Grammy-winning producer Mtume tells his pioneering tale: from jazz with Miles Davis to crafting hip hop prototypes with his R&B slow jams.
James Mtume’s discography is as peerless as it gets. From crafting iconic LPs with Miles Davis, to sought-after spiritual jazz, Mtume’s jazz chops are undeniable. They’ve made him the go-to songwriter and producer for countless artists since the ’70s: Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass, and later Inner City, R. Kelly, and Mary J. Blige, have all caught some shine from his innate musicality. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that Mtume grew up in a household full of jazz. After cutting his teeth with Art Farmer, he rose to prominence playing with Miles Davis’ group between 1971 and 1975. It led to him featuring on landmark LPs such as On The Corner and Big Fun among others, as well as playing alongside such luminaries as Yusef Lateef, Carlos Garnett, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith, McCoy Tyner, and many more.
But it was Mtume’s transition from jazz pioneer to R&B master in his own group Mtume, that really set him apart from his peers. It seems remarkable that the same man could drop spiritual jazz LPs like Alkebu-Lan and Rebirth Cycle, before crafting a hip hop blueprint a few years later with his stripped-back R&B and synth-laden p-funk, on tracks like “Love Lock,” “You, Me and He,” “Hips,” and of course “Juicy Fruit.”
Mtume straddled these two worlds with ease, putting some consciousness into the club, and turning the sex appeal sanctified. Teaming up with Reggie Lucas, the duo were an unstoppable force through the ’80s, penning such hits as Stephanie Mills’ Grammy-winning “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You.” There’s a reason Mtume the band has been sampled countless times: Mtume has consistently lit the way for future generations, on how to do it legit.
In this edited and condensed excerpt from an RBMA Radio Fireside Chat with Mtume, Chairman Mao traces a line through Mtume’s lengthy career.
Your career has taken a remarkable path through all different genres. What is the common thread that you see?
There’s an attitude I think. That attitude is, “Once you finish with a genre, you move on.” Once you’ve crossed a bridge, burn it so you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to go back. I think I got that lesson from the years I spent with Miles Davis. He changed music three or four times, and the reason why he could do that is because he never looked back.
You were born in Philadelphia. Can you describe a little bit about your upbringing and what it was like to grow up in that environment?
My upbringing was a little unusual for most young black kids. Jimmy Heath is my biological father from the Heath Brothers. But the father that raised me was James “Hen Gates” Forman. He, too, was a great jazz musician, a pianist. When he was 18 he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Lady Day, Dinah Washington, Sonny Stitt. So many times when those artists were in town, they would stop by for dinner. Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins. I never was hip enough to know just how brilliant a situation that was, but what I did know about jazz musicians were they were an extraordinary group. Witty, funny. There was nothing like sitting around a table of jazz musicians.
When did you know you wanted to pursue music?
I always played pianos, because there was a piano at the house. Basically whatever I heard I could kind of figure out on the piano. When I got home from school I’d work out these little ideas and phrases and find these chords that I’d heard on a certain record.
I guess the first time I realized that my musical talent was a little different was when I was in sixth grade, and we had a Music Appreciation class. We had to bring in two records. I brought in a Frankie Lymon record, who was very popular at that time, and I brought in Miles Davis’ Milestones album. I remember when the teacher put my record on all the kids were like, “Frankie Lymon! Yeah! Yeah!” and then when they put on Milestones it was like The Grim Reaper had entered the room. Nobody was vibing. I just couldn’t understand it, because they were both wonderful records to me. I think that’s the first time I realized that jazz was an acquired taste.
What other sounds were you exposed to in Philly in those days?
I was exposed to mostly the same sounds that all the other kids were. I was heavy into R&B. Gladys Knight, The Temptations. But because of my jazz persuasion, when I was 14, the guys used to take me to the clubs. I’d go to the jazz clubs, put on my little suit and my little hat, and they sat me in the corner, made sure I ordered Coca-Colas. When I was seeing Marvin Gaye I was also seeing Cannonball [Adderley], Herbie Hancock, Yusef Lateef. My jazz garden had a lot of different flowers.
Is that when you decided that you wanted to pursue music?
I know you were pursuing athletics as well.
Yeah, I was pursuing athletics. I was like the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, so we figured the best way for me to get to college wasn’t going to be through playing “Around Midnight.” The best way was for me to pursue excellence in terms of being a swimmer. I ended up going up to Pasadena City College because the coach was a guy named Don Gamble, who was selected to be the next Olympic coach, so obviously I wanted to pursue that possibility of maybe getting to the next level.
Besides college and athletics, what else in Pasadena and Los Angeles did you experience when you were out there?
