Composer, producer, writer and performer: James Mtume has carved an indelible impression on all sides of the music industry. For decades he has been putting out groundbreaking sound underscored by activism. A brilliant and informed orator, he has carved out a place as a political commentator and activist via the airways such as his popular New York talk show, Open Line, formerly on WBLS FM.
In that span, he has also composed hits with guitarist/partner Reggie Lucas such as “The Closer I Get to You,” (Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway) leaving an imprint in music that is distinctive.
With the albums Kiss This World Goodbye (1978), In Search of the Rainbow Seekers (1980), Juicy Fruit (1983), You, Me and He (1984), and Theater of the Mind (1986), the group earned 11 charting singles: “Give It on Up (If You Want To)” (number 26 R&B), “Juicy Fruit” (number one R&B), “You, Me and He” (number two R&B), and “Breathless” (number nine R&B).
Mtume created a unique sound with his “sophisti-funk,” and turned an era on end with hits for the likes of Phyllis Hyman, the Spinners, Lou Rawls and Stephanie Mills. He and Lucas both won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for writing and producing fellow R&B artist Stephanie Mills’ top-ten hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before”, for which she also won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Many artists have sampled his beats and rhythms, such as in the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”, and have made Mtume’s music a staple of R&B and Hip Hop. As a producer for neo-R&B artists such as Mary J. Blige, he has become a guiding force for another generation.
Q: I’m a native of Louisiana. Tell us about your love for jazz and how it influences music over the years?
A: I always say jazz is not my background. It’s my “frontground”. I came up in a very musical family and I was listening to jazz since as long as I can remember. I was into Miles Davis and all the greats since I was a child. Obviously, I would also listen to R&B that was emerging from Motown. So I kind of grew up with two ears; one ear was in jazz and the other ear was into R&B and funk.
Q: When did you start playing?
A: Because there was always a piano in the house, I think at a very young age (I was around nine or ten) I found out that I could hear records. I would go to the piano many times just to figure out what the chords were. People call that having a natural ear, but I don’t recommend everybody being self-taught. I was just very fortunate because being that way I was able to go from listening, to a songwriter, to a producer, and ultimately to score in television and film. That’s a rare road to travel, but I always thought that the only music that I wanted to create was my own. I didn’t want to play other people’s music.
Q: So we discussed your upbringing and all the musical breaks that surrounded you. When did you realize the significance of your upbringing?
A: Well I would be lying if I said I understood it solely at nine or ten years old. Of course not. But one thing I knew, I was around people who were very special. Just listening to the conversation, can you imagine I’m listening to Coltrane playing in my father’s office? I was always fascinated with the intellect of jazz musicians. In my career, I started out as a jazz musician and that’s just the height of my accomplishments and Fortune was hooking up and playing with Miles Davis for five years. I stood next to him for five years and people ask me “Where did you study music?” I said, “Miles Davis University (laughs).”
Q: While you were on tour with Miles, what were some of the nuggets that he actually gave you or words of wisdom that you actually use today?
A: One thing he always told me when you cross the musical bridge, burn it because you never really have the opportunity to go backwards. As you know this man (Miles) changed the entire direction of music three or four times. That was one lesson I found very profound; keep expanding the music, don’t just keep repeating what you know.
He also told me sometimes what you don’t play is more important than what you play. Leave space for your melody. Use the notes that mean something. He told me once most people play in paragraphs; too many notes. He said, “What you want to learn to do is play in quotations.” So play a quote and it implies all that other stuff. That’s why Miles was so brilliant at playing so economically. He just played two or three notes and everybody would say, “Oh my God!” I always carry those sort of messages with me.
Q: Is there any artist out there that you would still like to work with?
A: Kendrick Lamar (chuckles). He knocks me out. I love his music.
Q: Wow, I’m sure he would be honored (chuckles).
A: Well the honor would be mine.
Q: Do you have any current projects our readers should know about?
A: Right now we’re back in the studio working on a project for Tawatha Agee. She’s a lead singer and a spiritual motivator that can sing all the songs that we never recorded. You know ‘Juicy Fruit’ and ‘You, Me and He’… ironically, I’m a little hoarse this morning because I was screaming for her because she played with The Roots last night. They did a Grammy jam session and she sang Juicy Fruit and sort of tore the joint up.
So, we’re working on a project with her and that should be out sometime in December. She’s also embarking on a tour now that starts on February 9 and that’s very important to me. As a matter of fact, it’s extremely important to me.
Q: Will you be coming through Atlanta?
A: Hopefully… and if we do, I’ll be there (chuckles). As a matter of fact, I just left Atlanta last week. We’re finishing up a couple of interviews on the TV One’s show Unsung.
Q: Awesome! Let’s go back to ‘Juicy Fruit’ because these songs are like the soundtrack to my childhood. Who came up with the concept?
A: Actually, that album was finished but for some reason, I called the set in and everybody went home. I was sitting there when I looked over and saw this lone drum machine. So I told the engineer to hook it up. I said, “Let me mess with it.” Then I said, “Oh wow! That’s kind of interesting.” So I called the band back.
Tawatha was in Europe on tour with a great group. She had a couple of days off so she flew in from London one night and laid the vocals. She flew back, mixed it and that was it for the music part.
Here’s a little inside story most people don’t know. When I took ‘Juicy Fruit’ to Epic Records they didn’t want to release it. They said it was too slow and the lyrics were too risqué. I was like, oh really.
