Sample Stories with Bob James

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Pianist and composer Bob James may very well be the most sampled jazz musician in the history of hip-hop. Pieces of his now famous compositions like “Nautilus” and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” have been endlessly loaded into MPCs, SP-1200s, and various other sampling devices for well over two decades. And those loops and chops make up the sounds of some of rap’s dopest records ever, like Ghostface Killah’s Wu banger “Daytona 500,” and Warren G and Nate Dogg’s West Coast classic “Regulate.” And that’s just two of hundreds. Scroll through Bob’s WhoSampled page, and you’ll find the names and sounds of seminal songs by Run-D.M.C., Gang Starr, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Main Source, Slick Rick, and countless other renowned rap acts. They all recognized Bob’s brilliance, and chose his music to be a part of their sample-based hip-hop masterpieces.

But what is it about Bob James’ compositions that makes his catalog so attractive to sample-based hip-hop producers? Well, for our first edition of Sample Stories, we connected with Bob to find out the answer, and much more. In this candid interview, Bob tells us the details behind the making of his most sampled song, “Nautilus,” and breaks down what elements in the recording he feels lured hip-hop producers to sample it. He also discusses his own personal history dealing with hip-hop artists who sampled his work, from his legal battles with DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Arrested Development, to his eye-opening relationship with X-Ecutioners DJ Rob Swift. In addition, Bob talks about the evolution of the licensing process, shows his appreciation for hip-hop and his fixture in its legacy, and shares his true feelings about artists sampling his work.

Read our interview with Bob James below, and make sure you cop Bob’s brand new, twenty-two track collection Rhodes Scholar: Jazz-Funk Classics 1974-1982 to hear all his original recordings (see cover above), available now on iTunes.

The Making of “Nautilus”

Bob James: “The way that ‘Nautilus’ found its way into the hip-hop world is completely fascinating to me. It was shocking to me when it first happened, and still to this day, it is an amazing example of how music takes on a life of its own.

“I had been working with CTI Records, and a jazz producer named Creed Taylor, who was very popular and successful at that time. I had been working as an arranger for jazz artists like Grover Washington and Hubert Laws, and Stanley Turrentine. And as a result of making those records behind the scenes as an arranger, Creed Taylor decided to let me do a solo project of my own. At that time, I was not really pursuing a solo career. I was working more behind the scenes as an arranger.

“So on [my debut solo] record, [which was titled One], there were six cuts. In those days, LPs were a lot shorter. CDs can contain as much as 75 minutes of music. But in order to keep the sound quality in the LP era, you didn’t really want much more than 18 minutes per side. So if you could keep your total length of an album to 36 minutes or so, that was the best thing. It was a very big deal, especially for the sound of the bass. The grooves had to be wider. And there were a lot of considerations about LPs that were different than CDs, in terms of mastering, etc.

“I recorded a wide variety of music on that project, mainly because I was going to use it as a demo to get more arranging jobs. I still wasn’t thinking about having a solo career. It was looking to me like it was going to be a one-off. So I did some classical adaptations. I arranged a version of a very famous classical piece called ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’ And another classical piece, Pachelbel’s ‘Canon,’ which was a very popular classical piece. I rearranged that, and gave it a new title, ‘In the Garden.’

“Then, we needed an extra piece of material. I was a little bit short of having enough compositions. So I had been noodling around with a sketch at home, and I brought in this very sketchy piece, which didn’t have a title. And at the last minute, we recorded it. Creed Taylor gave it the title ‘Nautilus’ because there was a sound that I used from the synthesizer in the intro that sounded sort of like a submerging submarine to him.”

“It Was a Filler”

“We weren’t really paying any attention to ‘Nautilus’ at the time, because when we submitted the record to radio stations and various promotion people, they chose two songs [the two songs they thought were the] most commercial. One of them was ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ which was a very fast, aggressive kind of piece that had a spectacular drum part that was played by Steve Gadd, who was emerging at the time as a very big time [musician]. And the other song, which was very important to me, was a song called ‘Feel Like Making Love.’

“I had been hired to play piano on Roberta Flack’s recording of that song, and it was one of those recording sessions where when they brought out the song, I just knew it was going to be a hit. Everyone in the studio at that time could tell it was going to be a hit. And that session happened almost simultaneously to when I was going into the studio to record my solo project. So I told Creed Taylor, ‘I think I should do an instrumental version of that song.’ And he loved the idea. So I ended up using almost the exact same rhythm section on my recording that was on hers. And we did it in the same key, with a very similar groove. And I had Gary King on bass, and Idris Muhammad on drums, who were the same guys who played on ‘Nautilus’ and were very important for that [recording, too].

