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Deezle: Drum Major to Super-Producer

Victoria Wasylak • February 2021UpClose • February 6, 2021

Darius ‘Deezle’ Harrison remembers his formative days in school bands

Darius “Deezle” Harrison first held a Grammy – his own Grammy, that is – in 2009. After working alongside Lil Wayne to produce on the rapper’s ubiquitous hit “Lollipop,” the track won “Best Rap Song” at the 51st Grammy Awards.

Then, he immediately found himself holding a second Grammy for “Best Rap Album” for his contributions to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. It was an eventful night for the New Orleans musician and producer, to say the least.

Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Birdman, Yung Joc: His time producing and engineering tracks for the A-listers of hip-hop and R&B had led up to this moment. The projects that were to come – with N.O. 4, DMX, Drake, Jennifer Lopez, as well as his own solo work – were just as spectacular.

“I had to know everybody’s part and I had to be able to know when it was correctly put together. I had to know who was playing the right stuff, who was playing the wrong stuff, and it really made me adept as a producer.”

But before any of the Grammys, production credits, or platinum records arrived, it was just Deezle and his saxophone.

He recalls one fateful day in school when students interested in the school’s band program were able to learn about different instruments. At first, Deezle yearned to play the bass, as he had seen one his uncles do many times before. His other love, the harmonica, which he had played since age five, obviously wasn’t an option either. But when the bass was noticeably absent from the lineup, his eyes and ears landed on the saxophone.

Pieces of “Winelight” and “Mister Magic” echoed in his head. Suddenly, his mind was made up. Unfortunately, his father’s mind wasn’t.

Heading home after class with high hopes, Deezle’s requests for a saxophone were denied by his father immediately. Unable to bring a signed permission slip for band back to school, Deezle asked his father again the next day. And the day after that. And the following day, every day, for a week and a half.

Deezle poses with his 2009 Grammys for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album

“I went home again that evening, and I asked my dad again: ‘Can you buy me a saxophone, please?’ He would say, ‘I thought I told you no yesterday.’ I was trying to think of ways I could save up money or work to get it, and it was just way too much money for me to get quick enough to be able to be in the band.”

After almost two weeks of asking, Deezle’s father caved, purchased him a saxophone, and signed the band permission slip.

Deezle was ecstatic.

“I cherished it and I kept it clean, I practiced, I took care of it, and I immediately began to excel at reading music, and at playing, and my tone and my ability was all rapidly increasing,” he explains. “I was taking private lessons with my band director on the weekends, and I just grew really fast because I practiced every day. So, next thing you know, I’m playing first chair alto saxophone and I’m doing the solos.”

“So many great experiences, so many different levels of preparation for what I do now came from the discipline and the training of being in that band. It made us professionals before we were even at the professional level. The etiquette, the professionalism, and ability to get down and dirty if I’ve got to.”

Entering Louisiana Music Educators Association (LMEA) competitions, Deezle learned classical pieces and would regularly place first. After a few more years of practice and lessons, the school band entered jazz competitions as well.

But there was another level of musicianship and performances that Deezle had been yearning for – one that he hadn’t been exposed to yet. After successful years in his middle school and junior high band, Deezle set his sights even higher after watching the Mardi Gras parade.

“I would see this band marching in the parades and it just looked incredible. It was like a really tight-knit, well-prepared unit,” he recalls. “The music sounded great, the way they marched was really tight step. I thought to myself, ‘I have to be in that band.’ And then I noticed the drum major up at the front, and I was like, ‘I wanna be that. That guy, that’s who I’m going to be when I get to that band.’”

That group was the marching band of St. Augustine High School.

Years passed, and Deezle watched the St. Augustine band perform in the Mardi Gras parade repeatedly, always with awe. When he finally reached eighth grade, he unsurprisingly only had his sights set on one school.

His father wasn’t pleased, instead insisting that Deezle attend one of the schools that his friends were also attending. But that school’s band simply wasn’t up to snuff, Deezle says.

“It became a thing in our household for a good maybe month or so, because my dad was trying to make me fill out other applications to schools that I was completely not interested in,” he notes. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not filling it out, and you just gonna have to kick my a** because I’m not filling it out, I’m not going to that school you want me to go to.”

Deezle dug his heels in even harder upon being accepted to St. Augustine’s honors program (“I was academically sound as well as musically sound,” he says). After being dragged to the archdiocese and still refusing to change his enrollment, his father finally relented.

Little did Deezle know, the real challenge was about to begin.

The summer before his freshman year of high school, Deezle got a letter from the St. Augustine band saying practice started next Monday at 8 a.m. sharp. The note said to bring workout clothes. He was certainly going to need them.

Fast forward to his first practice, where Deezle and his peers learned how to stand at attention for hours at a time in the Louisiana summer heat.

