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Bob James: the jazz musician who unknowingly helped create the sound of hip hop

todayAugust 23, 2022 9 5

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Most artists have a “Mt. Rushmore” of people who have influenced the work they create, or who have changed their style forever. While many artists may never get the chance to meet anyone on their list, I did. Not only was I fortunate enough to interview Bob James, I was serenaded by him.

James, 82, is a child prodigy who turned out to be the most sampled jazz musician in hip hop history.

Songs as “Nautilus”, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” and “Westchester Lady” have influenced artists as DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Ghostface Killah, Missy Elliott, De La Soul, Warren G and many more.

James is also the instrumentalist behind “Angela”, the theme song for the 1970s sitcom, “Taxi”.

While he’s now recognized for his profound impact on hip hop, James was not always a direct part of the process. But he isn’t bitter, and instead says he’s humbled and gracious to have his legacy woven into the global art form.  And now, he’s collaborating with other hip hop artists to create new music for fans to enjoy.

You can listen to Bob James’ music, and learn more about his impact on hip hop, on his website.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Element Everest-Blanks: So you founded the band fOURPLAY. You wrote “Angela”, the music for the show “Taxi”, which is where I first heard your music. The music from your first seven albums have often been sampled and contributed to the formation of hip-hop. You’ve performed all over the world with some of the greatest musicians and artists. How often do you sit back and just take it all in?

Bob James: Well, first of all, thank you very much for that very nice recap of lots of stuff. I will humbly slightly correct your first statement, which was that I founded the group fOURPLAY. I think Harvey and Nathan and Lee would like to take some credit for that too. I could honestly say I was one of the founders and maybe I was the senior founding member, and I did have a job at Warner Brothers Records at that time that allowed me to present the idea to the record company. So I had a good stake in it, but they would be upset with me if I took all the credit.

EEB: Oh, I totally understand. Let’s talk a little bit about your journey. At the age of four at Mercy Academy, your teacher discovered that you had perfect pitch. You play the piano, the trumpet and percussion instruments. When did you realize that you were something special? Was it just hearing the adults around you, or did you have an inkling that you were a little different from the other four or five-year-olds around you?

BJ: Yes, and I came from a very small town. The town that I lived in only had 8,000 people in it. It was not very close to a big city, so it wasn’t a cosmopolitan, sophisticated town. There were many farmers, it was a really simple town with not that much culture, not much jazz or classical music. I had to search a lot.

So the boys my age were definitely interested in sports. The interest of music was minimal and it was primarily my mother that was pushing to get me to take piano lessons. So it took me a while before I could realize that it was okay for me to have an identity that was a little bit different from sportsmen or from athlete, but to be a piano player was a bit more difficult image because there weren’t that… Yes, we had a marching band, and yes, we had music activities, but it was not considered in the same way that sports was, for example.

Looking back on it, it’s interesting to me that I could definitely say that I already had made up my mind that I was going to be a musician before I got out of high school, maybe midway through freshman, sophomore (year). I was more interested in playing the piano than I was in playing sports.

EEB: Well, that’s an interesting point. You said there weren’t a lot of musicians and that wasn’t really a high priority where you grew up. Do you think that actually served you in your creative space?

BJ: I guess it was mixed because we all need role models. And so there wasn’t really much of a role model that I could look to in my town for piano player. If I had lived in a big city, there would be many, many role models and it would, I think, have been easier to figure out identity, but I don’t think it really held me back that much. Maybe in some ways it just made me that much more motivated. And I think I liked the fact that I was somewhat unique, that if they needed a piano player in my town there almost wasn’t anybody else they could find.

EEB: Well, I’m thinking about the idea of you having no limits and not knowing that you should be restricted in certain areas because there weren’t a lot of musicians, so you can kind of go anywhere, right? And with that being said, you have become one of the greatest musicians in the world. And that’s in my opinion, in my humble opinion.

BJ: Thank you. I love your opinion. I wish there were more opinions like that out there.

EEB: So let’s fast forward, just a little bit. You attended the University of Michigan. I am actually from Detroit. So look, you just keep getting better and better every time I learn something new. It’s like more reasons to love you. And you also went to Berkeley. And in 1962, you entered the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival where there was a very special judge that we have come to know and love, who is a world-renowned producer himself. Can you tell us a little bit about how you met Quincy Jones?

BJ: Sure, I can. I will point out also that at that same Collegiate Jazz Festival, there were actually two very well-known [inaudible] and the other one being Henry Mancini.

EEB: Yep.

BJ: So anybody, any one of us college kids that were competing at that festival had both reason to be very impressed, but also very nervous, because of the famous people who were listening to us.

EEB: Right.