“‘Feel Like Making Love’ became a huge hit for Roberta Flack, and many radio stations were playing my version as well. They were even playing the two versions back-to-back. And it was really that song, ‘Feel Like Making Love,’ that got me on the map as a solo artist, and sort of launched my career at that time. And ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ also was getting heavy airplay.

“But my point about ‘Nautilus’ is that nobody paid any attention to it. We weren’t thinking of it as being one of the important tunes. And we had put in on the last cut of Side B, which traditionally at that time would be the least important place. In that era, obviously there was Side A and Side B. And usually, the sequence would be to put your strongest cuts at the start of Side A and Side B. They were the cuts that sounded best because they were at the outside of the LP where the grooves were wider, and you got more bass. And you would put what you perceived to be the weakest cuts on the inside. So ‘Nautilus’ was hidden, and almost not paid any attention to at all. So that to me, is the most amazing and incredible thing. That hip-hop producers grabbed on to it [even with its unpopularity and poor placement on the album].

“It was a filler. And it was not unusual in a lot of jazz recordings for a composition to start out as just a sketch to get the ball rolling, and get the guys in the studio to improvise and do their thing. And then you expand that into a piece. And the tune or the groove on the written out composition is minimal. There are many times that I had a session coming up, and at the last minute, I would realize that I didn’t have a enough material. So I would go to the piano, and sketch something out.”

Sampling “Nautilus”

“I can’t really trace back and remember the first producer who looped ‘Nautilus’ and made it into a chunk, but it became a part of the lexicon, or the bible, of favorite loops to grab on to. It found its way into that repertoire. And before I knew it, I started getting calls practically daily for licensing. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but not too much. It was pretty crazy. A lot of the most prominent ones became known nationally, but there were a lot of street musicians at that time that were doing projects on a shoestring [budget], and my sample was used in a lot of recordings that never really made it big. But they were nevertheless being used [similar to how] these days you can go into a music store and buy loops that are generic, and hundreds and hundreds of people use [the same loop]. Well, ‘Nautilus’ kind of became that back in the era when this genre wasn’t as well organized.

“It’s been a very strange phenomenon that my composition and recording [became so popular with hip-hop producers]. I had to go back to it and remember what it was about it that I liked. They may be different from the things that the hip-hop producers that used the recording liked.

“What I think might have [made it such a popular song to sample], well the first thing, is that obviously it had a very simple groove that was easy to loop. It had a very simple pattern in the intro, and it was clean, and clear. You could take a four bar chunk of it with no problem. But it also had a kind of mysterious, I don’t want to say ‘science fiction,’ but an atmospheric orchestration. Some of the usages that I discovered would take things from various sections of my recording, unlike the type of hip-hop usage where they would take a one or two bar chunk from the same section. ‘Nautilus’ seems to have found an interest in the producers and arrangers of hip-hop recordings, where they actually took more.

“There was one time when a friend of mine in New York was trying to put together a compilation project, asking hip-hop producers to just take ‘Nautilus’ as a jumping off place, and each hip-hop artist would do ‘Nautilus’ in their own way. I don’t think he ever finished it. But he sent me three or four of these from different hip-hop artists, and it was fascinating, because all of them were completely different. Some of them used the song from beginning to end. Some of them re-recorded it, and used my bass line vamp, and they would re-record the drums, with a similar groove. There have been so many variations of it, that it always puts a big smile on my face just to even think about it. How could I have possibly predicted this outcome could happen? [Laughs.]”

Bob James “Nautilus”

Ghostface Killah ft. Raekwon and Cappadonna “Daytona 500″

Influences/Shift in Jazz Music in the Early ‘70s

“I was very into trying to make interesting bass lines during that era. There was a changeover in jazz from the bebop era, where the function of the upright bass was a what they called ‘a walking four,’ where the bass player’s groove was just quarter notes [up and down the scale]. It was a swingy way to think about it. But gradually, bass players realized they would get more gigs if they switched over to electric bass, which was the prominent instrument in pop music and rock. More and more of the guys getting the gigs were playing the electric bass.

“There were new artists that were starting to emerge, like Jaco Pastorius, who changed the whole role of what the bass could be in a jazz ensemble. [The bass] was much more melodic, and more prominent. And I loved the challenge of having the bass take on this new melodic role for me. It was a new opportunity as a composer and an arranger for me to do something personal, that eventually became part of my style as a composer. Songs like ‘Westchester Lady, and definitely ‘Nautilus,’ and a lot of other things, were as much about the bass melody as they were about the saxophone melody, or the piano melody. And that was definitely what the rappers heard. That simple bass melody. It was a combination of that, and this sort of irresistible drum that Idris Muhammad laid down, which is hard to even put into words. The grooves were simple enough, and the bass line underneath left plenty of room to either rap over, or [put] whatever you wanted to add to it [on top].