So they finally released what they agreed to. They would release it but only for after 12 o’clock at night because that’s what they call the “quiet storm format”. After one week, they were getting so many calls from all the radio stations around the country that they were forced to release it as a single but they didn’t even want to release it at all.
Q: That’s amazing! Now, I have a question regarding one of Roberta Flack’s albums ‘The Closer I Get to You’. Tell us about that one.
A: We did ‘Closer’ but they were having what they call listening parties. Back then, you would go to the studio and the executives were invited. So Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, came and sat and listened. So I’m sitting in there while we listened to a whole album and he turns to Roberta says, “I love everything on this record except ‘The Closer I Get to You’”. I’ll never forget the words he used. He said, “It’s boring and repetitious.” I will always thank Roberta Flack because she fought with the president of the company to keep it on the album. The irony is he finally said, “Okay, but it will never be a single.”
Q: Let’s talk about the different sampling. Everyone has sampled your music: Biggie, Keyshia Cole, DMX, Nas… was Jay-Z the first rapper to sample your music?
A: No, Jay-Z wasn’t the first one to sample me. He sampled a song that I had written way before Juicy Fruit, a song I wrote in 1976 for an artist named Eddie Henderson, who is a fine trumpet player, and it was a song called ‘Inside You’. He sampled that record for his first album Reasonable Doubt and it was a song called ‘Coming of Age’.
That’s what that was; I wrote that song in ’76. He sampled ‘Juicy’, which was written in ’83. So I always said that was the first sample of a song that I had written earlier in my career.
Q: Did you like the Jay-Z sample?
A: Yeah. I loved it. I come out of jazz. You see, jazz is always about looking forward, expanding your palate and the dimensions of your taste. We always respected the fact that each generation creates its own music. So, when Hip-Hop came along, that’s the music of his generation. What we brought to the game as a generation was expanding the concept of funk. One of the things that I do feel bad about is the absence of black bands. When I was coming up, you had Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang, the Isley Brothers…
A lot of it I contribute to record companies. I’ve always believed that at the end of the day, they always wanted to control black music without black people. A lot of people don’t like to talk about that.
Q: As an active musician and artist in the industry, I’m sure you were aware of what was happening with Hip-Hop. When you were first approached by this label or this rapper to sample your music was your initial reaction absolutely yes because you like Hip-Hop or was it absolutely not?
A: No, not at all. Let me give you a little backdrop. Daddy-O heard me doing an interview for the radio station and at which time I said there was nothing wrong with sampling. I said, “The only thing is, if you gonna sample my music, then you have to pay.” Back then, a lot of people was just being sampled but they weren’t getting the cheques. At the time, I was scoring the music for this television show called New York Undercover. I was with Andre Harrell, who was a co-executive producer in that show. After the meeting, he said, “Yo. Puffy wanted to talk to you.” So, Puff came in and said, “Yo, Mtume, I have this new artist, his name is Biggie. He’s outside man. He would really love to meet you. He wants to talk to you about sampling Juicy Fruit.” So, Biggie came in and we loved the vibe. So, we worked out our deal and the rest is history. I’m just thankful our music through Biggie was able to translate into the next generation.
Q: You actually talk about culture consciousness and speak out with your videos. I read that in one of your videos, ‘You, Me and He’, you use a woman of a darker complexion. Tell us about that.
A: When ‘Juicy Fruit’ was out, they weren’t even doing a lot of black videos. Right after we shot our video, we began to watch all the other videos and in all of them, there were light skinned women. I didn’t see any chocolate sisters and my younger daughter is chocolate. I remember one day she was watching a Prince video. She looked over at me and said, “Papa, I guess I would never be in a video.” And that sting hit me right in my heart. I said, “Okay. When I do our next video, I’m going to demand that chocolate sisters be in the lead part of the video.” We did that but that was because I saw what was going on and a lot of people didn’t realize the effect of one solo black woman being in a video. So, I got to flip that script.
Q: Do you feel like your generation did a good job passing the baton onto the next?
A: Absolutely not and this is why. There was a breakdown in the cultural continuity when Hip-Hop was coming along. You had all these overlaps but most of them were talking about ‘that ain’t no music’. I’m old enough to remember when white people were burning Little Richie and Fats Domino and saying that R&B was infecting their children. So my point is the music became the vehicle for that pain and that expression. Now a lot of us were angry because there was a point where we were no longer being signed by record companies. Fortunately, with Mtume, we didn’t deal with that because everybody went off to do something. So we were never feared but we were clear that the conflict was more about the social reality of black people and what they’ve been going through because a lot of black men dropped the ball. They weren’t ready just yet.
We dropped the ball and we started looking at y’all like you weren’t ours and that was the painful thing for us because we didn’t feel that. Your children, nieces, nephews: they’re a reflection of you and it’s a mirror and rather than face that mirror we try to break it and it is not okay.
Q: I love that you talk about social injustice. Back in the day, we had music where we actually spoke out, now we’ve got only a few artists that actually talk about it. Why the silence from them and how can we change that?
A: Music can only really affect what’s going on in society. I’ll use this analysis. Society is a thermostat. Music in our house is a thermometer that tells you something, but it doesn’t set it. For example, in the 50s you could have a record like “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Why? Because within society, there was a great movement in black power. Once society starts getting serious about real discussion, trust me, it will start getting refreshing again.
Christy Leos was the editor at large for Southern Laced. You can follow her on WordPress at christyleos.wordpress.com.