Things were different then.
Things were different then. Popular music was changing, and over in New York, kids were priming themselves for a burgeoning hip-hop scene.
James was thirty-five by and had just released his first solo album on CTI Records. His subsequent projects for the label were both commercially successful LPs and unsung flops. In this three-part interview, he talks in-depth regarding details of his career: The first part of the interview touches on colorful names that are intermingled with his history, its development and legacy.
Next, he reflects back on his first three CTI releases, breaking down the most sampled songs on each album. Everyone talks about the history of our field and Quincy Jones has a lot to do with my history. You could even say he discovered me. He was very influential at several key stages in my career. He was a judge at a jazz competition that I did when I was still in college, and my group ended up winning the whole thing.
That, of course, was very important to me. This launched my career with CTI. Those two things are extremely important to me, and how my career played out.
Quincy was definitely pivotal. You were with CTI for a few years before your own project debuted. When did Creed Taylor interject and aid in the progression of things? After doing this for about two or three years, on a fairly stable basis, and being on the support staff for other artists like Grover Washington, finally Creed asked me if I wanted to do my own album.
So of course I said yes. One ended up being my first for CTI. He always believed in hiring the best musicians possible and he put a lot of emphasis into the mixing and production value. He always used a fantastic engineer named Rudy Van Gelder.
I can say that Rudy was very important in my development also. He also had a very identifiable sound. But together, Rudy and Creed had a definite personality in all their projects.
Often times, it was made by the engineer. What I think is very doubtful is that anybody did. Especially if it was a promotional inch for the LP. The possibility of a inch single could certainly exist. But a version without the bells seems unlikely to me. I was three years into a solo recording career with CTI at the time, and things were going good. The first two records sold well and I felt like my career was really solid by this time.
Once again, I had no idea of what would become of anything I made. Especially having been in the instrumental jazz field for a while at this point, I was wondering what else I could do. The meat of this album is in the parts where a lot of improvising took place. This album remains a sentimental one because of the time it was recorded. The music industry was going through a lot of changes. At this point I was really into trying new things and improvising almost wildly at points.
I mean, of course improvising has always been an important part of my compositions, but I felt like I now truly had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was always looking for schematic material to get a song started, and this song did take a while. But I was real happy with the results when we finished this one because it took longer than some other songs we had done by then. I love this song.
Nothing was really different about the attitude we had coming in to this particular song though. We just went in looking for a hook and a groove, and I think the fact that we found such a solid groove indicates to me that we did our job right on this song. The groove is very solid on this one. Thinking back on it, this album is like my sophomore year as a recording artist. By the time we went into the studio to cut the album, One was already pretty popular, so we needed a strong follow-up.
There are several songs on this record that were continuations of the same concepts as the first one. So I decided to do it with a kind of Latin groove, and low and behold, twenty-five years or so later, these hip-hop guys used it a lot. Ralph is the guy playing the cowbell on the intro. Ralph played percussion on many recordings in the same era as I did.
So he helped me out this time by sitting in and playing a pretty standard intro section. We were just improvising in the studio and trying to establish a carnival type of mood before the melody came in. We wanted to just let the rhythm section do their thing. But the way the record got mixed, the cowbell part is really prominent. I am very fond of this song. I think this has been sampled many times because there is a big enough chunk separated from other elements, which made it easy for producers to come in and make a loop out of.
It is a classical composition by a composer by the name of Bizet, and I just arranged it and adapted it for a jazz tune. Creed and I liked playing around with compositions. This is the most sentimental project of mine.
The music business surprises me in all kinds of ways and this has been one of them. The most rewarding thing about this project, which I was committed to and worked so hard on, is that it took on new life years later.
Given all of that, I never would have anticipated how so many songs from this record would end up in a completely different genre. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that this album, at the very least, would give me a chance to record some arrangements that I could use as a demo.
I did all kinds of stuff, used different musicians and orchestras just to have a wide variety of music to show people. I think those two songs helped make the album a success. I had no idea the record would become commercially successful, so well remembered and so sampled.
But at the time, Creed was very open to letting me do what I wanted to do. I really loved having the chance to do something like this. In a way, I treated this song like a film score because it was very dramatic. And, I suppose that in the back of my mind, I was hoping this song would help me get work in the film-scoring business.
I definitely had a lot of offers to score movies after it was released. I think people realized my background allowed me to do that type of music too. It was full of contrasts and was just really different. That song was probably the most radical and daring in that era because it was very different than what anyone else was doing. This song gave me an opportunity to work with a larger ensemble of musicians. Especially for a piece like this, there was a huge orchestra and a big brass section.
It also was one of the early recording sessions of Steve Gadd who became very respected in our field. Steve often credits this tune as helping him establish his reputation because so many people heard him on this. Steve and I have remained very close friends since. It was a great song and I had a feeling it could be a hit. We were in the studio recording her version, and within a couple weeks I had the opportunity to do my own record.
So I just decided to use the same band, same sax player, same rhythm section; Idris Muhammad on drums, Gary King on bass, and Richie Resnicoff on guitar. So we were just trying to recreate that same groove, but as a funkier instrumental piece. I think it really work out great. Then as years went by, I found out that the hip-hop field was heavily sampling it.
Often times, producers would put what they consider to be the best cut on the beginning of the A side because the audio is much better on the outer ring of a record. The grooves were wider and just other technical stuff like that. I had written several compositions of my own, primarily so I could get my own copyrights of the album and this was just another one of those compositions. I had a great rhythm section that was in the studio that day so we were just having fun.
What has the sample clearance process been like throughout the years for you? I still get requests for sample clearances all the time. The coordination of the requests has become more well-organized, and simplified, than it used to be. We have a basic formula now for how we treat requests. Fortunately, almost all the records where there have been sample requests, I am the record company.
So I control all the publishing rights and fortunately, make a lot of the decisions. I heard its also been sampled by some hip-hop artists recently, but the television company owns those administration rights.
Technically, I just control the recording of my version. What do you think when you hear how your work is sampled?
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