BJ: In my case, I got much closer with Quincy because he definitely took an interest in the direction that I was taking at that time. I was a little bit of a smart-alecky kind of jazz player. At that time, I was very interested in avant-garde music and taking music out to the extremes of radicalism. That was quite a popular thing in the educational field too, where many creative people were pushing the limits, the limits of art.

So my actual attitude of going to that festival was more confrontational than it was to compete. I wasn’t even thinking about winning. I wanted to make this statement that our music would be drastically different from everybody else in the festival. And it did prove to be the case and we caught Quincy’s ear and he was fascinated by that aspect so much so that we definitely got a lot of attention as a result of it. In more recent years I moved away from that kind of confrontational music for the most part, and I’d much rather make people fall in love with my music then to make them hate it or get mad at the music.

So with Quincy, it started a dialogue with him, and it actually led to me being able to record my very first album called “Bold Conceptions” with him as a producer because he really wanted to showcase that music and bring it to the public.

EEB: When you began writing early in your career, at some point did composing become more important than playing with other artists for you?

BJ: Yes, I studied composition in college. In fact, it was my major at the University of Michigan. I got a master’s degree in composition. And at that time, there was no jazz department. So I wasn’t really taking jazz education at all. In fact, most of the professors at that time were discouraging the students from playing jazz, at least at Michigan. That was actually one of the reasons that motivated me to transfer over to Berkeley temporarily because I had been reading about that school in DownBeat Magazine.

I was very eager to learn more about jazz so I did transfer for a while, but after I got there, I realized that at least at that time, Berkeley was not on the same level of an education as Michigan was. It was a very small school, very much limited to learning about jazz, but not so much in all the other areas of education. So I ended up transferring back and spent all the rest of my education at Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan with no regrets. But I have watched Berkeley grow and grow and become a much, much different, better school than it was when I was there.

EEB: That’s absolutely amazing. Let me ask you this. How does your writing process begin? Does it begin with something as small as a name, like Element? Does it begin with seeing something, a smell, a taste? What normally gets you in the mood to write something? And what is that normal process? How does that play out for Bob James?

BJ: Great question. Well, it definitely begins with blanks, so I’m not sure about that, what the elements are, but the blanks part of it it’s just a blank sheet of music paper; the blank brain, when you can’t come up with anything. I guess I would have to start by saying that if I knew the answer to that question of what that process is, then I’d have an awful lot more hits because I would know the formula. And in my experience, there really isn’t any formula. And the times that my music has become the most successful, very often, it comes as a surprise to me because they aren’t necessarily the ones that I made the most labor over, the ones that I might have anticipated that they might be more successful. It seems to always be a surprise.

I like to think of it most, the composition process, actually the whole process of making music. I like to think of it as enjoying the process, enjoying doing it, enjoying all of the mechanics of going over to the piano every day and doing something. I believe that if I go through the activity that, “Okay, this is today. I’ll experiment and play a few licks on the piano, see if anything comes into my head, that catches my ear and makes me want to explore.” That’s what I try to do and I try very hard not to judge it. If that critic part of my brain kicks in too early, then almost always I lose any possibility of taking it far enough because my critic brain always thinks that it’s not good enough.

So I always work very hard to turn off that critic and just do it, let it come out, whatever it is. And then very often I just like to get away from it altogether, look back at that sketch for a week or two and then sometimes I will have a really nice surprise to think, “Ooh, that was pretty good. I must have had a good idea.” And then I move forward and try to take it to the next step and refine it and whatever. I can report having had a long life in music that this process is still fascinating, still exciting, still frustrating. It identifies most of my days.

EEB: I know you talked about musicians being this family, this tight-knit unit. So this question is very specific. You made a song, you cut a record and you said, “I want some backing vocals on this record.” And you decided, “Okay, I’m going to bring in some musicians.” And your friends around you kind of talked you out of keeping those musicians on that track. And later on in life, one of those musicians came back to you and said, “You probably should have kept me on there.” Can you tell me a little bit about that story and who that musician was, for everyone else who doesn’t know?

BJ: That’s pretty good behind-the-scenes sleuthing that you did, Element. You know maybe too many of my elements. Some of these things are still a little bit secret, but I think I know the one you’re talking about, and it is a fascinating aspect of how either things can change or be very unpredictable. But back in the year 1976, I believe it was, I composed an instrumental song called “Westchester Lady”. I had a title for it immediately at that time, I don’t know why. I was living in Westchester County, New York, so that was part of it. And I was married and my wife’s name is Judy. And so I was thinking about the song at least to indirectly title dedicated to her.

So I make this instrumental track. And by the way, Harvey Mason played drums on it and Eric Gales played fantastic guitar part on it. It was for the CTI label, and my producer was Creed Taylor, the founder of that label. And he really loved the track, but after we recorded it, yes, in that era of this idea of over-dubbing and coming back two weeks later to add things to it had begun to be happening. So I came up with this idea to add a little vocal, not a major song, but more like a background part. And I had this little idea in my head, and Creed Taylor gave me permission to try it out. So I hired some background singers and recorded this track and the lyrics were something like, “What you gonna do, Westchester Lady?” or something like that.

