Who do Eric B & Rakim’s “Follow The Leader”, De La Soul’s “Keepin’ The Faith” and Ghostface’s “Daytona 500″ all have in common? Bob James, that’s who. The bearded break pianist, who might look like your grandfather, has been one of hip-hop’s most influential artists. Don’t be deceived by his quiet demeanor, Mr James is the bomb ‘ish. Introducing the man who made Run DMC’s “Peter Piper”, Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” and Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz” possible…
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE #9 OF THE FATBOSS, APRIL 2000
Al Fingers: So, Bob, you’re a legend in the word of hip-hop. Classic tunes have been built around your breaks. What do you think about that?
Bob James: Well, early on I was so shocked. I was like “why is this happening? Why would these young people that are in a completely different world be interested in using my music from the 1970s?
AF: Did you like what you heard?
AF: When was the first time you heard your music sampled? Was it Run DMC?
BJ: The very first time was a group called Jazy Jess And The Fresh Prince.
AF: Oh, with Westchester Lady?
BJ: Right, and I knew nothing about the genre at that time, other than I knew that it was going on, but I never really paid any attention to it. Then a friend told me, “Bob, you had better check out this album, are you aware of the fact tat they used your tune?” I wasn’t, and I got the album and was just completely shocked, because for 15 or 20 seconds my record was just playing, you know? and playing with bad audio, with this distortion, sounding like it was in mono, and I thought “Holy shit, this is really bad.”
AF: You didn’t like it then?
BJ: Well, it’s got to be flattering – somebody heard something in y music to want to use it in a genre that was completely different from mine. But I’m also thinking to myself “Gee, as far as I know, nobody got permission to do this.” There was this level of outrageousness about it. It was as if I’d taken a Michael Jackson album, noodled some piano solos on it, and called it mine – put it out and said this is a Bob James album.
AF: So, you were angry?
BJ: Well, I was angry and fascinated, because the record won a Grammy for the best rap album of the year. I did a little bit of research and found there had been three million or so sales. I was thinking “This is a lawsuit paradise,” you know? So we pursued it, and it was my first encounter with having to defend my rights in a piece. And of course I prevailed – it was totally obvious that they had not gotten any kind of permission. I advised other musicians to do the same thing. That’s the most powerful thing you have as a professional – those copyrights, and you have to take every step that you can to maximise them. How you take advantage of the power of the copyrights is the whole essence of our livlihood. As time went on, much more to my surprise, I found that the Jazzy Jeff sample wasn’t an isolated thing – there was Run DMC, Soul II Soul, it went on and on. Even to this day it still boggles my mind that there was something about my music back then that I didn’t even know about. For example, the piece “Nautilus”, which was never really one of the pieces that anybody paid any attention to.
AF: That’s one of my favourite tunes of all time.
BJ: And has become one of my favourites in a funny way. It was the last cut on side two of my first album, and of course I liked it, but nobody paid any attention to it. because “Feel Like Making Love” was on that record and that was my first kind of big popular exposure. A song called “Night On Bald Mountain” also got a tremendous amount of airplay. We were focusing on those two tunes and I doubt “Nautilus” ever even got played on the radio.
AF: So it might have even been dropped from the album?
BJ: Yeah, exactly. “Nautilus” could have easily been dropped from the album.
AF: Damn! But that bassline is so ill.
BJ: I have to say, I didn’t realise it at the time, but a lot of the guys that I’ve been playing with recently have certainly thought so.
AF: Why was it called “Nautilus”? Are you interested in marine life?
BJ: I have to credit Creed Taylor for that. There was just a synthesiser effect that I used, that was just a creative moment in using electronic synthesiser sounds, and it sounded like a submarine to Creed.
AF: Yeah, it sounds like a submarine sonar.
BJ: So Creed suggested the title, “Nautilus”.
AF: So what, was it recorded at night, with the rain pouring down outside, in a smoke-filled studio?
BJ: No, it was a pretty square situation, you know? I was strictly a nine to five guy. I was very much the exception. A lot of my musicians didn’t like that.
AF: Especially Steve Gadd I suppose?