“The sun is blazing hot, we’re on black asphalt, so it’s cooking our feet, and for almost four hours we’re outside in the sun, learning to stand at attention, learning how to march holding our legs up at a 90-degree angle with our feet pointed to learn the technique,” he remembers. “And you just stand there at attention, holding your leg up for however long you can, and then they blow the whistle and you switch. . .It was a really intense introduction to learn how to march, and by the time we went home that first day, it was like, ‘Okay, what did I get myself into?’ Musically, I had not been through anything that grueling just to play my horn.”

Like the rest of the band, however, Deezle adapted to the practices that initially felt like “torture” (duckwalking included) and marched into the school year ready to perform at the school’s football games. At the time, Deezle was one of only two freshmen playing first chair. By their first school football game together, the payoff from all those summer practices was already enormous.

Lined up with the band outside of the football field for their official performance together, the screams from the crowd ricocheted off the bleachers.

“It really was a thing that people were excited about,” Deezle says. “And I was at the brink of understanding why. Well, it was the same excitement that I had when I saw them marching in the parade when I was younger. . . it’s like being a rock star – but in a marching band.”

In the St. Augustine band, Deezle and his peers learned a new show every week. “The discipline and the years of being in that band made us hometown superstars, on a high school level,” he says. As a nationally recognized musical force, the band performed at myriad esteemed events, like the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Atlanta, NFL games, or the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

The details of one particular halftime performance opportunity were kept under wraps from the band for weeks when Deezle was a sophomore (at which point, he was not only first chair, but also assistant section leader). After ample preparation, the band discovered they were headed to perhaps America’s greatest stage: The Super Bowl Halftime show.

Ironically, Deezle wasn’t much of a football fan.

“I knew it was big, but when I went home and I told my cousin, and he started doing flips around the house, then I was like, ‘Oh…okay, this is serious,’ ” he says. “To me, I was just going to go do the same thing I did every week. I was going to go play my saxophone and march in a halftime show for a football game, not thinking about the fact that it was the biggest football game of the year. In 1991, we played the halftime show for the Super Bowl, and it was a great experience. At that point, it was the biggest stage I had ever been on.”

More successes came as Deezle’s high school years flew by: He became section leader his junior year, and his senior year, he accomplished his longtime dream of being a drum major. Looking back at his time in the band, he attributes his building success to the amount of time he spent playing and practicing outside of a school setting.

“I wasn’t into sports. I wasn’t into other things,” Deezle shares. “I wasn’t dividing my time between basketball, football, and band, I was practicing… Like, while people were playing basketball, I was practicing four hours a night after school. After practice, I would go home and practice.”

The entire experience with the St. Augustine band had been transformative for him, setting him up for a lifetime of music-making in more ways than he could imagine.

“So many great experiences, so many different levels of preparation for what I do now came from the discipline and the training of being in that band,” Deezle reflects. “It made us professionals before we were even at the professional level. The etiquette, the professionalism, and ability to get down and dirty if I’ve got to.”

Being a producer, specifically, meshes with his experiences as a drum major, since he had to know all the instrumentalists’ parts – not just his own. When he’s in the studio, he needs a similar skillset to help shape a record into its final form.

“I had to know everybody’s part and I had to be able to know when it was correctly put together,” Deezle explains. “I had to know who was playing the right stuff, who was playing the wrong stuff, and it really made me adept as a producer.”

After a brief detour in college studying biology (“I’ll tell ya’, it was the most miserable year and a half of my life,” he says), and training as a vocal major, Deezle first found his way into a studio by chance. Working at the local mall, he came upon a customer who casually mentioned he had a recording studio. Deezle asked to come over after work – and he did, right on time. His enthusiasm earned him an internship, and Deezle quit his retail job immediately.

It didn’t take long until Cash Money Records was calling him, asking to work on his record together. And, of course, things escalated quickly in the best way possible from there. “Next thing you know, I’m on number one records,” Deezle says.

“I’m grateful for the things that I learned, and even the medical stuff that I learned, because it taught me how the ear works, which later on allowed me to understand how to manage or manipulate sound in order to make people move, with sound,” he shares.

Looking back on past hardships – his father’s initial refusals, learning new band routines every single week, practices in the Louisiana sun – it’s incredible to take stock of Deezle’s tenacity all these years later. But that tenacity itself stems from two things: Deezle’s own young determination, and the well-earned confidence that came from years as a top-notch player in top-notch bands. All this to say – the next “Deezles” are currently sitting in band rooms across America.

“I knew what I wanted for myself, you know?” he recalls. “I knew what I wanted for myself, and I was like, ‘I don’t care who it is, you’re not gonna stop me from achieving that goal. And I’m not gonna go be in some half-a** band!’ ”

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