Being a child of the ‘60s, I experienced the entire social revolution that was happening. We were caught in that movement. I left school and gravitated to more political overtones in terms of what I was trying to do. I joined an organization called US Organization that was headed by Maulana Karenga. It was a black nationalist cultural organization, and we pretty much zeroed in on things that we felt were missing. One thing that came out of that was Kwanzaa. We created that 40-something years ago.
I won’t say I had a little ego with me, but I was pissing vinegar.
But one thing led to another and I ended up back on the East Coast. It was there that I pretty much settled in and decided, “Okay, I’m going to zero in on this music.” When I made the decision to be a full-time musician there were three artists that I had written down on a piece of paper. The three artists were, in order of desire, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, and Miles Davis. Once I left politics, I got a call from a friend of mine who said, “Hey, McCoy Tyner heard about you. He heard about you from the West Coast, he didn’t know you were here. Said he wants you to come do his album.”
I’m like, “Okay, check one.” The reason why I’m bringing that up is because when I came from California... I won’t say I had a little ego with me, but I was pissing vinegar. I was like, “I can float everybody over here” and I’ll never forget a guy named Mickey Roker, a drummer from Philly. Mickey told me, “Yeah man, we’ve been hearing about you. You’re pretty much doing your thing. But you’ll never know how good you are until you come to New York.”
That was the turning point for me about the kind of work it is if you want to be with the big boys.
So we have a rehearsal the day before the session with McCoy, and there is Billy Hart, Buster Williams. Bad dudes, the cream of the crop. McCoy kicks off this tune, I mean it’s like, “Yeah ...” Fast. I get in, doing my thing. Five minutes goes by, it’s like, “Okay.” I got into ten minutes. This tempo was like you’re chasing a horse. It got down there around 15 minutes, a little over 15 minutes, and I noticed for the first time in my life I was getting cramps because it was so hard and so fast. I couldn’t give up though, because I felt like I would have been a laughingstock.
Fortunate for me, I think we played maybe 15 more seconds. If he played 16 more, I would have fell out okay? He stopped just in time. So, that day my head was straight like, “Man, you’re nothing. You really better get it together.” I went to Billy Hart’s house because he lived close to the studio, and I stayed up all night. Set my drums up and put a pillow over them so I wouldn’t wake up anybody. Practiced all night, fortunately made it to the gig and made it through that day, but that was the turning point for me about the kind of work it is if you want to be with the big boys.
What was the experience like when you joined Miles’ band? When did you first get some kind of significant lesson of what it meant to be in Miles’ band?
When I joined Miles, there were a couple of things that obviously shed a whole new light on how you approach music and what it was like to forge new ground. I came in on the On the Corner period. When I joined it was Keith Jarrett, Gary Bartz, Ndugu Chancler, Don Alias.
The one thing that people give Miles too little credit for is the courage.
One thing that I learned about standing next to him for those years is that you can’t be afraid. The one thing that people give Miles too little credit for is the courage. It takes courage to change. If you don’t create music that forges your imagination forward, then that’s where you lay. Some people call it writer’s block, I call it writer’s blockade. You can’t get out of it if you stay in it too long, and I think Miles was a master of that. You’re talking about a person who not only changed the entire direction of jazz, but once he started exploring electronic music – which a lot of jazz listeners were freaked out about – a very interesting thing happened. He began to programmatically influence everything that was happening with pop music. You ask any hip pop or rock band, they all know Miles.
What were the sessions like with Miles in the studio?
Sessions would be like this: You get a call, you come in. You never knew what was going to happen that day. That was part of the joy, and fear. We would lay out the track, we play through the basic structure. One thing he never did was rehearse too much. I remember one time I had raised the point when I first got in the band. I said, “Miles, we need to rehearse more.” He told me, “I pay you every night to rehearse on stage.” It took me a minute to digest that, but then I knew what he meant. He never liked to overheat the soup. When it was just about there, that’s when he would stop the rehearsal and when you do a take.
How did your own musical voice manifest itself in Alkebu-Lan?
They found the difference in the familiar. A lot of artists don’t do it or – worse – don’t know how.
That’s a perfect example of how I never wanted to sound like anybody. As a musician, writer, or producer, I used other people’s work as a reference because you must respect the work of your contemporaries, but that’s where it ended for me. I think far too often we get too hung up in trying to cop what someone else is doing. I always tried to keep up with what everyone was doing – and then my challenge was trying to find the difference in the familiar. If everybody’s doing the same thing, what is your difference in that familiar?
Why does Coltrane sound like Coltrane? You got a thousand saxophone players. You got a million trumpet players, how can Miles walk out and go “beep!” and we all go “oh shit!” They found the difference in the familiar. A lot of artists don’t do it or – worse – don’t know how.
When you were working with Miles you met your future collaborator. Can you describe what it was about Reggie Lucas that drew you guys to one another and how you developed your partnership?
Anybody that tells you why they were drawn to someone is pretty much lying. You don’t know why. You begin to understand why later on, and it’s all about the chemistry. I was coming from jazz. Reggie came out of commercial music. He worked with Billy Paul, so we started rooming together, and when you room together you find you have certain discussions musically. “Okay, Reggie also played with Ornette Coleman?” I didn’t know that. I said, “Look, let’s try to do some writing” and we tried it. Nothing happened. Reggie moved to Chicago and I went back to Jersey.
I get a call from Roberta Flack asking me to join her band. She was a big lover of Miles. When I get there, she said, “Look, I need a guitar player,” so I said, “Oh, I know a guy.” So I called Reggie. Then she said, “I need another keyboard player,” and I said, “Oh, Hubert Eaves.” So I got the guys that would later become the production wing of our sound.
We would practice her stuff, and I’d tell everybody to wait and then we’d practice my stuff. That way everybody got paid and everybody knew the music. When we finally left her, I got a call from someone saying they had this new artist and they were looking for new producers. Her name was Stephanie Mills. They said, “Have you produced anything?” I said, “Yes, I produced three albums but none of them are out yet.” I hadn’t produced nothing, but I sensed an opportunity.
Can you talk a bit about working with Roberta Flack?
I told her if she gave me an opportunity, I could get her a hit. Now of course I’m blowing that out of my back. One day we were doing tracks for Blue Lights in the Basement, and I was bored. We took a dinner break, but I told the band to stay. I sat at the piano: “blee dee dee dee do dee, blee dee dee dee do dee dee.” Here’s the melody, Reggie put the beat section in, bass player play this. I just wanted to put it on a cassette to listen. As we’re listening, in comes Roberta, and she says, “Mtume, what’s that?” I said, “The Closer I Get to You.” She said, “I love that. Can I record it?” She did it and played it for me, and I said, “That’s cool, but you know what I think would be wonderful? You and Donny again. You and Donny Hathaway.”
About five o’clock in the morning the phone rang and I hear crying. I said, “Who’s this?” “It’s Roberta. Donny’s dead.
Long story short, she called Donny, he puts his part on and the rest was history. We do the next song, which was “Back Together Again,” and as we’re working on that song Donny’s at the mic and he grabs his eye. He couldn’t sing anymore because he was suffering from a nervous condition. It was the Saturday night I said, “Look, I’ll see you Monday and we’ll finish this,” and he said, “Yeah.” About five o’clock in the morning the phone rang and I hear crying. I said, “Who’s this?” “It’s Roberta. Donny’s dead.” He jumped that night. I’ve been fortunate enough to write a lot of songs, but that one has a place that none of the others could.
How would you describe the Mtume-Lucas sound?
What I called it was “sophistifunk,” and by that I mean the bottom is always there but what made the difference was the chords. Coming out of jazz, the pretty chords on top and the orchestration. But if you take the orchestration off, you can feel that’s funk under. “Sophistifunk” is what I called it.
Let’s talk a little bit about the evolution of Mtume the band.
You have to remember, as Mtume-Lucas, most of the cats were also the production band. We were doing like 10, 11 projects a year. Everybody’s working. It had gotten to the point where I sat down at the piano and tears started coming down my eyes and I didn’t know what it was. That’s when I realized one thing. I had never lied to the music, and the music had never lied to me, and that I was playing something that sounded just like something else I had done. I got up and I walked away, and I disbanded the band, and I decided not to do any more productions and I went to another studio.
On “Juicy Fruit” what I got to ultimately was what I called neo-minimalism.
I found a studio, booked it for a year and just worked. I had to work to find out where I was going and I had to work to put a band together. It was truly a work in progress. I believe the studio is your extra musician, because that’s the sound, that’s the ambience, so when I found a studio I began to put the second phase of the Mtume band together, which would ultimately be “Juicy Fruit.”
On “Juicy Fruit” what I got to ultimately was what I called neo-minimalism. I was experimenting with how to take less and make it sound more. If you listen to something like “Juicy Fruit” there’s only four or five instruments played. And that was a whole new thing. Also, there was no reverb on nothing. So it sounded like you could have played it in your basement.
When I took it to the record company they didn’t want to release it, because at that time everybody was talking about beats per minute and they said, “No one will like this because it’s 83 BPM.” And I told them I didn’t write from my head, I write from my heart. To smack me in my face, they refused to release “Juicy Fruit” for daytime radio. They released it only for nighttime radio. Much to their surprise, after the first week they were getting calls from every radio station around the country. They wanted it for daytime.
What was the lyrical inspiration? It’s a pretty risqué song.
Compared to what? Certainly not compared to now. At that time, yeah risqué. It’s funny how words can change. The chorus is “you can lick me everywhere,” but that’s the part that everybody liked.
I got a call from Wrigley’s gum. “Mr. Mtume, we want to take a deposition.”
I give you a little sidebar on that. I got a call from Wrigley’s gum. “Mr. Mtume, we want to take a deposition.” I didn’t even take a lawyer with me, because I knew where it was going. They go in. It was the biggest fucking room I’d ever been in in my life, man. 60, 70 lawyers, so I sit down and they’ve got the album blown up all over the place and they were trying to find a way to connect that with the gum.
Here’s one of the highlights of my life. They go through all of this and they say, “Does ‘Juicy Fruit’ have anything have to do...” I said, “No.” Finally one of the guys says, “Would you mind telling us what the phrase is? What do you mean by the phrase ‘you can lick me everywhere’?” I said, “Very simply, it’s about oral sex.” You want to see a bunch guys turn red? I don’t have a favorite song – they’re all your children – but I’m always surprised at how “Juicy” has spanned generations.
What was your reaction when you heard Biggie’s “Juicy”?
Oh, I dug it. They actually wanted me to be in it. I was asked and I said, “No, you ain’t doing that man. What? You want me to jump around the corner in some high shoes and plaid pants?” They fell out laughing. “It’s your generation, you all do what you do.”
Did you feel pressure to come up with another huge smash like “Juicy Fruit”?
No, because that never drove me. You only get those every now and then. I don’t care who are. The thing is, “What was the quality of the work?” The follow-up to that was a great song. “You, Me, and He.” Quality of the work, man.
When you disbanded the band, you went to compose the soundtrack for Native Son, which eventually became really embraced by hip hop DJs.
I first found that the hip hop community was aware of the Native Son soundtrack because Grandmaster Flash called me and he came over to the house. He wanted to know if he could get an okay to use the “Bigger’s Theme.” I don’t think he ever used it, but we had a very interesting conversation after and he was saying, “Tumes, the thing we love about your music. Your music is holey. I don’t mean no religious. There’s so much space, and that’s why we can snatch pieces of this.” The next thing I knew, it was being sampled by so many younger hip hop cats.
How were you characterized as an opponent of sampling at the time? Tell the story of how that came to be.
There’s a thing we used to do on KISS FM called “Year in Review,” and we were talking about what we thought was a drag and what we thought was hip. On that show we were talking about sampling and I said, “If you’re going to sample somebody, you need to pay them. It’s just like if I sampled a rapper and put it on one of my songs. Does that make it my song? No. It’s a combination.” And so Stetsasonic heard what they wanted to hear and made this record called “Talking All That Jazz” and it just went to war after that.
It’s just that a lot of the older R&B guys just laid down, and it wasn’t right.
I was the only cat from my generation talking that. Everybody else was just glad to be sampled, even though they weren’t given anything. In retrospect, I got a little hard because when you’re out there by yourself... I always tell people that I’m not scared of being on a limb. I’m just scared of scars. Wasn’t nobody saying nothing. It’s just that a lot of the older R&B guys just laid down, and it wasn’t right.
What is your hope for young people making music? Creating art in a way that maybe inspires some social change?
There will have to be an event. The political environment is what brings about the music. Society is a thermostat, your music is the thermometer. It tells you what the temperature is, it doesn’t set it. Right now, the thermostat for social change and seriousness is at a low level. Something will happen to make it heat up, and then the artists who will be the thermometers can tell you what the temperature is.
Everybody’s on Novocain, they bleeding but they don’t feel it.
Right now, the temperature is so skewed. What’s serious? When you really look at it, what’s serious? Is that really the news? I see nothing reflecting how poor people are. This whole country is right on the precipice of crumbling and all we talk about is twerking. Everybody’s getting richer and richer, and everybody who’s not is getting poorer and poorer. Everything is up for sale. I don’t know where this is going, but something is going to happen. You can only press a thing to the ground for so long until it begins to push back, and it’s going to have to come from young people. Everybody’s on Novocain, they bleeding but they don’t feel it.
As a producer/composer/musician, what still inspires you?
Things that are pure. Sound. When you hear something that makes you feel something. When you start to hear enough things, everything sounds the same, you’re numb. But then you hear that one thing that makes you go, “Ooh.” There’s too much sameness now, man. Everything is cookie-cutter. Art was never meant to be that. Art was always meant to be the difference in the familiar, not the familiar. We selling product, man. It’s like branding. Everybody is worried about their brand. Well, worry about your music. What’s your music sound like? Am I getting through?
What do you want people to take from everything that you’ve done?
If my music has inspired anybody, the thing I would want them to be inspired to do is pick up the baton, because this race is not finished. All you need is to have your imagination excited.