Keyboardist Bob James has been sampled in hip-hop classics from Run-DMC’s “Beats to the Rhyme” to Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.” An agogô-bell breakbeat from one of his recordings has propelled tracks by N.W.A. and A$AP Rocky. No jazz artist has been sampled more than him. The term “godfather of hip-hop” has even been tossed around.
Which means he had a profound relationship with rap and hip-hop back when all these songs were released, right?
“Zero. I didn’t have any relationship with it,” the 80-year-old deadpans to Discogs from his lakefront home in Northern Michigan. “I wasn’t very interested in that genre. I was deep in my own work, and in my time away from listening to jazz, I was listening to classical music.”
But, as he heard through the grapevine, producers had begun to cut snippets from his recordings and splice them into their own — oftentimes without permission.
On August 29, a.k.a. Record Store Day, James will unveil his latest archival release, Once Upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York City Studio Sessions. On highlights like “Serenata,” “Variations,” and “Long Forgotten Blues,” a 25-year-old James leads a piano trio with one ear cocked to the avant-garde.
“Many things that were going on in my head at the time are still there and still very much a part of my music-making,” James says of Once Upon a Time. “There’s naïveness I can hear. There was very much a competitive feeling of wanting to prove myself.”
James is endlessly respectful of hip-hop, praising its “architectural aspect of production” and “bizarre and unpredictable nature.” But if you rip off his music without permission, he will change his tune — and defend his copyright all the way to court. Just ask DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who he successfully sued in the 1980s. Or Madlib, who he went after in 2015 for copyright infringement. (The case was later settled out of court.)
While Once Upon a Time is an engaging listen that illuminates James’s backstory, it’s still typical-of-its-era out jazz, and there are zero boom-bap beats to be found. So what about James’s work was catnip to rappers from the 1980s to the present day?
“That’s really a question I get asked all the time and I wish I knew a better answer for it,” James responds. “I only theorize, and it depends on who I’m talking to. The way I would try to describe it … was that the jazz field in the early 1970s was going through a transformation.”
He cites innovative use of electronic instruments, a pivot in the “role of the bass” from acoustic to electric, and increased blurring between the rock and jazz spheres as aspects of this transformation — all of which are reflected in James’s work in the early 1970s for CTI Records.
In 1974, the year Miles Davis released his psychedelic fusion album Get Up With It, Bob James released One, his debut CTI album. It concludes with “Nautilus,” which was ethereal enough to remind producer Creed Taylor of a descending submarine — despite bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad being tighter-than-tight.
Years later, that song’s marriage of murky, mystical textures and a bumping groove caught the ears of producers like RZA and El-P. “I like ‘Nautilus’ just how I did it, but I still respect it,” James told Vice in 2013, revealing it was a “filler track” that was recorded as an afterthought. To date, it has been sampled at least 341 times.
On 1975’s Two, James covered Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, which James played on. “I decided that I wanted to maybe do an instrumental cover of one of his tunes,” James says. “Being part of the same team and having the same manager, I thought maybe I could bring something different to it.”
What neither James nor Simon could have anticipated is how that cover — specifically, its agogô-bell intro — would dot the rap and hip-hop landscape. (Arthur Jenkins and Ralph MacDonald are credited as performing the part.) “What they looped, that rhythm thing, didn’t have Paul Simon’s melody at all,” James observes. “It didn’t even have my piano melody that comes in later.”
Legally, these facts are immaterial: any use of “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” means Simon’s publishing company needs to be paid. This means if you want to sample the bell part — that neither James nor Simon technically wrote — both their publishers need to be looped in. “It’s just another aspect of how kind of weird and even illogical this world is,” James says.
More than a decade after 1976’s Three, James was forced to get litigious. In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, which earned them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance and eventually went triple-platinum. There was just one problem.
“They had taken my recording ‘Westchester Lady’ [from Three] and rapped over it [on ‘Here We Go Again’ and ‘A Touch of Jazz’],” James says with a tint of exasperation in his voice three decades on. “Without licensing it, I might add.”
In the end, James was awarded “a nice settlement,” which sent a message to future copyright infringers: Don’t try to walk all over him. “It was mostly just establishing my turf,” James says. “It was blatant enough that if they tried to fight it, it would have been difficult and probably worse for them.”
In 1978, James exploded into popular consciousness via “Angela” — which is better known as the theme song to Taxi, whose pilot episode aired that year. Today, it remains the composition James is best known for — and five years ago, the R&B singer Cee-Lo Green reworked it in a way that didn’t step on James’s toes, but thrilled him.
“He took my ‘Angela’ recording, played with it, sang over it with his own lyric and gave it a new title: ‘Sign of the Times,’” James says. “He was very above-board with it. I loved what he did, frankly.” Even though James, who is credited as a featured artist, wasn’t physically there in the studio, he calls “Sign of the Times” a “collaboration” over space and time.
Artists still sample James all the time, but these days, the process is far less dramatic and more boring. That’s a very good thing. “Much more predictable,” James says. “Usually, [artists] will come to my publisher or the people that represent me and say, ‘I want to use such-and-such recording.’ Then they ask permission and they ask for a license.”
After that, “My publisher will send a sample of it to me of what they did and I will evaluate how important the sample is,” he continues. “Sometimes it’s just little chunks that you would almost not even know were there, and other times it’s very prominent and it goes from the beginning to the end. We try to establish our fees in response to how it’s used.”
While this side of his career has been cleared up, there’s a new paradigm to grapple with: streaming. James calls Spotify and its ilk’s compensation methods “very mysterious and, from my vantage point, still not enough in the control of the creators. It’s very much in the control of big business.
“I feel it’s becoming more and more difficult to hold onto the power of your copyright globally,” he continues. I’m not ambitious enough to try to hire a big, expensive attorney and try to fight this, but I’m always going to stand up for my copyrights.”
That said, James’s overall tone is not of resentment, but of wonder. He’s as amazed by his unlikely legacy in hip-hop as he is about Once Upon a Time, which he hadn’t heard in decades and admits he barely remembers recording.
“It’s amazing to me how unpredictable these times are,” he marvels. “It reinforces my overall feeling that the best thing I can do is enjoy the process, because you never know when something good or bad can happen. You just hang in there and keep doing stuff.”
Here are 10 more songs that sample Bob James.