TaRon Lockett has spent his entire career as the drummer for some of the biggest names in the industry. Now he’s stepping from behind the drums to bask in the spotlight.
In Dallas circles, Lockett is often introduced (though seldom to his face) as “Prince’s last drummer.” But he’s also served as a backbone to artists like Snoop Dogg, CeeLo Green, Erykah Badu, RC & The Gritz, and Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles — with whom he still plays.
Lockett is ready to get his own share of love with “Scared to Love Me Too.” The artist slides into the deepest grooves of funk in the relentlessly upbeat single, produced in Los Angeles by Grammy-winning producer Jairus “JMO” Mozee.
“Well, like the majority of those musicians from the Dallas area, we started in church,” Lockett says of his musical beginnings.
That’s where he first caught a glimpse of his cousin playing the drums, and he decided to do the same.
“I did that and started taking this seriously, and that's all I ever wanted to do after that,” he says of playing the instrument.
Lockett was born in Dallas and grew up in Garland with his grandparents. His mother is now a paralegal, but when he and his two siblings, Brian and Olivia, an artist whose stage name is Liv. E, were growing up, she was in the thick of her modeling career.
Lockett remembers seeing his mother at work, covered only by a sheet.
“And she was naked, and I was like ‘Not my momma,’” he says with a laugh. “I don't know what they call modeling back then, but she did it.”
He wasn’t around the glamour much, he says, because he grew up with his grandparents. “But my mom has always been around,” he says.
“She's always been in the industry and been around cool people,” Lockett says. “She was like, I don't know, the life of the party. She was just a cool person to be around.”
One of the people in his mother's circle was her best friend, keyboardist Bobby Sparks, a Dallas music figurehead who has worked as Kirk Franklin's music director and played with Herbie Hancock and Nelly Furtado.
Lockett saw him play when he was a teenager, and then, he says, “I gravitated to the Dallas music scene.”
He met RC Williams, Erykah Badu’s music director, and musician Gino LockJohnson Iglehart.
“They just started taking me under their wings,” Lockett says of the music veterans. Their mentorship was short-lived, as Lockett left for five years to study mass communications at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
He didn’t graduate. “Hell, no,” he says with a laugh. What happened there? “My career,” he says.
His success was prompted by chance, in a story familiar to many local musicians: a gig with Erykah Badu. The "Queen of Neo-Soul” was performing at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and Lockett was driving up to watch the show. He was halfway there when he got a call from Williams.
“RC called me and is like, ‘Hey man, you’re gonna have to play. [Drummer] Chris [Dave] missed his flight or some shit,’" Lockett recalls. "And after that, you know, Erykah said she wanted to keep me around.”
A year later, Lockett joined Badu’s European tour as a drummer and sometime percussionist on a double-decker bus where he says the band became “family.”
He thinks back on his first tour.
“I can tell you one thing that pissed me off,” he says, remembering the time Badu took him and another musician to buy clothes at American Apparel. Lockett says he was confused by their sizes and ended up with pants that were too tight.
“We’re like women in these pants and I end up having to unbutton them and have them sagging just so I can be comfortable,” he remembers. “We were wearing gray V-neck, thin sweaters and too-tight gray pants ... Yeah, it's not my view of sex appeal.”
He’s not sure if it was Badu’s either.
“Maybe. You never know what she thinks,” he says of the singer.
Badu has many thoughts about Lockett, she tells the Observer.
“I remembered him from some ancient time and place when we first met," she says. "I watched Taron grow. I saw him in his flow. I witnessed him become aligned with nature and become a talking, walking drum. Those sticks became extensions of his arms at some point. Not quite sure when, but I imagine it was somewhere around 2."
"He started playing in my band pretty young," she continues. "I had him on percussion for a minute just to condition him. He was apprehensive but he mastered that, too. I actually saw him transform into an ancestor and free some deities one night at Sandaga on percussion. I mean... when he really locks in to his own metronome he plays like a loop god. We got pretty close."
"I really love Tay Tay, not just as a musician but he's a beautiful man with great integrity, big hands and a big — cough — heart; he’s a very old soul. This guy backs his Cadillac in to my driveway," she adds jokingly. That’s an old man, not in years, but in era. Like 1927. We walked an important path together. I’m glad he’s on this school called Earth with me. Makes it easier."
After touring for six months, Lockett stayed in school for another year. Early one morning he walked into a summer class after getting off a flight from someplace with cold weather. He says he “was looking stuuupid” in his winter coat while his classmates were in summer clothes. Then he learned his teacher was only making $30,000 a year.
“I was like, hell no, man. This is not gonna work,” he says, adding that he could no longer juggle both school and work.
