Sheila E. on Latin Jazz, Krush Groove and Not Needing Outside Validation | Listen Up!
Video portrait by Elizabeth Rudge | makeup by Jenny Verador | hair by Eric Wennberg
Legendary drummer, bandleader and fiercely proud Bay Area native Sheila E. was the hardest of hardcore divas in the 1980s. It broke her down. Now she uses music to build people up.
Back when she ran with Prince and his crew, the timbale expert enforced 12-hour rehearsals for her band and gave commands, not suggestions. She had hits (“The Glamorous Life,” “A Love Bizarre”) and built a lasting work ethic into countless musicians, like Raphael Saadiq who joined her cohort when he was 14. She also became a cold, unfeeling person. She details the transformation in her book The Beat of My Own Drum.
Now that’s all behind her and she’s found the love of music again. You can hear it in her album Icon from 2014 and see it in her music-therapy foundation Elevate Hope. We caught up with her while she was coaching a bunch of young players in Seattle for More Music at the Moore Theatre, teaching them to find their own voices.
We did not talk to her about Prince. We did talk about her dad, Latin jazz heavyweight Pete Escovedo; her godfather, Tito Puente; Krush Groove, the classic hip-hop movie she co-starred in with Run-DMC; and the fact that it took her leaving her family cocoon of supportive musicians to learn about the sexist notion that women shouldn’t play the drums.
We asked Sheila to sign our records, and she wrote on them in her own way…backward
I didn’t know there was a gender attached to playing drums or percussion because that’s not how I was raised. I wasn’t told, ‘You can’t play those drums or touch those drums’ until I got outside of the home and started traveling and working with other artists.
Did I get the props that I deserved? It’s not that it’s the props. I’m not looking for people to say I’m good or great. Or I’m a good drummer. Or ‘she’s good for a girl’ or whatever. I don’t look for the props. It’s how I feel about myself that’s important. That’s the hard thing. We end up going to this place where we depend on social media, we depend on other people to validate us. That shouldn’t be the case. And so it’s not validation. All I want people to understand is me being a person and a woman is a gift, and to respect me. I want respect. And I deserve respect.
Seriously, it was weird how fluidly and quickly she was able to write in reverse
When I became Sheila E. in the ’80s, I had a record deal and I figured this is going to be my time to shine. And I went for it. When I see some of the youth acting out, I get it. I’ve been there. I was at a place where I was saying, ‘Let me see how naked I can get.’
I loved hip-hop, from Krush Groove and before. It’s an art form. You have to be gifted to write hip-hop. And you have to live it. It’s like Latin jazz. I’m a Latin jazz artist. That’s the foundation of who I am. Hip-hop is a culture, it’s who you are. I just don’t like the curse words and degrading women. But that’s not just hip-hop, that’s everywhere.
I remember when Raphael Saadiq auditioned to be in my band in 1984. It changed his life. We were in Oakland. All my musicians come from Oakland because I’m from Oakland and I love the Bay. His non-stage name is Ray Wiggins, and he had a couple musicians with him and one of the guys in the band came straight out of church. And I remember saying, ‘Let’s play something by Sly Stone.’ And the keyboard player said, ‘What’s Sly Stone?’ I’m like, ‘What? You’re from the Bay Area!’ So they auditioned, worked really hard and made it. Ray still thanks me for teaching him what it meant to be in a band and run rehearsals. When I eventually had to let my band go, which was hard for me, I took three members and the other three formed Tony! Toni! Toné!, so it was a blessing in a way.
At 15, that’s when I became a professional musician. That’s when I was playing with Billy Cobham, George Duke, Herbie Hancock. When I look at kids now who are 15, I realize how young that really is. It’s insane. But these artists allowed me to express myself and find out who I was and who I could be in their band. Like my dad: 18-piece band, signed to CBS with Clive Davis. Huge. So to start in that band, and then go to Billy Cobham to George Duke to Herbie, it just kept escalating.
Earlier on, the music that influenced me from Tito was from when I was five years old until ten. All his early LPs. My dad played LPs all day every day. I was listening and learning, playing along with the solos. That’s the soundtrack to my youth.
Start with my dad, Pete Escovedo, and Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria. Those are the classics. But for me, it all comes back to my dad.