BJ: Yeah, they had totally different schedules from me.I would put out a call that I wanted my date to start at 10am and they would groan. Most of the other sessions they were getting would start at 9 at night. But that was not my world. Before I got that first solo album that “Nautilus” was on, most of my work was doing jingles, TV commercials, arranging for studio work. These started at like 10am, so that was my habit.
AF: Did you make tunes up in the studio, or did you come in and say “Right, this is the bassline,” or whatever?
BJ: I always came in with the charts. We rarely just did stuff on the spot in the studio. I’ve done that a few times, but I always like to be prepared and have something, and it was a very simple chart for “Nautilus”. Most of it was improvised, but I wanted to have a foundation there.
AF: Who makes the decision on whether samples are cleared?
BJ: That’s me. It’s a very unique situation. I had some lawsuits back in the seventies, and I acquired the ownership of my master recordings – that’s very unusual. Almost all of the songs that have been used the most, I wrote, and I have the publishing rights. Routinely, when rappers get permission and get licensing on a samples, you have to get it both from the record company and from the publisher. In the case of “Nautilus”, “Westchester Lady”, “Storm King” and most of the those tunes, I own the publishing and I own the master recordings, so they have to come straight to me. There’s nobody else that you have to go to. In the case of “Taxi”, “Angela”, “for example, and the case of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”, there’s another publisher involved. Mardi Gras is Paul Simon’s publishing company. so they have to get permission from Paul Simon too, and sometimes that has been a problem because I’ll say “Yes”, and they’ll say “No”.
AF: So, what happened about Souls Of Mischief – why were they denied access to “Angela”?
BJ: Well, at first I rejected it because they sent me a copy of it and they’d speeded it up so much that it sounded like Mickey Mouse. It made my tune sound silly. So, without even knowing anything about Souls Of Mischief and what they were doing, or what they were about, I said “No, I’m sorry, I don’t want my piece heard that way.” Then the head of the record company contacted me and I started getting calls and a much stronger pleading to use this tune. Eventually they convinced me that it was not disrespectful and that from their point of view, they were kind of doing a tribute to me. However, although I said yes in the end, the publishing company that controls the TV series had the majority interest. I could only license the master recording and my share of the publishing. I don’t remember if they actually got permission or not.
AF: Tell me about that classic cowbell rhythm on the beginning of Mardi Gras.
BJ: Oh, that was a Ralph McDonald part. There was an interesting turn of events with that. I kind of got the benefit of Ralph’s percussion like that he came with there. I got the credit for it although I didn’t write that part. Turning the tables, Ralph was the writer of “Mister Magic”, a very big tune for Grover [Washington Jr]. That was sampled many times, a couple of times on pretty big hit records. But the part they sampled was the intro, which was me. The whole thing was my arrangement and the guitarist, Eric Gale, he contributed that guitar lick. Every musician who hears that just flips. But, from the sampling copyright point of view, you don’t get a copyright on the arrangement, and copyright and publishing was owned by Ralph McDonald. So I got nothing from the sampling of “Mister Magic”, even though it was my composition.
AF: But you got the bells, so you’re quits. That’s a fair swap I suppose.
BJ: Yeah, I mean, I’ve never spoken to Ralph about it actually.
AF: Having been sampled so many times, you must have made a tidy sum from sample royalties, right?
BJ: Well, I still make my livelihood out of being a jazz musician, but it has certainly enhanced the value of my copyrights. That’s another aspect of copyrights – with ASCAP, for example, which is my performing rights society, the way your royalties at the end of the are calculated is based on a very complicated formula, one aspect of which is seniority. So the longer you are a member, they weight your royalties higher. And if you are prolific and you have a lot of copyrights, that also is in your favour, because they can’t literally document every time one of your songs is played on the local radio station in Ohio, or something. So what they do is they come up with some kind of formula, and if you have longevity, it increases your income. So the fact that all of these things have happened with my copyrights, whatever they are: Samples and cover tunes and reissues and whatever, all add to the value of my ASCAP status.
AF: What music do you listen to in your spare time?
BJ: Actually I find that I listen mostly to classical music when I’m not working because it takes me out of my “world”.
AF: Finally, do you have any hip-hop in your collection?
BJ: Not much, no. Other than the whole growing box of samples that I have! I get some oddball stuff, you know.