When he settled on hip-hop as his music genre, Duncan Burnett had two missions in mind. The first: Keep the messages positive.
“I’m big on spirituality and being a positive influence,” he said. “When I started, my goal was to have my nieces and nephews be able to listen to their uncle’s music and love it and be able to repeat every line and lyric but also to have people my age relate to it.”
His second mission was to provide live music during his performances. A trained drummer and percussionist, Burnett, 26, has been performing live since he was 7 years old. Live music, he said, is in his blood.
“When I first started messing around with rap, my dad said, ‘You’re a musician; you don’t need to rap,’” he said. “From the beginning, I wanted my live shows to be more like a rock show, not just a rapper with a DJ.”
He now leads Duncan Burnett and the Ministry, fronting a quartet that brings extra dynamics to his live shows.
Burnett was born and raised in Olathe in a musical family. He was younger than 2 when he started banging pots and pans with wooden spoons. He eventually graduated to a drum kit, and when he was 7, Burnett got his first gig playing drums at the church where his mother was choir director. In elementary school, he started taking music classes, which introduced him to theories and techniques.
“I’d never had a lesson in my life,” he said. “I learned by watching musicians in church. School helped me make sense of what I had learned by watching.”
In high school, he played in jazz bands, marching bands, drum lines, also playing vibraphone and tympani. When he was a senior, he transferred from Olathe North to Olathe Northwest, where band director Ed Colson dramatically changed Burnett’s perspective.
“He taught me work ethic,” Burnett said. “He taught me that you can only get so far on talent. He challenged me, and it was the first time I’d been challenged by someone with talent who worked way harder than me. It kind of sucked at the time, but I needed to realize that if I worked harder, my talent and work ethic would take me twice as far. Once I understood that, I felt like a professional musician.”
After high school, he “gave college a try” and started playing live gigs regularly, mostly in jazz clubs.
“I tried jazz because that’s what I did in high school,” he said. “But after a year or so, I had this moment when I decided I didn’t want to play background music anymore. I wanted to be in a rock band.”
He credits his father for that.
“He wasn’t a musician, but he had a great ear for music,” Burnett said. “He introduced me to guys who played, like Prince and Lenny Kravitz and to artists like Al Green and Michael Jackson.”
So he joined a few cover bands, then started playing with his uncle’s funk-cover band, JC and Live Version, playing most weekends, often to big crowds at the local casinos.
“That was my first real taste of professional drumming,” Burnett said. “People were coming out to see us. It was amazing.”
But he had another itch, another dream to pursue. “Funk was cool, but I wanted to rock more.”
So he tried a few more cover bands, then joined an alternative-rock band called Mime Games before finally admitting that what he wanted most was to lead his own band. By then he’d taken some sound engineering classes and was dabbling in studio production so he decided to set sail on his own.
“I was tired of playing music I didn’t believe in with lyrics I didn’t agree with 100 percent. I couldn’t find a band with a lead singer who was doing what I wanted. I’d always wanted to be a front man for a rock band, so why not try? But I really can’t sing that well so I decided to rap.”
Burnett’s first live rap shows were small affairs in churches. His first big show was at the RecordBar in October. He was supposed to be a supporting act, but he brought such a big crowd the promoter moved him into the headlining slot. Burnett played a floor tom and a cymbal and was accompanied by a guitarist, and they won the crowd over.
The Ministry now comprises two permanent members: Justin Curry, music director and keyboardist; and Ryan Lee, bassist. Justus West is a regular guitarist and Pat Adams a regular drummer. Burnett said the band brings the dynamics necessary to bring home his messages and give his audience something more to absorb than lyrics and recorded music.
“I take a lot of pride in our live show,” he said. “We want people to see something different. It’s kind of an uphill battle doing a style that isn’t about sex, drugs, money, cars and clothes. So we want to make sure to bring something else, something relevant for cool kids that’s intelligent, something people will bob their heads to the first time, then when they get to the lyrics, realize, ‘He’s saying something.’ I’m not the greatest rapper, but the show doesn’t focus on that. There’s lots of energy and jumping around, live instrumentation, a lot of stuff that’s missing from a lot of rap music.
“What I hear a lot is people say, ‘I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop…’ or ‘I don’t like much rap, but I like what you do.’”
Burnett listens to a lot more hip-hop these days, he said, including Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, who has become a source of inspiration.
“(West) has a bad reputation for talking a lot and saying too much, but he’s the first guy I thought was stylish and made it cool to not rap about being a gangster,” he said. “I kind of take the meat and leave the bones with him. I really give it to him.”
Burnett still gets behind the drum kit: He also plays drums for Kansas City country singer/songwriter Sara Morgan.
“He can play pretty much anything,”Morgan said. “He can back off and play a groove, he can rock out with the best of them or he can play typical country drums. He is a drum chameleon.
“I’m happy he’s embarking on a solo career, but I selfishly hope to never have to replace him. He is one of the best drummers I have worked with. He does know he’s good though. Like most drummers.”
That solo career took even higher flightafter Burnett self-released the six-song EP, “The RIOT,” which stands for “Realize It’s Our Time.”
It’s a collection of soulful, groovy, jazz-tinged beats adorned and embroidered with guitars, keyboards and percussion. Lyrics address a variety of tribulations that test the spirit and soul. But the overarching theme is perseverance and sustaining faith, mostly in one’s self.
“It’s about finding a purpose and a passion,” he said. “If you don’t believe you can do something, you won’t. Each individual has it in their power to affect the world. And you don’t have to be like anyone else. If you be who you are, you can reach any level.”
Duncan Burnett and the Ministry perform at 11:45 p.m. Saturday at the Brick, 1727 McGee. The performance is part of the Crossroads Music Fest.