“So the function of the bass was changing, and I think that was the most prominent thing for me. In the early ‘70s, there was a very basic change in the way we thought about creating new jazz compositions. Miles Davis was certainly the most prominent, and his music started to change. He went from the bebop bass instrumentation that had upright bass by guys like Ron Carter, to eventually shifting over to using people like Marcus Miller, [and he begin] improvising based upon standard songs like ‘Summertime’ or ‘I Got Rhythm,’ where there was an AAB where you had chord changes you were improvising on.

“But in that era, in the early ‘70s, Miles’ records Kind of Blue and Milestones, those very important recordings, were experimenting with a kind of modal improvisation that would just have one scale or chord for sixteen measures. And the style of improvising changed. The pianist Bill Evans was a very important part of that changeover to modal improvising. And with modal improvising, it became much more possible for the role of the bass to change into a melodic approach, as opposed to a rhythmic, quarter note type of approach. And I was right in the middle of that. I had grown up being a huge fan of Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane, and Oscar Peterson, and all the people from the previous bebop, modern jazz era. But I also loved the adventure of looking for something new.

“By the time we reached the 1970s, I was convinced that there was no way I could be a better Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson in a way that hadn’t already been done. But that was the jazz of its day. I always felt that any jazz artist has the responsibility of being an individual, and seeking out new ground, rather than trying to recreate what had already been done. So I was very interested in this changeover, and loved being a part of it. I loved getting hired to be a pianist on those recordings. And when I had the chance to be a leader and make my own music, it was even more exciting for me. To choose my own direction that I wanted to go in, and not just repeat what previous jazz artists had done.”

“[Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters] was a part of the same switchover from what was called swing-based, or straight-ahead based jazz, to at that time what was called contemporary jazz, or jazz/rock. But Herbie’s record was also revolutionary, or trailblazing, in that he was seeking out new territory. He was seeking out a new way of presenting jazz. And Headhunters has many examples of this melodic bass line driven compositions. Another major player in that era, who I feel does not get enough credit as he deserves, is Harvey Mason, who was playing the drum grooves that became so successful on Headhunters. And Harvey was very actively involved on some of the production elements in that recording, but it ended up being mostly credited to Herbie. But that’s when I became aware of Harvey, and he and I were becoming friends, and he ended up being a very major part of most of my recordings. I started working with him right after the album that had ‘Nautilus’ on it. And Harvey was the drummer on ‘Westchester Lady,’ which was another one of my records that got sampled a lot. And there’s no coincidence that a lot of it had to do with the magic grooves that were being laid down by Harvey.

“And at that same time, classical music was always a part of my background. So even though it’s kind of blurry, it’s definitely there as an influence in ‘Nautilus.’ It had a very simple groove, which turned out to be a hip-hop groove, or associated with hip-hop. But at the time, I considered it to be a kind of New Orleans street beat—marching band almost—shuffle groove, that was a trademark of Idris Muhammad’s playing. Then, I superimposed a classical orchestra, with strings, and a very impressionistic kind of sound. It really wasn’t a part of the genre at the time. It was just my own taste, and having fun in the studio, basically. Taking advantage of my training, and background, and interests. But little did I know the life it would turn out to have.”

Suing DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

“I have a very strong memory of the first time my music was used in [hip-hop]. It’s when ‘Westchester Lady’ was sampled by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince [on their song 'A Touch of Jazz']. It was on their first album [Rock the House]. The blatant use of my song, ‘Westchester Lady,’ was a complete shock to me. It was a major, major problem, because they had not licensed it. They didn’t do anything. And it was very clearly my recording, almost from beginning to end, [using the] major parts of the melody. So I had to sue them, and go through a major legal battle in order to maintain my copyright. And that kind of got me off to a sour start with the genre. And I realized as time went on that it was a fairly common thing at that time, for rappers to take recordings and use them without going through the licensing process. Even the record companies were just playing a ‘wait and see’ kind of game, trying to get away with it. So it became necessary for me to become a policeman, to in many cases just find out who was using my music.

“[I found out about it] after [the album] was a hit. It was quite a ways down the line. I would not have spent the money to do anything about if it had not been so successful. It was way up on the charts, and a friend of mine in the music business called me and was like, ‘You should check out this recording.’ And when I heard it, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was insulted by it. It was blatantly stealing my music without asking me about it. It was way before this genre had developed a stage where some of these samples actually took on a historic value of their own. And of course, when ‘Nautilus’ took on this value, I had a different type of appreciation for it. But this was just theft.

