by Brittany Nader
To say drummer/producer Holbrook Riles III is busy making his mark on the Akron music scene would be an understatement.
In October, the musician celebrated the release of the album Home with his modern R&B band Bluelight, as well as the debut of his hip-hop collective Free Black! with emcee Floco Torres.
Riles plays a significant role in the “Jeff Donaldson: Dig” exhibition at the Akron Art Museum this month. The project, affiliated with the AAM exhibit celebrating Donaldson and AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, founded in 1968), highlights three local artists who celebrate Black history and culture. Riles is included in the exhibition, spotlighting his beats, drums and music.
He says Donaldson’s work is reflective of his own style of producing music for local artists like Torres, Eric Troi and his collaborative “Points of View” EP.
“[Donaldson’s paintings] are sensory overload, with images weaved in and out of these elaborate Kool-Aid covers, wrapped in other images and patterns and shapes,” Riles says. You could look at it for 10 years and still find something new. I can relate to that with making beats.”
Riles, a trained percussionist, is relatively new to the world of producing hip-hop tracks. He says it’s a trial-and-error process. A wide range of musical influences, coupled with many years of performing as a drummer, have helped him develop his own style as a producer.
Riles says music is a part of his everyday life and he is always listening for possible samples, which has helped shape him as a producer.
“When I try to sample a track, I try to milk it for everything it’s worth,” Riles says. “You can take a Four Tops tune, chop it, flip it, reverse it, make it something that’s you. And then take another element, like a spoken word, or another song in the same key and put it over top of that. Or take a synth line and put it over top. There are just different layers you can add to it, but you can make it blend cohesively to have it make sense.”
Riles played his first show as HR3, performing simultaneously as live drummer and DJ. He says he wanted the audience to feel as though they were inside of a live mixtape, hearing a wide range of samples, which they may or may not recognize. He experimented with rearranging these samples to make familiar songs sound like a whole new music experience.
Riles says he scours through vinyl at Square Records and Time Traveler to find those perfect hooks that influence the beats he makes as a hip-hop producer.
Riles’ new Free Black! album includes a raw, organic production style with tracks often absent of verses or choruses. He says the goal was the keep the writing and producing extremely simple as a means to develop a style that would be difficult to replicate.
“There are albums in their raw elements that sound like you can listen to them forever,” he says. “It sounds a little more genuine that way. A lot of music that influenced me was like Stax Records, Motown Records, Muscle Shoals, old 50s and 60s ‘golden years’ music with one mic in a room that only captured certain elements, and vocals would bleed through.”
He says his penchant for funk and soul, coupled with exposure to hip-hop throughout his college years, has inspired his production style. J Dilla, Slum Village, Madlib, RZA, Flying Lotus, MF Doom and Knxledge have all been influential in the sound Riles is shooting for with his own music projects, as well as his production for other artists.
But the biggest forces shaping his work are his own performance experience and his myriad collaborations with performers in Akron.
“A lot of musicians appreciate other musicians who are incredible because they know what it took to get to that point,” Riles says. “It really reflects on your individuality as well.”
Riles grew up in Mansfield and began playing music when he was eight years old. He was first introduced to percussive instruments while observing African dancing lessons his sister took at the Richland Academy of the Arts. He says an African man providing beats for the dancers via a djembe asked Riles if he would like to pick up an extra drum and play a pattern. Riles says the power of the drums and the interactive aspect of the instruments hooked him.
He went on to play percussion in his junior high and high school bands and auditioned for the percussion department at the University of Akron in 2005. At that point, Riles did not know how to read music or play the marimba. He learned the instrument and brushed up on his fundamentals and was accepted into the department the next year.
At UA, he joined several different performance groups, including the African, Brazilian, jazz and fusion ensembles and steel drum band, where he met fellow Akron musicians Matthew DeRubertis and Phil Anderson.
Those musicians, along with Jul Big Green and Chris Coles, perform together in Bluelight. DeRubertis says Riles is his favorite drummer to play with and that their collaborations continue to be more enjoyable as they continue working and performing together.
“He is one the most dynamic, sensitive, responsive and energetic musicians that I have ever played with,” DeRubertis says. “Sometimes I feel like we can read each other’s minds when we’re playing.”
Riles has been a full-time Akron resident since 2016. The years in between attending the University of Akron and settling down in the Rubber City were spent performing on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship and American Queen steamboat.
Spending months at sea taught Riles sight reading, or playing a piece on the spot without having seen the sheet music previously. He learned how to perform new styles of music, including big band, Dixieland and Broadway tunes. He says the experience also taught him how to “lock in” with different musicians and perform compositions in a way that creates a good vibe for the audience.
“Each music and each style has a purpose,” Riles says. “If you keep an open mind and be open to whatever music is out there, whether you like it or not, as a musician it could help you later on.”
His experience as a performer on boats that have traveled across the globe, as well as in local projects like Bluelight, Open Spaces Trip, Operations and Free Black!, have undoubtedly inspired HR3’s production style and musical aesthetic. Riles says he hopes to create beats for more artists and emcees and to stretch himself as a producer so he doesn’t remain stagnant.
“There’s certain music everyone can relate to that’s accessible,” Riles says. “There are genres people are teetering on that I want to explore more and do my own way. One of the things as a hip-hop producer, especially if you’re sample heavy like me, is you really dig for music that you find peculiar or may not work. Your ears have to be 10 or 20 feet tall and 60 feet wide.”
Full disclosure: Floco Torres, who collaborated with Riles on Free Black!, is The Devil Strip’s community development director.
Brittany Nader has been a professional writer and marketer in Akron for the last five years.
All images used with permission from Holbrook Riles III.