The music of Bob James shaped several generations of hip-hop artists

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

The 1970s were a pivotal decade in music, especially for jazz. Many of the sounds of this decade were characterized by the emergence and embrace of electric instruments. In jazz, there was the birth of fusion and the increased prevalence of Latin and African rhythms. This decade saw some of the most creative and iconic works in recorded music.

One jazz keyboardist in particular would end up having a significant impact on hip hop as one of the most sampled artists in the world. His name is Bob James.

James distinguished himself as a keyboardist, composer and arranger after being signed by Quincy Jones to Mercury Records. Throughout the ’70s, he found himself working on various solo albums, collaborations and soundtracks for film and TV, building his catalogue with his stylized take on smooth jazz. However, he would not anticipate his music catching the ears of so many hip-hop artists at a time where that culture was steadily maturing and rising into mainstream popularity.

“It’s one thing to write, but until the right magical player performs it, that’s where people’s ears gravitate toward it,” James said in an interview with Tracklib.

In 1974, Bob James released the studio album One. The album’s closing track, Nautilus, featured atmospheric layers of Rhodes piano played by James, along with tight bass and drum grooves from Gary King and Idris Muhammad, respectively. The very simple and effective grooves on Nautilus would find the ears of many hip-hop artists, who went on to create hundreds of reinterpretations of this sample throughout several eras. This includes big names such as Ghostface Killah, Nas, Missy Elliott, Slick Rick and Freddie Gibbs, along with hundreds of others.

This isn’t the only Bob James song that’s been frequently sampled. His versions of Feel Like Making Love and Take Me to the Mardi Gras and his original songs Westchester Lady, Storm King and Angela (the theme for the TV show Taxi) have also inspired and endured through the years.

But it wasn’t all fun and games for James, who had to protect his music from uncleared samples. At the time, the infrastructure for clearing samples didn’t exist yet. He soon found himself in the middle of many legal and ethical grey areas when it came to the emerging art of sampling. The way the music industry reacted to sampling started James on the wrong foot with hip hop. One of the most famous examples was DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince sampling Westchester Lady on A Touch of Jazz from the duo’s wildly successful 1987 debut album Rock the House — without having any conversation with Bob James. He sued and eventually won the case as both DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith realized this would be even worse for them if they fought it. It was his music, after all.

James initially wasn’t happy about his music being used illegally. However, his attitude eventually changed. He would later express admiration for the creativity of hip-hop production, and he was always fair when it came to claiming the rights to his music being used legally and respectfully. Even recently, James partnered up with Tracklib in early 2020 to give producers a chance to sample his iconic music in a beat battle.

“I did try to embrace [hip hop] at one stage by getting involved with a very cool artist and great guy by the name of Rob Swift, who was a DJ, and very deep into the hip-hop world,” James has recalled. “And he gave me a perspective that helped me understand, and have some respect for what [hip-hop producers] were doing. And I actually had him join my band, and we played some concerts together, and created some music together, because I felt like, ‘If we’re gonna do this, let’s do it together and make the creative decisions together.’”

Despite Bob James’s initially rocky relationship with hip hop, it cannot be understated how much of an impact his music has had on the genre. James was inadvertently one of the godfathers of the hip-hop sound of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.

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