, down a hallway, past the altar, behind a small door and up a narrow staircase, there’s a cozy little recording studio unknown to the world. This is where the men of Dirty Drums play.

One recent Monday, Dirty Drums founder Michael Raymond Russell—who goes by the nickname MRR—takes a seat at a tall, wooden stool in front of a vintage, glittery-black Rogers kit. Its kick drum is tiny, the head measuring only 18 inches. But it makes a big, gutsy boom, which is perfect for Russell’s syncopated, quick-footed beat.

Then, Ian De Cerbo takes a seat. His beat is tighter, guided by the determined tick-tick-tick of the hi-hat. Soon, though, he, too, carries off into the collective’s trademark rhythm: flurrying bebop meets forceful hip-hop, with lots of swagger.

For more than a decade, this drumming crew—core members Russell, De Cerbo and Ricky “RSI” Isabella, along with a handful of others—has made some of the hardest, grimiest, most unbelievably dope beats ever to come out of San Diego. As members of the groups MHE, Boxfeedrs, MRR-ADM and Hezus, they’ve chopped up samples to craft break-beats that sound remarkably real. They’ve worked with heavyweights Gonjasufi and The Gaslamp Killer, and they use vintage gear to make live breaks of their own.

For all their talent, though, this tight-knit group has lived in self-imposed obscurity. Their official website doesn’t have any information on it, just a pair of drum sets made with Flash that respond to mouse clicks. Their only official label release has been a limited-edition MRR-ADM 10-inch featuring British drummer Malcolm Catto—a breathtaking, 16-minute slab of psych-funk that reportedly sold out in three days and is no longer available for download via Stones Throw Records.

Though they’ve stayed underground to keep their music special, even some of their closest friends seem a tad frustrated.

“I’m still trying to get beats from these motherfuckers!” says Sumach Ecks, aka rapper and singer Gonjasufi, who’s collaborated with Russell since the early ’00s. “MRR is the hardest motherfucker to get beats from.”

Russell, 31, has curly hair, a playful smile and a knack for staying under the radar. He doesn’t use social-networking sites or typically answer his phone if he doesn’t recognize the number. In more than a decade of making music, he says, I’m the only journalist who’s ever interviewed him.

“In a sense, it’s kind of like, you know—the drummer. Always in the background. Everybody’s in the forefront, but yet he’s the backbeat. He doesn’t need much attention, because obviously he’s the loudest instrument there,” he says. “I just want to make music and not have to project an image of what we do. You can listen to it.”

Russell is a man of faith—he attends the church where he’s set up the Dirty Drums studio—and Ecks says that’s reflected in his modesty and his music.

“He’s like Jesus Christ with a drum set, in my eyes,” Ecks says. “When I’m around him, he doesn’t speak much, but his eyes say a lot. You know what I’m saying? He’s got a light in him.”

Though the Dirty Drums sound isn’t exactly heavenly, there’s something transformative about it. “2wo,” a track off the MRR-ADM 10-inch, creates something of trance with its fierce, carnal beat. “3hree,” another MHE / MRR- ADM tune (all their songs are titled that way) oozes dread with languorous guitar and a big, bone-snapping beat.

Russell first got into the drums as a break-dancer in the ’90s. He started on an Akai MPC sampler and later teamed up with friend William Bensussen—then known as DJ Willow, now called The Gaslamp Killer—to form the group MHE. When they played their debut performance at a jazz club in La Jolla, De Cerbo remembers being blown away by Russell’s live, tapped-out rhythms.

“At the time, we were really into [DJ Shadow] and that whole break-influenced, trip-hop sound, and these guys were doing it live,” he recalls. “It sounded so good that it sounded like a real drummer, because [Russell] would cut it up so well and trigger them.”

After that, De Cerbo became a bit of an MRR disciple: “I pretty much just moved in and slept on his couch.” In the early ’00s, they’d hang out and make music with friends like Isabella and Adam Douglas Manella (who played in MRR-ADM with Russell). At night, they’d set up a drum kit to play outside.

“We’d go under the bridge on the freeway, off the 163 and the 15,” De Cerbo says. “Or we’d go in an empty parking lot, and we’d just drum all night. We’d have, like, 10 people. … We’d take turns. One person, if they couldn’t keep their beat long enough or they messed up, they’d kind of pass the drumsticks.”

Russell and De Cerbo refer to those times as the “wonder years.” But it hasn’t always been fun. Russell’s equipment has been stolen multiple times. Last year, thieves cleaned out his entire collection of samplers, computers and vintage microphones and drums. They also took years’ worth of memory cards and hard drives containing his music.

The theft plunged Russell into depression, and he considered quitting music altogether. Looking back, though, he sees it as a sign that he should share his music more.

“It’s almost like buying groceries, cooking food and storing it in your refrigerator for 10 years and never eating it or never sharing it,” he says. Now, “I just hope [Dirty Drums] keeps getting bigger. It’s how Steve Jobs started Apple in his garage.”

In recent months, he’s begun rebuilding his collection and assembling the studio in Bankers Hill. Isabella and De Cerbo have been helping out, and Gonjasufi and The Gaslamp Killer have also given the drummers some shine, name-checking them in interviews and recruiting them to work on tracks and remixes. The next step, Russell and De Cerbo say, is to launch a fundraising campaign via the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo.

Indeed, Dirty Drums might very well get the recognition they deserve. Back at the studio, though, Russell and De Cerbo are just having fun playing their drums. Russell has to go back to work, but he lingers a little longer, laying down a beat while De Cerbo shakes a tambourine. Whatever happens, it seems these two will be perfectly happy here, past the altar in a hulking church in Bankers Hill, at the top of a narrow staircase, in this cozy little studio unknown to the world.

Correction: In the original version of this article, we misspelled Ian De Cerbo's name as "Di Cerbo." That's how he spelled it on Facebook, but that's not how it's actually spelled, he says. We apologize for the error.

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.