“From my standpoint, I had to take a stand about it, because the copyright, and the maintaining of the ownership of copyright, are the most valuable and important things that we have in this business. And the control over the usage of it. And to have someone attempt to take that out from under you is a very big deal. And it’s a bigger deal from the standpoint of the record companies than the artist. I will grant the artist a lot of leeway, thinking that they were doing it for creative reasons. And most of the time, when I have dealt with hip-hop artists who have naively just taken my music without knowing the mechanics of how they have to license it and how to get the permission to use it, I’ll give them some slack.

“But the record companies, I don’t. Because they should know better. But if the record company can get a rapper to give them a really great deal and pay the rapper one percent, when they know they’d have to pay me fifty percent, the record company’s gonna go straight to the rapper and see if they can get away with it. And that’s what they tried to do regularly during that era. So I didn’t really care about liking [what they did with the sample] or not. ‘No you can’t take my music.’ That was my attitude about it. ‘My recording is the way I want this record to sound. I don’t want to have someone talking over it, or doing anything else to it.’ Especially if they didn’t have my permission, or they weren’t asking me to be involved with it creatively. I have no choice or say over it at all. It started me off in a very negative, combative type of way.

“I still have the same feeling, that creating music or art is not just randomly going and grabbing someone else’s work and changing it. The creative process is so much more complicated and sophisticated to me. I have made peace with hip-hop’s use of my music, but still, in many ways, it doesn’t represent what I think about when I’m presenting my music. I’m creating it, I’m in control over it, and I make the decision about how it sounds when it comes out. To some degree, I’ve had to live with the way it has evolved, and certainly I’ve made money on it, because I do own the copyrights. But it’s a very mixed feeling. And if I had to be one hundred percent candid, what hip-hop [producers] have done with my music really has nothing to do with the way I feel about making music.

“Probably ‘Nautilus’ and ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ would be the two biggest in the ultimate royalty statements. But I’m not sure, and I haven’t broken it down enough to know.”

Relationship with Rob Swift/Learning about Hip-Hop First Hand

“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. 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.’ I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot at that time. And I have a great respect for him. He and I are still really good friends. But the bottom line is his world is still very different from mine, and I still am most at home and [most passionate] about making my music and taking the rewards from that, and the lumps when people don’t like it. At least I know that I’m in control over it.

“But I did learn about the best and most creative use of digital technology. Chopping, and the way we can take digital chunks of sound and manipulate them. I love that, and I loved exploring that. I had my best chance to see it in action with Rob Swift, because we actually worked together in the studio. We even improvised together, with me playing the piano, and him improvising at the turntables live. It was a great feeling for me to hear how Rob perceived rhythm. And he perceived it from the standpoint of these chunks of sound. I loved hearing that.”

Rob Swift and Bob James Live at The Knitting Factory, NYC

Legal Battle with EMI over Arrested Development Sample

“I also had a very unfortunate experience [a couple years ago] with having been ripped off with a sample of mine [on Arrested Development’s ‘People Everyday’]. And I tried for two years to take the record company, EMI, to court. And I discovered how cruel the music business can be. They pumped a tremendous amount of money back at me, and I barely got out without losing a whole lot of money. Just trying to protect my copyright was nearly a disaster, because I got [exposed to] the most ugly aspects of the music business. It has not been just a matter of going to the bank to cash checks and make money on a hip-hop deal. There is an unscrupulous way that copyrights are treated by big record companies that don’t care about [anything but] how to get money into their pocket.

“In this particular case, they just completely mislabeled and channeled the income from a very successful recording so that it would be hidden from me for twenty years. The sneaky way they did it was in those days a lot of people were doing remixes. And the remix I was [sampled on] was the ‘People Everyday (Metamorphosis Mix).’ The original version of the song was a remake of Sly Stone’s recording ‘Everyday People.’ They took that, messed around with it, and licensed it from the Sly Stone publisher. But it went nowhere, and the song was not successful. But they went back in the studio, and did a remix, and added my sample to the remix. And that was the version that was a hit, and nothing else was played except my version after that.

