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We Interviewed Bob James, Hip-Hop's Unlikely Godfather

If you make beats or play an instrument, bow down.
October 30, 2013, 8:15pm

You'd think after (accidentally) creating "Nautilus," Bob James would take it easy for the remainder of his musical career, content with composing one of the most sampled tunes in music. He's not though, not by a damn sight. "Nautilus" aside, there are many other contributions to music that he's made and is still making. Fondling the keys of his Fender Rhodes in the 1970s led to him create the jazz subgenre fusion/smooth jazz, which he's been deemed the father of.


All that easy listening got chopped up into villainous, threatening soundscapes by The RZA, Large Professor, and Eric B to create some of hip-hop's most famous neck-snapping beats. Even out west, Souls of Mischief were stepping away from P Funk heavy sounds and using songs like James' "Angela" to create a new wave in California rap.

A humble man who scoffs at the "father" label, James takes all the commendations and accolades in stride with an almost shy wave of the hand and a big smile. He seems surprised at all the fuss over his timeless music. Leave it to him and he'd downplay his contributions to nil, but it's all there in the scores of album credits he's featured in.

If you make beats or play an instrument bow down to something greater than yourself. Don't say shit other than "Thank you, Godfather," and maybe he'll give you young'ns a nugget of wisdom. And if the following convo isn't enough you can always check out his newly released album Rhodes Scholar or his old stuff, too.

Noisey: How'd you get into music initially?
Bob James: That's an interesting question to ask an old man. To be honest, I don't think I ever thought about anything else to be involved in. I came to that point earlier than most people do. But I guess it really started with piano lessons when I was four. My teacher saw I had a strong leaning toward music.

So did you go to college for music?
Yes, I majored in music. Around that time I started playing gigs and started realizing that jazz was going to be my thing. So I came to NYC to prove whether or not I can hang. I ended up staying here so I guess I could hang a bit.


Why'd you decide to make New York your headquarters?
It's very intense here and very competitive. You have to be at your best to get attention. That drives you to be better than you originally thought, at least for some people. I'm sure is has the opposite effect on people as well.

How do you feel about the "Father of smooth/fusion jazz" title you get labeled with? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Or do you just tolerate it?
No and yes to all of those. It's complimentary unless it's people who are upset that jazz took a turn in that direction. I don't like getting blamed for that. Thing is I've seen jazz go through many trends and influences and it's still jazz. What seems to me to be the most reasonable way of thinking about it is the listeners and DJs need a term to categorize it or label it and that's coming from them not the artists who created the music. That's why I get these titles like the "Father of…" and the older I got I became the "Grandfather of…" and soon I guess I'll be "Great-grand father…"

People do often feel the need to compartmentalize music and film and pretty much any art form.
In some ways there is a wall between smooth, contemporary, and the more traditional straight ahead jazz. I'm frustrated by that because we are all under the same umbrella. We all fall into different camps depending on the project or song. It's improvisational music. But there are only variations really. The core is still fundamentally unchanged. For instance, there was an era of Brazilian music, bossa nova, that people got seduced by and so they added elements of it into their jazz. But that's just a particular style and there are many examples of that. It's still jazz.


What's another genre that jazz was heavily influenced by?
Well there was a period when Rock rhythms got involved in jazz and it influenced Miles [Davis]. Jazz musicians were getting hired to play for rock bands so they learned that style and when they came back to do jazz stuff [the rock style] was still there when they played. They were influenced by the role of the bass in rock. It changed the traditional upright acoustic bass lines in the 1970s into the electric bass guitar sounds because the bass guitar took a more prominent role. This created a whole different sound for jazz, a more melodic sound.

I'm sure you've been told a million times but I'm going to tell you anyway: You are absolutely revered amongst hip-hop producers and DJs. How do you feel about that?
I get asked about my views on it all the time, but I'm a little embarrassed because I don't listen to it much, only when I get called to make a decision about a sample or something. Other than one little collaboration with Rob Swift I've never actively participated in the creation of it. I wasn't included too much in the decisions of how [my music] got used or how much of it got used. It's been more of a supervisory role that I've had.

So did you ever decide to not clear a sample because you didn't like the outcome?
No. The only time was I unhappy with the outcome was when they were stealing it. Other than that I have a lot of respect for the architectural aspect of production in hip-hop. I respect what they do and I know what they're trying to do is very different from what I was trying to do so I never felt like it was music that just copied and redid what the original composer did. I like the bizarre and unpredictable nature of it. How they're creative with sounds and piecing these sounds together. It's not my world and I like "Nautilus" just how I did it but I still respect it.


That's good to hear. Some people from your generation don't appreciate rap and often find it too abrasive.
Well the lyrics may be offensive but I don't want to be a censor or anything even remotely like that so I don't block the usage [of my music]. Frankly maybe it's my own ego but hip-hop used [Nautilus] so much it made me want to go back and see why it was so special. You know, I'm still amazed by it to this day.

It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. "Nautilus" was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really. It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we improved in the studio. So it wasn't the focus of the album whatsoever. "Feel like Making Love" was the focus of the album and what got played on the radio.

Are you still clueless as to why the hip-hop generation was so drawn to it?
Now I get it more, because I've gone back so many times to listen and dissect it. It just had a groove and this mysterious kind of cinematic, theatrical sound comes out when it's sampled. Also looking back I realized it was easy to loop in two measure chunks. I'm flattered it found an amazing new audience and made them happy.

What did that experience teach you about your work and how others view it being that like you said it was a throwaway initially?
If you continue to be creative and trust yourself to let "it" flow out of you, you'll make something timeless. Because, really there is no answer to creative music, no formula. No one knows what will stick and what will fail. The public decides. I've had my successes and I've had my failures but I love that risk. It's a part of what drives me.


What's are your favorite instruments or equipment?
I never really ventured too far from the piano. I felt most at home was with the electric Fender Rhodes I always was associated with but what I love most is the conventional Grand piano. Over the last few years I seem to drift more and more back to that.

Who did you look to for inspiration growing up?
That's another interesting question for an old man [laughs]. No seriously, all of us have our mentors and as a pianist I always cite the same guys: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, and Bill Evans. There were many others but those three for sure. I was influenced by classical music so I was big on Stravinsky [neoclassical] stuff. Also I still admire Bach's early years.

What about all these guys made you list them?
I was trying to emulate and sometimes even copy them as I was trying to develop my own style.

So what do you think your legacy is ultimately?
Too soon to tell really but a lot of it has to do with the new groove [we created]. Jazz shifted in the 70s into something that made people dance and feel good. I was lucky enough to be collaborating with a lot of guys like [the drummer on Nautilus] Idris Muhammad and Gary King who contributed to this sound. For better or for worse I think that's what people will always associate me with most.

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