Sample School: Bob James
The amazing thing about so much of modern music, from hip-hop and out beyond, is that you’re never really listening to just one album or just one track, you’re skimming the surface of musical history. Most hip-hop artists are as much archivists as they are musicians and if you look a little deeper you’ll find a mind-boggling back-catalog of genius staring back at you. Spend more than a few minutes on WhoSampled.com and you’ll quickly become entranced, digging out track after track to find out which 70s funk hooks, film score overtures and Malcolm X quotes built the flesh around the skeleton of the beat. The purpose of this feature is to give you an insight into a particular band or artist who helped to shape that world, an artist you’ve likely been listening to for years without even realising it.
So we move on to someone I believe to be one of the biggest unsung heroes of modern music. Active since the early 60s, Bob James is credited with being an originator of the kind of smooth key-tickling that has formed the backbone of much of the hip-hop, R&B and house that we know today. He’s produced dozens of solo albums, as well as working closely with Grover Washington Jr. for many years.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is about James’s music is so attractive to beat-makers, he himself is rather ambivalent about it, one the one hand he’s gone on record in the past to say that he finds it all pretty fascinating, but on the other he’s filed suit against artists who sampled his tracks, like DJ Jazzy Jeff and more recently Madlib. For my money it’s because, like many of the hip-hop artists for whom his work has become so prevalent, James is a scientist. All of his albums, but particularly the seminal early works One, Two and Three feel distinctly experimental, playing around with different bass lines, chord progressions and different ways to build melodies. There’s a particular track on Two, called Farandole (actually a reworking of a Georges Bizet suite), which blends string suits, funky keys and a luscious flute solo from Hubert Laws into something that manages to evoke lounge jazz, classical, uptown funk, disco and even the kind of progressive fusion you’d expect to hear from Return to Forever without actually really being any of those things. It’s the kind of music that makes you yearn to have been in the recording studio, watching it all come together.
It’s also phenomenally rich, layered music, which also goes some way to explaining why it gets sampled so frequently, every track is just a massive, overflowing toolbox waiting to be opened up. Whether James himself is or was any kind of musical pioneer by choice is quite difficult to determine, so many artists were innovating in so many different ways during the 70s that crediting anything to any one person is always going to be reductive. When you take his presence in sample culture out of the equation though, it’s impossible to deny just how deep and absorbing so much of his output is and was, not to mention funky as hell. So, here are 3 of his best known (and most sampled) cuts.
Tappan Zee – BJ4 – 1977
Appears in People Everyday by Arrested Development
The eventual namesake of James’s own record label, originally titled after the bridge that carried him over the Hudson river and into Manhattan to record so much of his material, this track is perhaps the best singular example of the Bob James style you’ll ever find. BJ4 is not as fondly recalled as some of his other albums, but it did herald the start of the most prolific period in James’ career. Like the other tracks that will appear on this list, the above sample reference is but one of a slew of tracks that have reworked Tappan Zee, but People Everyday is easily the most iconic, it’s the track that helped Arrested Development gain the recognition they sorely deserved.
Take Me to the Mardi Gras – Two – 1975
Appears in Peter Piper by Run-DMC
Actually a cover of an earlier track by Paul Simon (and actually containing a sample of its own, a murmuring vocal from Tommy Cash’s Rise and Shine), this might not be the single best known Bob James track to be sampled (that one comes next) but it’s probably the most recognisable and if WhoSampled are to be believed, the most frequently used. Peter Piper aside, the track was sampled in Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A.), Hold it Down Now, Hit It (Beastie Boys), Dig a Hole (Jay Z), Dig Your Own Hole (Chemical Brothers), Nuttin’ But Love (Heavy D & the Boyz) and Flowers (Ghostface Killah) to name a precious few. Its renown as a sample staple is so massive that even if you have never sought out any track containing it, you’ll probably still recognise it the moment it starts playing.
Nautilus – One – 1974
Appears in Follow the Leader by Eric B & Rakim
The most interesting thing about this track is that it was never actually intended to be any kind of standout. It was, as James himself puts it, filler, just a mix of ideas, hooks and melodies to bridge the gap between the last important track and the next important track. Of course, to a hip-hop producer, that’s often exactly what you need, something layered and interesting, but structured and repetitive enough that it’s easy to wrap around a fresh beat and can sit comfortably behind the rapping without ever interfering with it.
Once again there are literally hundreds of tracks to have used Nautilus in the 39 years since it was released, but in the top tier you have Children’s Story (Slick Rick), Clap Your Hands (A Tribe Called Quest), My Mind Spray (Jeru the Damaja), The Rap World (Large Professor and Pete Rock), Daytona 500 (Ghostface Killah), Live at the Barbecue (Main Source, also my personal favourite), Beats to the Rhyme (Run-DMC), Sparkdala (Quasimoto), On the Dub-Ble (DJ Krush), My Mic is on Fire (The Lord Shafiyq) and Brothers on My Jock (EPMD and Redman). Believe me I could keep going. The astounding thing is that even with such an expansive history of sampling, the track fits each new one uniquely, rarely is it used the same way twice, it just seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. James has said as much when speaking in reference to the way Nautilus has taken off, saying that once in the early stages of this phenomenon he spent an evening listening to a series of hip-hop demos he’d been sent and marvelling at how fresh it sounded on each new track. Just a shame he felt the need to sue Madlib for using it, no track has had such a singular, invaluable influence on the genre (and modern music at large) as Nautilus.