We did the track and Creed Taylor did not like it. He thought my track was much better as an instrumental. And I kind of had to agree that he was right. I was going a little bit outside my comfort zone. I’ve always been more of an instrumental thinker with most of my compositions coming from things that I try out on the piano, so we didn’t use that vocal. And then lo and behold time marched on and 10 years go by, maybe even 20 years go by and I learned that two of my background singers had become quite famous as solo artists. One of them was Patty Austin who sang one of the lead vocal parts on it. And the other one was Luther Vandross.

EEB: That is correct.

BJ: So I was pretty lucky at that time that I would be able to hire as background singers people that were that good. But Luther had become very, very famous, maybe one of the most famous R&B singers of that time. And he hired me to play on one of his tracks in the studio that he was working on at that time. He took me aside on the session to say, “Bob, whatever happened to that vocal I did with you? I remember I did such a cool track for you.” And I told him the story about how Creed Taylor didn’t want to use it. And Luther just kept bugging me saying, “Bob, if you’d kept my vocal on there, you would’ve had a much bigger hit.”

EEB: Now I can’t let you leave without talking about hip hop. Oh my goodness. Run-DMC, Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Ghostface (Killah), Jeru the Damaja, Slick Rick, Missy Elliott, Beastie Boys, the list goes on and on and on, Common, The Dream, everybody absolutely loves your music. Tell me about when you first realized what was going on. How did it come to you? How did you realize that something was happening with your music and you weren’t involved?

BJ: Yeah, it was crazy. It’s still crazy. I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand anything about it. There are many aspects of that field that are so far removed from what I normally do that the main thing that I still do love about it in the sense that I remember in my college days when I was talking to you earlier about kind of avant-garde or doing music that’s confrontational, that’s deliberately in your face in a kind of way that makes you think, that’s still what I believe is the most fascinating, best aspect of hip hop music to me. Is that it is raw, it’s rough. It’s not easy, smooth music. It’s very unpredictable, socially conscious, all kinds of good things.

But when I first found out about it, I wasn’t paying any attention to it, but probably almost never listened to rap or anything. Actually, I don’t think they were using the phrase hip hop.

EEB: Right.

BJ: Again, it was rap. And somebody told me about this group, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. I didn’t know anything about it. Never heard about it. And they said, “Bob, I think you should listen to this one particular track.” When I listened, believe it or not, since we were talking about “Westchester Lady”, they had sampled my piece “Westchester Lady”. And in those days, they were so blatant about it because the whole legal aspect of it hadn’t gotten caught up yet. So many of the young rappers just thought that they could do it and there wouldn’t be consequences for it. So they just played my track. It wasn’t even a simple loop or anything. They played “Westchester Lady” and then they rapped over it. It was on an album called “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper”. And it featured Will Smith who was Jazzy Jeff’s partner at that time. And of course we know what happened with him, ultra-ultra famous after that. And it ended up winning the Grammy as the first rap album to win a Grammy Award.

EEB: That is correct.

BJ: And there’s my song on there and I had to confront them about it because they had not licensed it. So it was my very first encounter with having to figure out what kind of a position to take because I owned the copyright to that recording and to the song “Westchester Lady”. So I did confront and learned lots of lessons at that time. And it definitely for me was the first that led to a lot of other confrontations, some good, some not so good, but it’s only very, very recently that I decided to come full circle and actually confront one of the rappers with the idea of collaborating rather than wait for them to just sample my music and that I don’t have any part of it creatively.

So I actually contacted Jazzy Jeff after many years, and we were not enemies anyway. And we had a kind of a reunion having resolved our conflict with the original “Westchester Lady” sample. And now he and I have collaborated on something new and looks like it’s going to come out on my new album that’ll be released later this year. Will Smith is not involved. I’m the substitute for Will Smith, Jazz Jeff and the Fresh Bob James.

EEB: Did I just get a scoop? Oh my goodness!

BJ: A little bit of a scoop. Little bit of a scoop.

EEB: Every interview that I see and that I’ve read when you discuss hip hop, it always comes across the same way, that you would have happily collaborated with all of these artists and provided them the need, the feel, whatever they needed in the moment. But you understood that the formation of hip hop that most of these rappers didn’t have resources so they used what was available, but you would’ve wanted to create this new genre of music had you had the opportunity. Am I reading that right?

BJ: Well, I wanted to be part of the collaborative process. That’s my nature. It was frustrating to me sometimes to see how my music was used in maybe a way that I might have been able to use it more creatively if I had been part of the process. But I knew that really wasn’t the case here and that the things that were intriguing to them were not necessarily what would’ve been intriguing to me anyway.

So it was two completely different worlds that probably would not have worked for me to be in this studio the same place at the same time because what I would’ve been after would have been so different. And even some of the times that my music was sampled in a very controversial kind of rap lyric, possibly even offensive, and the music that they chose of mine was not necessarily intended in that kind of way at all. It might have been something much more romantic or much more innocent. It was just a coincidence. So if we had been in the same room at the same time and if they had been asking me, Bob, to come up with some confrontational hate lyrics or pornographic lyrics or whatever, or music to go along with their pornographic lyrics, I wouldn’t have even known what to do, nor would I have been particularly interested in it at that time.

So it was probably a good thing that we were separate, but then so much time went by and it wasn’t just a fluke that one producer chose one song of mine. The news kept coming to me that one after another, so many people chose it that I began to be spoken about as one of the creators of the rap and the hip hop field, when in fact I wasn’t deliberately creating it. I was just off to the side and I, kind of, got chosen. So it was definitely a unique experience in my career and it remains that way.

I’m not sure how much success that we’re going to have with these new opportunities that I now have to try to go one-on-one with a hip hop artist. I have another track that I’m working on with Ghostface Killah. In my wildest imagination, I wouldn’t have thought that could have been the case, even though I knew that he used my music a lot and my song “Nautilus” kept showing up on Wu-Tang Clan, various things that they were involved in. So it was just happening too many times. Somehow or other, we’ve got to confront that, “Are we friends? Are we enemies?” We’re still learning it. You may or may not know that Ghostface dropped a track just online a couple months ago and the title of it was “Bob James Freestyle”.

EEB: Bob James. Mm-hmm. Yeah, of course.

BJ: I find out about this totally by accident.

EEB: Of course. N.E.R.D, Pharrell’s group, has a song called “Bob James”. So it’s not just your music. It’s the whole aura of who you are. You are kind of like caviar. You’re this definition of, “Okay, if you get something with Bob James, or if you have Bob James on your track, or if you sample Bob James, then you’re one of us.” How does that feel? There’s a whole genre of music that if you don’t understand or know who Bob James is, then I don’t know if you can really be accepted. How does that feel for that person to be you? Is that strange?

BJ: It’s extremely strange. It can’t help but feel good. How could I not have that feel good? And it is vindicating for all those years and the effort that I put in to make music, but it’s very different from direct vindication for one of my own compositions on its own achieving notoriety. It has a kind of a referred notoriety. And I could never anticipate that. I wasn’t aiming for it. It wasn’t part of my goal. It wasn’t part of my plan in life. So that it comes as a bonus surprise. The best part of it, maybe to me, is that it still makes me realize that I should enjoy the process and then let the outcome be whatever it’s going to be. Maybe some pieces will have no success, nobody will ever hear them, but then maybe other pieces might end up in a TV sitcom comedy that I didn’t anticipate either. A lot of the things of compositions that have taken on a life of their own have been in some way like a fluke or an accident, or a happy coincidence when the stars came into alignment and it worked.

So I don’t want to make too much out of it and take more credit for it than I know how to understand what the credit is. So I’m spending most of my time doing exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 50 years, which is just try to make more new music and hope for the best. I don’t have any idea what’s going to come out of these new attempts at collaborating, whether it be Jazzy Jeff or Ghostface. I started to do something with 9th Wonder, he and I kind of flirted back and forth. Still, that hasn’t come to fruition yet, but who knows? It might.

EEB: I think the nerves… Watching him interview you, there were so many nerves just radiating through the screen. I mean, when you come upon someone who has had such an influence in your life, I think there’s a fear factor there. You don’t want to disappoint. Sometimes, you know the saying, “Don’t ever meet your heroes.” I think you were exactly what he wanted you to be and that’s kind of scary.

BJ: And it’s also very emotional and almost more than anything else when I do have a chance to meet any of these people, I want them to get the right impression from me that I don’t carry any baggage about them stealing. I don’t carry any baggage of regret in any kind of way. Yeah, I want them to know how much I appreciate that they are making it possible for me to continue my legacy far beyond where I ever thought it would be possible. And I’m getting my music heard by young people that if I have my way, they will be encouraged to go beyond whatever hip hop record where I was sampled and then maybe that they’ll want to explore listening to the original.

EEB: We used to be a jazz station and I went to pull out all of my Bob James records.

BJ: Oh! Look at you!

EEB: Now my favorite Bob James record, of course, is “Angela”. Would you mind playing a little bit for me? I see your piano behind you.

BJ: Well, sure.

EEB: Thank you so much. I am so honored and it was a pleasure meeting you. I can’t wait to see you when you come to Milwaukee and I can meet you in person.

BJ: I hope so, Element. It’s great talking with you today. Thank you for all of that research and maybe knowing a few too many things about my past.

EEB: Talk to you soon.

BJ: Bye.

Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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