“So eventually I have to give up one — and you know you're going to choose the one that's really not as important to you,” he says, looking back. “I'm gonna do what I love, what I pray for, what I dedicated my life to. And it's paying money, so why am I gonna sit here with somebody that doesn't give a shit about teaching me because they're more worried about how much they get paid?”
Lockett’s father died when he was 15, but one memory in particular left a lasting impression. His father was a bodyguard for Chaka Khan and brought Lockett along to a show at the Starplex (now the Dos Equis Pavilion) when he was 8 or 9. The show’s headliners were Khan, Barry White, Gladys Knight and Kenny Lattimore.
“I got to see how the day goes, the setting up, the sound checks,” he remembers. He met all the stars on the lineup except Lattimore, which didn’t bother him then.
“I had never heard of Kenny Lattimore at the time,” he says with a laugh.
“We didn’t have long in life and we weren’t around each other long much at all,” Lockett says of his father. “But I do give thanks and I'm humbled by that, for him being able to do this while he was alive.”
Through Williams, Lockett got a gig with Snoop Dogg in 2011.
“We did one gig in South Padre Island and we were smoking a blunt and Snoop said, ‘I wanna keep moving you around,’” Lockett recalls. “I said ‘OK, I’m not turning that down.’”
He joined the rapper’s Doggumentary Tour, an experience Lockett describes as “a real cool brotherhood.”
“When we walked in places together, we walked in like a unit,” he says of the band.
That led to touring with CeeLo Green and Prince’s protege Liv Warfield. “Which led to me ending up playing with him,” he says of Prince.
Lockett was in New York when he got a call from another Dallas artist letting him know that Prince had fired Warfield’s drummer and that he was holding auditions for a replacement. Lockett jumped — or rather, flew— at the chance for the gig.
“I ended up spending my rent money, go to Vegas,” he says. “I really prayed to God, man, like if this is for me let it be for me, because I don't want to be homeless when I get back home.”
During Lockett’s first meeting with Prince, the legend was characteristically quiet.
“He didn’t say much. The only thing he said to me was ‘good job,‘“ Lockett recalls.
He ended up getting the gig, but Prince remained laconic. Lockett would get instruction from others about changing his snare to what Prince wanted to hear.
Lockett began performing at Paisley Park, Prince's home in Minnesota, and doing studio work for the artist. He remembers the star as infinitely energetic, wearing a white jumpsuit and having throngs of people over.
“He was running around crazy,” Lockett says of Prince at his parties. “Mingling, going to work the sound booth, going to check things on the stage.”
Lockett turned down Prince’s offer to stay on as his drummer, and the most the star ever spoke to him was at their final meeting, Lockett says.
“It was more my integrity at that time than money or what would look good for me,” Lockett says of why he quit. “We talked about the shows (coming up), my son, where I’m from. He wished me good luck, we shook hands ... and that would be the last time I see him again.”
The star died less than a year later. Lockett says that while he was “blessed” to work with Prince, he felt a greater freedom onstage with his current band, Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles.
Lockett believes he was Prince’s last drummer.
“Now, he did have Kirk Johnson — he was pretty much his estate's manager,” Lockett says. “After I declined, he (Johnson) was still there. So if people want to say technically, you know, it would be Kirk, but I’m the last one they brought in there.”
Lockett’s son is now 14 and lives with Lockett and his mom in Los Angeles, where Lockett moved two years ago. The drummer plays regularly in North Texas but says he needed to leave the nest under his mentor's wings.
“Even though I'm here, that's still home,” he says of Texas.
“Me and RC talk all the time, me and Shaun (musician Martin) talk all the time … I just had to get away because I needed to grow on my own,” Lockett says. “I'm always around my big homies, they're the best. Ain’t nobody like them in this world, but I can't grow if I'm only looking to just be that.
“I have to find something for myself so I can stand on my own. If I don't take the time to go find my own shit, where's my voice?”
Around June of last year, Lockett found that voice when he started writing his own music. Because of COVID-19, his plans to record a whole album were halted, and instead he decided to release the single “Scared to Love Me Too” last Friday.
The song, Lockett says, is about his inability to sustain relationships when he doesn’t have love for himself.
“When you think of those things, everything is action — happiness, love,” he says of the song. “That's why I said ‘Love is easy to say, it's hard to do.’ They say it like it's a word, but it's really an action. You gotta perform acts of love, and I can’t do it if I’m scared to love me too. I gotta get me first.”
The last few weeks have been particularly trying for Lockett. In the midst of the George Floyd protests, his grandmother died. While she didn’t get to hear his new song, she was present for some of Lockett’s landmark moments.
“My grandmother's seen me play with Erykah and seen me play with Snoop,” he says.
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Perhaps most important, she caught sight of Lockett’s highest honor — no pun intended.
“And ... she watched me smoke weed with Snoop,” he says with a laugh.
Listen to "Scared to Love Me Too" below: