Actual Proof

The Headhunters first received national attention in the 1970s as a result of their connection with and contribution to jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking work melding jazz, funk, soul, rock and other popular musics together. Over 30 years later, they are touring and still producing original music, this time without Hancock. Mike Clark, drummer for the group since their second album (1974’s Thrust), has been responsible for innovations in people’s perceptions of and approaches to rhythm and drum playing, and is one of the most widely sampled drummers in the world.

“It feels great that people like your work enough to want to make it part of their work,” Clark says. At the same time, however, many popular artists who have incorporated recordings of his playing into their own tracks have not paid him-or even asked-for the privilege. “I’m from the school of musicians that actually play,” Clark remarks, “it’s called ‘live’ … [Still,] I’m glad that even though they stole it, they liked it, and it brought more attention

to me, which helps me financially and helps me to continue to create and to bring new stuff to the world of music and culture.”

According to Clark, every member of the Headhunters is coming from a similar place in terms of their perception of themselves and each other. “My music comes from the roots up, meaning that I’m a student of the music and history: where it came from … where the music that I love and am a part of came from, and the artists that made it. I’d say now my role is to pass on the information that I feel that I’ve gleaned-and that I feel is accurate-to the next group of people and to whoever’s willing to

listen and to whoever can hear it and is capable of understanding it. And in a group, I think it’s a similar activity … [We] are really

trying our best to bring forth what we consider to be culturally the high road. [I’m] not saying that we’re the best cats or the top of the food chain or divorced from ego, but … there is a lot of history on the bandstand in [the Headhunters], and what makes it

a special event for me is the history and the amount of contribution that every guy in this band has made.”

Clark says that Hancock taught him the Buddhist chant, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” and that by chanting that, one can achieve all of one’s dreams. “I was a young man, and if I heard of anything that said I could achieve all of my dreams, I wanted to know all about it right away, because I had a million dreams, and I’m not a particularly suspicious person, so I just thought, ‘Sure, I’ll check it out.'”

When the recording session for the track “Actual Proof” on the album Thrust came around, the producer (who had received a very basic knowledge of drumming in school) asked Clark to play

a very “basic, unhip” rhythm. “I said, ‘Look, I really don’t want to play that. I think I have a better scheme,’ and he got very mad at me,” Clark recollects. “Rather than me getting mad back,

I thought, ‘This is an assignment for this [chanting] that I’m hearing all about from Herbie Hancock.'” Clark excused himself for

a few minutes, snuck into another studio, and chanted. “I said, ‘Okay, everybody’s going to hear me on this record, and if I play

a pedestrian beat like this man wants me to play, then they’re going to think that this is who I am creatively.’ The Buddhist practice is based on something called ‘Actual Proof’-you get what you chant for-so … being that the other tracks were also kind of pedestrian and this was my one chance to show my stuff, I chanted that on this track, I would be immortalized in jazz throughout history. I was young,” Clark qualifies, “so that was my prayer.” After chanting alone for several minutes, Clark says that he went back into the studio and (nicely) asked the producer to let them try playing it once their way, and if they could not get it in one take, they would play it the way he told them to. “He laughed at me, because it was a very difficult piece, and he said that nobody could play that piece in one take, because we hadn’t really rehearsed it, and especially the way (we wanted) to play it, it was too complicated. I said, ‘Please, give us a chance. If you’re right, we’ll all know within the first four bars.'” The group got the track in one take, and Clark is credited with a drumming innovation on the track, as well. The piece, originally titled something else, was changed to “Actual Proof” in honor of Clark’s accomplishment. “When Herbie saw my inner change,” Clark reflects, “and saw that it had affected the environment that strongly, he changed the name of it … When the piece was over, everybody was giving me high-fives and hugging me in the studio and going, ‘Michael, that was brilliant.’ And [the producer] then came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for arguing with me, and making me see what you were thinking. This is one of the finest things I’ve ever been a part of.'”

Incidentally, Clark is the only white member of the Headhunters, and experienced firsthand the breakdown of racial barriers in popular music in the 1960s and especially the 1970s.

“I lived in Oakland … so I saw Huey Newton and all those guys, and I witnessed the police beating up African-Americans. I saw this with my own eyes. The reason I lived there was because Paul Jackson, the bassist in Herbie’s band, and I have been best friends since I was 19 years old. So his dad got us a place together because we were both young guys starting out … So I was witnessing a lot of things that I would have never seen before had I not moved in with Paul, and I was really outraged about what I was seeing, and about all the lies the government was telling…” Also, at the same time, Clark points out that in those days, “black consciousness … was really rising … and America was becoming aware of African- Americans’ taste in clothes, music, what they liked and didn’t like, and also the needs of the black community: what was being addressed and … how they were being treated as citizens … began to filter through into white America and other Americas.”

“Paul and I were a musical team, and so our bands were usually predominantly black through his friends, and mixed with the occasional white guy other than myself….We’d try to mix it up…the musicians that could play the best were the ones that we would get. That was my experience, and that lasted years, so when I met Herbie, I was quite comfortable, as far as who I was. I didn’t feel I had to try to be someone I wasn’t, or that I had to affect a ‘black-sounding’-whatever that means-type of talking, or any kind of bullshit. I was just kind of myself, and the friendship between Paul and I was so strong that nobody dared challenge it. However, there were some other people in the band who didn’t see it that way; they had problems with the fact that I was white, and I learned to stand up for myself and also love those guys back, who felt that way, and understand why they felt that way the best that I could…and to this day, we’re all serious family.”

“And at the same time, it was this tremendous growing experience, being with those guys, because it wasn’t all beautiful just because Paul and I were friends; I definitely got some flak for it. However, musically, how I fit in was being myself. It seems like the thing I came up with, the thing I was doing with my drumming, fit in perfectly with this band, and does to this day. Nobody ever gave me a hard time about playing, but there were some uncomfortable moments … where I had to really look carefully at myself and figure out who I was. It made a man out of me, and it’s the best experience a young guy could ever have, playing in that situation at that time period, because … it made me a strong person and a world person; I mean, I can talk with anybody and be comfortable with them. I didn’t have to adjust any of my personality to fit in the situation; what I had to do was accept the good part of my life, and not denigrate myself because I was

a white person … I couldn’t be of any value as an artist if

I punished myself mentally or spiritually because of that situation. .. I’m grateful that I had the experience to deal with that and develop myself. I wish everybody in this country could do that.”

“Music really reflects what’s going on in society, but it can also really affect what’s going on … Music is a strong force, and so that means that I want to be at my best, and the other guys in the band do, as well,” Clark observes, also explaining that “especially with music like [the Headhunters] play, [which] is intellectually stimulating, there is a tapestry of souls going on as far as we’re communicating with each other musically and intertwining each others’ lives through musical conversation. And the music is funky, so the body gets a good sensation, as well. So you get it from the neck down and the neck up, and that’s pretty much what our music is about. And so the more we can groove people and make them feel good, it just makes for a better feeling for people.”

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