“But very sneakily, EMI channeled all the income into the previous version, even though that wasn’t the version that was being used. It was some very sophisticated, creepy booking. It was a pawn job. Fraud, is what it was. But I could never prove it. I spent heavy money trying to prove it, and never was able to prove it. And that version over the past fifteen to twenty years has been used endless times, in TV commercials, background music, movies, all over the world. I learned the hard way that I wasn’t tough enough protecting it from the very beginning. There wasn’t any doubt through the whole time that I was trying to sue them over it that they used it. There was no way they could hide the amount of income, and the millions of dollars that were made from it. But they utilized the statute of limitations and every other excuse to get out of paying me. And it was very, very ugly. So there are definitely some ugly aspects about [sampling] that color my whole attitude about the genre.

“I’ve tried to be as fair as I can be. I’ve never set out to take advantage of the artist. I do appreciate the creativity involved. In some ways, I hope that my taking a strong stance will be educational too, because [hip-hop artists] need to protect whatever their creative contribution is also. And if they learn from it, they’ll be better off in the long run too.”

Hip-Hop’s Social Phenomenon/Licensing Decisions

“There was a social phenomenon going on [in hip-hop during the time that my music was being most heavily sampled] that I wasn’t really a part of. There was an attitude, and a need to communicate via words and via hip-hop poetry, or whatever you want to call it. And that is not my world, and not my message I want to convey. A lot of it bordered on offensive, and even crossed over into being really offensive, in a kind of deliberately anti-social, and deliberately anti-intellectual, provocative way. That was not my battle, and not my interest. Having [that message] piggyback on the top of my music, or having my music associate with some of those offensive social statements was a problem aspect of it to me.

“It was very rarely [that I would deny someone licensing because of lyrical content, though]. I wouldn’t want to be a censor if they were using foul language or if they were being disrespectful. That’s not my world, and I don’t really care what they do in that respect. But when you’re tampering with my music without my permission, or insulting my art [like when my theme song from Taxi 'Angela' was sped up on Souls of Mischief's 'Cab Fare']* and then trying to tell me you’re being really creative about it, I say, ‘You’ve got another thing coming. No way.’ Those would be the only instances that I would’ve been motivated to deny a person permission to use my copyright.”

*Eventually, Bob James came around and gave permission to Souls of Mischief to use a sample of his song “Angela” on “Cab Fare,” but ultimately, permission was denied by the publishing company that controlled the Taxi TV series. [via]

Warren G ft. Nate Dogg “Regulate” (contains a sample of Bob James’ “Sign of the Times”)

Evolution of Licensing Process in Hip-Hop

“I’m still getting requests for licensing. Not like it was. There was a period of time in the mid-’90s up to and around the turn of the century when it was most intense. There were a lot of those recordings being made. And it was getting better in terms of the way the lawyers and record labels. There was a methodical type of process, and it was better all the way around for the artist and the record companies. If someone came to me in advance, and asked permission, and went through the right channels, I was always very reasonable about granting the license and giving it to them for reasonable cost. But when I would find out that a record would become a hit, and my music was used on it and they didn’t get a license, I went after them as strong as I possibly could. And I went after all the royalties, because they didn’t have the right to do it.

“Ethics was something that was drastically missing from the early era of hip-hop, and it had to be taught. It had to be developed, because it was new territory. There wasn’t any language in recording contracts to deal with samples. Only gradually did they figure out how to do it. And now there are companies that specialize in [clearing samples]. And record companies go to them to make sure they are correctly licensing [their releases]. And artist contracts require that they promise they will not use a sample without permission, and they’re require to let the record company know which samples were used to avoid lawsuits.

“It’s been a phenomenon that I would’ve never predicted. And symbolically, it represents to me when I’m talking to young composers and musicians how important this whole world of music copyrights is. And it’s changing every year. The Internet’s changed every single rule that we know about how music is even distributed. It’s more and more difficult to keep up with it, and [make sure] the income makes its way down to the creators. [We have to] continue to fight for it. It’s an ongoing battle.”

Rhodes Scholar

“I love having the opportunity to show hip-hop fans a place where they can go and hear the original, and show young people that there is another world out there if they are curious about it and want to explore the music in its original form. And that’s already happened. I’ve had a lot of young people coming to my concerts actually, and they love hearing my music in its original form. And they tell me that they wouldn’t have had any idea who I was if weren’t for them discovering that I was the guy who did the sample on some hip-hop recording that they like. A lot of them are shocked that I’m still alive, by the way. [Laughs.] They think that these samples come back from the Stone Age, or ancient history somehow. Like, ‘People who created this music can’t possibly still be alive.’ I get a laugh out of that. So the most fun aspect of the Rhodes Scholar project is introducing people to the music in its original form, so they can A-B back and forth and see where [the samples on the hip-hop records they love] came from.”

Rhodes Scholar: Jazz/Funk Classics 1974-1982 is now available on iTunes.

Catch up on all our previous NahRight features/interviews HERE.