I’ve seen the movie Drumline more times than I’d like to admit. Yes, the one starring Mariah Carey’s future husband as a cocky but talented street drummer, high stepping through his first year on the marching band’s drumline at a historically black college. I have a soft spot for uplifting and cheesy teen flicks, but Drumline is so much more than just a guilty pleasure: the “drum-offs” between the opposing teams’ lines are flashy, funny, aggressive, and musically complex.
I’m also a sucker for throwing the term “all-girl” in front of any type of music or arts enterprise, which led me to Googling away one afternoon for the possibility of an all-lady drum section. Not a drum circle (of which there were many, most on the “all-womyn” tip), but a drumline- military uniforms and all. It exists! Or at least, existed – at the BET Hip Hop Awards show in 2007. Called The Apple Bottom Drumline, the group currently sports a pretty sad five-line write-up on Wikipedia. So where did these girls come from, and where did they go?
The Apple Bottom Drumline
The 2007 BET Awards show seemed like a guys night. Out of the dozens of awards and performances presented, only one woman was spotlighted – hip hop artist Lil Mama, appearing in a pre-recorded cipher with Wyclef Jean, Twista, and Dizzie Rascal. The most prominent women there were girlfriends, video chicks, and reality stars.
But about half way through St. Louis rapper Nelly’s performance of “Let It Go (Lil Mama)”, something happened. A line of a dozen women outfitted in red military-style jackets and high waisted jeans entered the stage.
They carried cymbals.
And bass drums.
The group began to play a rapid-fire cadence. In stilettos. Even on the pixilated Korean bootleg video site I was using to watch the clip, it was obvious that these gals were presenting an impossibly cool combination of femininity and musical prowess.
Some Background On All-Female Marching Bands
Though there is a history of women-only marching bands and drumlines, the tradition had slowed down in recent decades. During World War Two, a number of women picked up the sticks and brass and subbed for the male players who were at war. Some ensembles, such as the Bandettes, the Bengal Guards, the Ventures, and the Hormel Girls continued on or came together in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Interestingly, the Red Hussar Drum & Bugle Corps of Port Arthur, Texas was established in 1929 via high school Physical Education department (as opposed to the Music department!) to encourage physical activity in young girls.
Since the mid-1980s, many of these groups have died out, and have not seen replaced by single-gender groups. But recent interest in the battery, also known as the drumline of a drum and bugle corp, was piqued with the success of the 2002 film Drumline. It wasn’t just me who loved it, I promise!
The Ladies Of The Apple Bottom Drumline
Some of the ladies credited as playing that night in the Apple Bottom Drumline were only mentioned online by their first names. Maybe it’s laziness on my part, but I didn’t try to track down Toya, Emily, or Sherry. I did find some of the girls on Facebook, and sent them messages that sounded vaguely like pick-up line – “I think I saw you on BET!” But luckily, Natracia Ballard and Morgan Anna Terry wrote me back.
Living in San Diego, then 24-year-old Natracia Ballard heard about the audition for Nelly’s Apple Bottom Drumline on the radio. The Florida native had been playing drums since she was 4, but not without her share of challenges. At 12, she yearned to play drums in her school’s band, but was talked out of it by the band director. “He thought that drums were more for boys, so he made me an alto saxophone player,” said Natracia. After her band director saw her on the news playing a drum solo at a talent show, he not only made her drum captain for marching band but also the drummer for the jazz band. Not stopping there, she later went on to receive the highest freshman try-out score for the Florida A&M University Marching 100 Drumline.
During Apple Bottom Drumline rehearsals in October of 2007, Natracia became quick buddies with quints player Morgan Anna Terry. Morgan won a spot on the line after she sent in an audition tape of herself drumming a cadence on the surface of a book.
Morgan was 21 and living in D.C. As a young girl, she had wanted to play percussion but was told that the school’s drums would be too heavy for a girl to carry, an excuse that seems highly ridiculous. She played violin, oboe, piano, and saxophone until she was able to gain a percussion spot in the marching band. She later moved on to become section leader of her high school’s drumline.
Pulling Off The “Impossible Performance”
Nelly enlisted in Hollywood creative director Kimberly Burse for his performance at the BET Awards that year. Burse had previously pieced together Suga Mama, Beyonce’s 10-piece all-female backing band. The final group flew to Georgia only three days before the performance to work on the song they’d be performing.
“Usually it takes a long time for a drum line to gel together,” said Natracia, who was assigned to the top bass drum position. “Every band that I’ve played with has a drum camp for the drummers a few months before the actual band camp happens.”
The group met Monday to begin preparation for Thursday’s performance of “Let It Go (Lil Mama)”. Wednesday, the women were fitted for outfits, which, naturally, came from Apple Bottoms, Nelly’s clothing line.
“That was when we found out we would be performing in high heels,” Natracia said. Performing outside in the blazing Southern heat while carrying a 20-pound bass drum was a piece of cake for Natracia, but adding stiletto boots was a new challenge. “Luckily they let us take our shoes back to the hotel with us that night. We had a few girlie girls but most of us were tomboys. I don’t know how we did it, but by morning everyone that didn’t know how to walk in heels had learned well enough to make it through the show.”
“We Knew We Were Supposed To Be Eye Candy”
There were never any illusions about what Nelly was looking for. The guy is a fan of featuring scantily-clad women in his videos, and isn’t exactly known as a bastion of feminism. “He said he wanted fine girls with apple bottoms and high heels,” Natracia said. “I even changed my style up for the audition. I didn’t wear my usual baggy pants and over sized T-shirt. I borrowed some tight girly jeans and some little shirts from my girlfriend.”
But for the self-professed tomboy, dolling up was worth it for the chance to show the world her musical chops. “We tried to make our skills stand out above our looks, and I think we were successful in that,” she said. Morgan agreed, and holds Nelly in high regard despite the appearance requirements. She said that in the end, the rapper “acknowledged that there were female drummers out there with major talent.”
The women had a lot to prove that night. Even though television audiences would hear a studio version of the cadence that the women had recorded the day before, they played live for the BET crowd, which included rap stars and a slew of music executives. The girls had to strike a balance – look cute, shake it a little, and play well.
“Not only were we an all-girl drumline, we were also all African-American,” said Natracia. “There was no room for error in our show. If we screwed it up it could very well be our last chance, for all female drummers, to prove that we exist and that we’re damn good. We had to kill it.”
After The BET Awards
The performance caught the attention of other musicians at the BET Hip Hop Awards. Wyclef Jean watched the group rehearse and expressed interest in them playing with him. “He thought we were a drum line that had been together for a while and had happened to get booked for Nelly’s show,” said Natracia. “He had no idea that we’d all just met that Monday.”
There wasn’t much more action from the Apple Bottom girls, just a couple of performances in Atlanta. But they recall the estrogen-drenched environment fondly. “We all got along with each other really well,” said Natracia. And she doesn’t subscribe to the bull about women not working well together. “I think we were too excited about what we were doing to be catty with each other.”
Watch the video of their performance here (about 3 mins in)
Story for Tom Tom Magazine By Josephine McRobbie
All photos courtesy Apple Bottom Drumline Myspace