Nisan Stewart's desire to get behind the kit was born out of time spent as a young man in church with his father, a pastor. He watched, in awe, as the highly skilled musicians took to the stage each Sunday, captivating the audience.
"My interest in playing the drums came from watching my brother-in-law play when I was a little kid. I wanted something to do around my father's church and the drums seemed to be the flyest thing. I knew people played the drums for a career, but I didn't even really know the amount of money I could make or that I could make a living off of it. I had no idea."
Stewart took some lessons from his brother-in-law, and was also a keen observer of the great Gerald Heyward who performed in services with Hezekiah Walker & the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir. His approach to drumming was further influenced and ultimately changed when he was introduced Dave Weckl's Master Plan album, which he says opened up his eyes to a spectrum of possibilities. From there he began listening to studio greats like Steve Gadd and his ultimate favorite, Vinnie Colaiuta.
"I started picking up on the different conversations that drummers have through the instrument, and their different expressions," Stewart says. "That was amazing for me, so all of that kind of helped shape where I am today."
Remarkably, after only a few months of lessons, Stewart took over from his brother-in-law as the drummer in the church band. He began traveling to play at churches around the country with his father and younger brother, Rapture, another highly successful music producer.
"My dad would go and minister at other churches and we would go around and deliver the music for him," Stewart says. "As he got older, my brother-in-law couldn't be there often so that was my shot. The lesson in that was to just be ready, always be practicing.
Stewart supplemented what he learned playing in church with the occasional instructional video and by listening closely to and jamming with music from a wide variety of genres.
"When I was a kid growing up, you went from gospel to R&B, from Michael Jackson to pop, and then being introduced to The Police and Sting. From there to NWA, you know, all the hip-hop stuff. There was also Tupac, then Notorious B.I.G., and even Guns 'N' Roses and Nirvana when I was in high school. Man, I liked it all."
Despite Stewart's natural gift for playing drums, he hadn't spent much time considering music as a profession. His plan had been to grab a big-time college football scholarship and work his way to the NFL. But when the scholarship offer didn't come, Stewart began to think about other ways to earn money. Stewart's first break came following his junior college graduation. The church had always been a part of his life, and his connections through gospel music circles began to pay off. Stewart's friend Warryn Campbell, whom he had performed with as a vocalist in the gospel group Soul Seekers, called him to fill in for a gig.
"I went and played for one show, which was 20 minutes, and I got this big check. So, I said 'let me go on. Let me get better. Let me study.' Then I began to read about who was out there – guys like Ricky Lawson, who was playing for Michael Jackson, and Steve Gadd doing his thing. I started thinking, 'These guys are making a great living.' I studied not just the craft, but the business and how to be when you're out on the road. I learned that you don't have to be the guy that tries to impress everybody. You have to be the guy that tries to make great records and play great songs."
Soon after, Stewart landed a six-month tour with emerging R&B artist Puff Johnson. It was Stewart's first full-time paid gig, and he began to realize that earning a good living as a working musician was possible.
Stewart's second break came following a church concert attended by Def Jam collaborators Shep Crawford and Playa, who hired Stewart as part of the music industry's heavyweight backing band, the 100 Grand Band.
"I went in and did one little rehearsal and played – it was a great performance. Timbaland had a big concert coming up that weekend. He said, 'Hey, you all want to come and do this show with us?' We went, did two shows in front of like 20,000 people and we killed it. Ever since then he was like, 'I got to have this band.' So we went out and worked with him and that's how I got into the studio side of things."
As notorious as Timbaland is for isolating himself in the studio, Stewart was invited to sit in on a few studio sessions, where he began to learn the art of production.
"Timbaland doesn't like anybody in the studio while he's creating his magic, but we would be in there with him. He showed us a lot of stuff and we give a lot of credit to him for revealing some of the secrets. That's how I got into producing. I thought, 'Let's go on the studio and play on Timbaland's records, then go in the studio and write records and create our own.'"
Working with Timbaland lead to Stewart collaborating with some of P. Diddy's artists, which soon turned into opportunities to work in Diddy's studio. Stewart was paired with bassist Dante Nolan, and the two began to log serious studio time.
