A Lil’ Drummaboy with big dreams

Capturing the Philadelphia sound with Samori Coles

4 minute read
Coles, a Black man, sits at an illuminated, colorful soundboard in a dim studio
Coles at the controls in his studio on South Street. (Photo by Malachi Somerville.)

In the summer of 1996, Samori Coles, then a financial analyst for the Union Pacific Railroad, boarded a Greyhound bus in Omaha headed for Newark, New Jersey, and a future in the music industry. Nearly 30 years later, Coles is the owner of Lil' Drummaboy Recordings, a full-service recording studio and music production school on South Street that he hopes to grow into a Philadelphia “institution for music creators and would-be music creators.”

“I just give thanks,” Coles says, reflecting on how far he’s come after giving up his corporate job to pursue his passion in music. One of his first clients would pay him $45 per week to record her daughter in his apartment studio. “That $45 would buy my groceries for the week,” Coles remembers, ticking off the items he would buy: rice, cans of salmon, tomato soup. “I learned how to make that stretch.”

Three years into his east coast move, Coles was living in Germantown, making beats and writing rap lyrics at night after finishing day work at a pharmaceutical company. His mother was growing concerned—where would the music lead? She sent him an envelope of old photos. “I think she thought it would give me some nostalgia and make me want to move back home,” Coles laughs.

The opposite happened. “The first picture I took out was me on my first drum at three years old. Immediately, it clicked,” Coles remembers. The photo reminded him of the joy he had always found in music.

“It helped clarify things,” Coles smiles. “I was like, yo, this is it right now. I just named it Lil’ Drummaboy and didn’t look back.”

Since then, Coles has built a thriving business capturing the “sound of Philly,” with an emphasis on the R&B, hip-hop, and neo-soul scene, while also educating the next generation of audio engineers and music producers, including two Grammy nominees and hundreds of students in schools across the city.

The sound of Philly

“Philly has some of the most talented artists and musicians in the world, bar none,” Coles says. Arriving as a young man, he caught his first glimpse of Philly’s unique scene in clubs like The Five Spot, with its jam session “Black Lily” where artists like Jill Scott and The Roots would perform. “There was just this neo-soul, spoken word, independent hip-hop kind of alternative urban thing that was just rich,” Coles recalls.

Despite their talent, musicians in the city don’t always feel supported or appreciated, Coles says. “People don’t necessarily tell you you’re great in Philadelphia,” Coles says. “It makes you a different kind of hungry.”

One transformative experience came when Coles was asked by Don Gardner, a noted R&B musician and then president of the Clef Club, to record a friend who played the Hammond B3 organ. Coles knew nothing about the friend—only that over the course of two days of intensive 10-hour sessions, the music flowed out of him with baffling ease. It was only later that Coles learned it was Bobby Martin, an R&B legend whose collaborations produced songs like “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Back Stabbers,” and “Love Train.”

The sessions changed Coles’s perspective on music-making, showing him that simplicity—“humility”—could be the key to greatness. “Sometimes, it’s like people are jumping cartwheels to get these tracks together,” Coles says. “But, really, the key to a hit record is a great song.”

About seven people gather in a small studio space, smiling and clapping looking at each other or towards something off frame
Through classes, Coles hopes to give aspiring music creators the guidance he wished he had. (Photo by Malachi Somerville.)

Passing it on

Coles focuses much of his time now on teaching and mentoring. The studio offers courses in audio engineering, production, and music business. “Lil’ Drummaboy has been built on what I wish I had early on,” Coles explains.

The goal is to empower students to become working professionals in the music business, and the proof is in the pudding: Coles has hired many of his former students. Others have gone on to work in studios or open their own, and to collaborate with award-winning artists.

As his network grows, Coles hopes to make Lil’ Drummaboy a hub for the creative community—the locus of a “new sound of Philly” where artists come to make, and learn to make, great music.

Coles is expanding outside of the studio, too. This week will see the launch of It’s Samori, a new podcast making its debut on Friday, December 15, at 7pm with a launch party at the studio and online. The first episode features Jeannine Cook, entrepreneur, educator, writer, BSR contributor, and founder of Harriett’s Bookshop.

What, When, Where

It’s Samori Launch Party. Donation-based admission. Friday, December 15, 2023, at 7pm at Lil’ Drummaboy Recordings, 818 South Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19147. (215) 574-1400 or ldb10.com.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation