With his spiky mohawk, cluttered canvas of tattooed skin and punk rock pedigree stretching back to childhood, Travis Barker isn’t exactly pleading to be taken seriously as a hip-hop head. A former drummer for the multi-platinum-selling power pop trio Blink-182 who also has done turns behind the kit for rock outfits including the Aquabats, +44 and Box Car Racer, he boasts impeccable Warped Tour credentials and critical props as one of modern rock’s most exciting, exacting percussion players.
But a funny thing happened when Barker posted a video of himself on YouTube last September drumming thunderously in time with Southern rapper Soulja Boy’s smash hit single “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Almost immediately, it began to spread virally among hip-hop heads. Fast-forward a year: The clip has been streamed a whopping 17.5 million times, and no one is more surprised than Barker, who says he put it online as a means to a much simpler end.
“You might have heard some of my remixes but never known it was me,” he said one blindingly hot afternoon at his North Hollywood recording studio. “I thought, ‘If I want my remixes to be popular, if I want people to even know I’m doing them, maybe I should use YouTube.’ I never thought we’d get as many views as we did. I was tripping!”
And just like that, the greyhound-thin Fontana native has become one of the most sought-after musicians in hip-hop, having given his patented rock “remix” once-overs to a constellation of rap and R&B; luminaries’ songs. Among them, Barker’s label-sanctioned remixes of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Busta Rhymes’ “Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water on ‘Em),” the Game’s “Dope Boys,” Flo Rida’s “Low” and Wale’s “G Told Me.”
“He’s the dopest drummer alive,” said Compton gangsta rapper the Game, summoning hip-hop’s highest praise. “He does it so effortlessly. Travis is addicted to it. He loves good music but just happens to be a punk rocker.”
Moreover, Barker seems to be drifting even further from the rock flock by teaming up with in-demand, genre-hopping turntablist DJ AM to form a freewheeling rock-hip-hop hybrid known as TRV$DJAM (you can download its new mixtape, “Fix Your Face,” for free at www.trvsdjam.com).
The duo -- a kind of beat-driven version of the revolving-door rock collective Camp Freddy that already has hosted such high-profile guest stars as Paul Wall and Warren G -- will perform its third of three sold-out shows at West Hollywood’s Roxy Theatre tonight before going on to serve as house band for the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 7.
Three years ago, in the final countdown to Blink-182’s acrimonious breakup, Barker reached out to DJ AM to collaborate after becoming inspired by the performance of a hip-hop DJ and a percussionist in New York. The L.A.-based disc jockey was initially skeptical.
“I was kind of apprehensive at first,” DJ AM said. “I was thinking, ‘Less is more.’ Me juggling two records at the same time can be a lot for people to handle. Drums on top could have been too much.”
He continued: “I hadn’t heard his remixes and didn’t know how amazing a drummer Travis is. But we got together, I threw on James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer,’ one of the most sampled beats in hip-hop, and ‘I Know You Got Soul’ by Bobby Byrd. His face would just open up; he would match the beat perfectly. I thought, ‘Damn, this is fun.’ It’s like a skeleton you get to put the clothes on. And once the clothes are on, you yank out the spine.”
Although both Barker and DJ AM already have solo recording contracts with Interscope Records, the two, who also have performed together a handful of times at the club LAX in Las Vegas, plan to record an album together and tour as TRV$DJAM.
A longtime rap music lover with a huge tattoo of a boombox on his abdomen, Barker endured the rock press’ slings and arrows for professing his love of hip-hop in magazine interviews during his seven-year tenure with Blink-182. He says he veered off from pop-punk after becoming frustrated with rock music’s time-consuming recording process.
“It’s awesome when you’re in a band, but what usually happens is you lay down the drums first, then the bass, then guitar, then vocals. Damn, that’s like a six-month to a year process,” the drummer said. “With hip-hop, you can make a song in a day. To make beats, for me, is really natural. So that’s what I naturally migrated towards.”
Barker’s embrace by hip-hop comes at a moment when rock frontmen such as Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Adam Levine of Maroon 5 are being tapped by the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West to record rap tracks.
But the drummer’s ascension within the genre is largely predicated on his close involvement with hip-hop dating back to 2004, when Barker contributed beats to a remix of Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx’s “Back in the Mud.”
From there, Barker’s reggae-rap-punk side project the Transplants led him to do a collaboration with Texan gangsta rapper Bun B, followed by rock remixes for hip-hop all-stars including T.I., the Black Eyed Peas and Rich Boy in 2006.
Lately, Barker has been hard at work producing and recording his solo album, a guest-packed project he says will feature contributions from Damian Marley and Willie Nelson but also will include between six and eight rock remixes, due in record stores sometime next year.
A feverish multi-tasker who owns and operates the street apparel line Famous Stars and Straps, he has to be more selective these days about which tunes he’ll give the aggressive-sounding, monster stomp rock drum treatment to.
“Now, any remix that gets thrown to me, I have to love the song enough to make a video for it,” the soft-spoken Barker said. “I turned down some things I don’t think are me, that I don’t think my drums will lend a helping hand to.”
He added: “Figuring out where there aren’t a lot of dynamics on a song, that’s one of my strengths. Hearing, ‘Oh, the verses could be closed up here.’ Or, ‘Oh, the choruses could be super big, powerful there,’ or whatever.”
According to DJ AM, it’s something to behold live.
“Watching him is stunning,” DJ AM said. “People get fixated on him. It’s like he’s playing in Blink but there’s no breaks. It’s a 45-minute song with super-aggressive drums the whole time. You’ve got to be in ridiculous shape to pull it off! God knows how many calories he burns.”