"Diddy likes to run a slave ship" Stewart laughs, "so me and Dante would be in the studio all night, leaving when the sun came up, with people on their way to work. We'd just be in there grinding, kind of feeding off each other's creativity."
Diddy's biggest venture around the time Stewart began working for him was the concept for the show, "Making His Band" (Later renamed Making The Band).
"Diddy hit me one day when we were working on his new album and said, 'I got to make sure the band is right. I think I want to do a show to showcase the musicians and the grind of being a musician.' I give him props for doing that," Stewart says, "because nobody's ever done that, as far as I know."
Diddy invited Stewart to participate in the show as a talent judge and coach, working primarily with the drummers. Open auditions were held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Stewart himself saw every one of the thousands of musicians that came to perform in each city.
"As we found the undiscovered talent, I realized it's an amazing opportunity. People think the music business is big, but it's really small, there's only a certain number of gigs at the higher level. So I think the opportunity of giving somebody a chance to come and be in this mainstream music industry is great."
Since his time on "Making His Band," Stewart is often approached by musicians hoping to create an opportunity, or get some career advice. "I look for good heart, good attitude, and somebody who loves to be creative, and I try to help them get to that next level. Because they can make it. Understand that it's not about you. You've got to be humble and just keep pushin', baby."
With Stewart's reputation for reliability in the recording studio well established, he began spending a considerable amount of time away from home, and the financial cost began to add up. "I was inspired to invest in a home studio when I looked at the bills I would pay out for using other people's studios. Other studios are great, but I wanted to be able to be creative at any given moment. I figured if I felt like being creative at three in the morning, I could get out of bed and go downstairs and work."
As complex as designing a modern home studio can be, Stewart was fortunate enough to pluck an experienced builder right from the family tree. "My cousin, Jerry Lewis II, actually built it and did an amazing job of the design of the room. Nice little room, and I can get the job done. [Jerry's] a carpenter and a musician, and he had built another great studio in Michigan. Jerry's younger brother is Robert 'Bubby' Lewis, my other cousin who is a bass player who plays with Snoop. So we are a musical family. We've got people playing and working in different areas. But Jerry did a great job."
When it came to outfitting his new home studio, Stewart stayed with what he'd come to know working with Timbaland. "I definitely had to have the top of the line ProTools HD rig," Stewart says. "As far as the gear I use, there was a time I was spending all this money on all these modules, and then here comes a new computer age where everything can be right in the computer. I would come here to Guitar Center and see what's new. I was definitely in the habit of just trying whatever was new, and if I thought it could be useful for my creative process, I'd buy it."
At the center of the home studio sits a custom maple DW kit, which features a black finish under a silver tribal pattern that incorporates Stewart's initials, 'NS'. The kit is loaded with 8, 10 and 12" rack toms, 14, 16 and 18" floor toms, a 24" kick drum and 7x14" snare. When Stewart's away from home, his kit of preference is the DW Performance Series. "Number one, [the Performance Series] is affordable," Stewart says. "Number two they sound great. I've been taking this white kit around for TV shows and in studios around the country. That kit, those shells, are second to none."
Zildjian is, and has always been Stewart's choice of cymbals: "I use the K Hybrid series. I use a 13" K Hybrid hat, a 20" K Hybrid ride, and a 17" K Hybrid or 19" A Custom crash. I [also] use an 11" K Hybrid splash, and the A custom AFX cymbal, 16 or 18".
"The DW 9000 pedal is my choice of pedal. Never had a problem. It works good with this big old foot right here." As for hardware, the DW 9000 series again fits the bill. "I love the lock effects that they have on what they're doing. All cutting edge. Guys over there do such an amazing job. I'm a big guy and I hit hard, but I don't break anything because it's all really stable."
Stewart's had a unique experience in building his career, with artists and producers coming to him. He credits his good fortune to the lessons he learnt early on in his career.
"I think, man, just be a good person, be cool, be respectful and know your business. Then people will want to call you. So be ready. Practice 'til you can't practice no more, and when your number's called, you can say confidently, 'I'm ready.'"