rscholar

On Bob James

In what’s been a monumental development for me but standard operating procedure for most of you, I am now finally, legitimately on Spotify.

You’re confused. You would be. I will explain.

Despite being available to our Southern neighbours for over three years, the online streaming music service only launched in Canada last week (making it the site’s 58th market. Oh yeah, Lithuania had Spotify before we did).

I’d managed to finagle backdoor access to the site here and there and understood the appeal, but having the full experience via the app on my phone has been game changing. I’m using the service for free for the time being, so there are some limitations, of course, but who cares if I can only shuffle my playlists, I made them, so I like everything on them.

As an aspiring and inexperienced vinyl collector, Spotify’s already proven itself a godsend. I can search for songs I might have own on vinyl but not digitally, or albums I’ve been thinking about copping, add them to a playlist, and check them out while working overnight at the day job. It’s given me a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for songs I knew, but couldn’t really listen to closely because I’d only ever had them on vinyl.

Songs like “Nautilus.”

“Nautilus” is the last song on One,  the debut solo album by jazz keyboardist Bob James. Blending a stinky groove from bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad, the spacey pings and tones of James’s organ and cinematic string flourishes, the song immediately caught the ears of hip-hop producers rifling through their parents’ record collections.

In the subsequent years, flipping “Nautilus” became a compulsory part of a producer’s education: everyone has taken a pass at it. Which is amazing enough in itself, but what’s even crazier is, according to an intervew James gave to Noisey last year, the song was kind of a throwaway to begin with.

“It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. “Nautilus” was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” said James. “It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we [improvised] in the studio. So it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”

I spent a morning this week exploring some of my favourite interpolations of the track, amazed at how a truly exceptional producer will find some kernel of the song that hasn’t really been explored yet, or slice and dice the track like a samurai and reassemble it into a speaker-blowing monster.

Eric B. and Rakim: Follow the Leader

Not the first use of the song (recreations of the bassline had been used since 1982, it would seem) but an early example of a producer using the track to add a touch of colour instead of going for the easy loop. Dropping in a string sample every eight bars adds an extra flair of menace over that bass synth and horn stabs. Doesn’t hurt that the God MC is at the top of his game, packing every second with dense internal rhymes.

Run DMC: Beats to the Rhyme

People tend to sleep on Tougher than Leather, but the follow-up to their commercial breakthrough Raising Hell had some skullcrushers on it. Much like the James-sampling “Peter Piper”, the song’s another toast to the cutting and mixing skills of Jam Master Jay, tagging two organ notes on the end of every bar and giving the song a sort of twitchy futuristic sound that contrasts against the more standard James Brown samples on the track.

Jeru the Damaja: Mind Spray

By the time we hit the 90s, producers were smart enough to know that fans were starting to wise up to the foundational building blocks of the music, and if they were going to use one of them, they couldn’t just play it straight, since a fan would have heard it a dozen times by then (this at a time when biting was still a capital offense). Like the Run DMC track, DJ Premier’s approach on this NY classic doesn’t front load the sample too hard, taking a perfectly selected handful of organ beeps, looping them endlessly and having the gall to make them power the engine of the song.

Pete Rock and CL Smooth: Sun Won’t Come Out

When I was researching the book, I learned very early on that people like Dilla and his peers, revered Pete Rock or the creativity and level of soul he brought to his production. This song really makes no sense, and it shouldn’t work. The chimes from “Nautilus” are from the freeform intro to the song, before the drums and signature bass come in, but Pete stretches and smushes them to fit perfectly over the rest of the Harvey Scales samples that form the rest of the song (I don’t even have words for what he did to that bass). A perfect headknocker, and another fine example of the James original being used as the seasoning instead of the main course.

Murs and 9th Wonder: Murray’s Revenge

But in the hands of  master chef, what a meal you can make. 9th Wonder takes “Nautilus”, straps a payload of TNT to it, hits the detonator and makes Dr. Funkenstein’s monster out of the salvageable scraps. I remember the first time I heard it, it starts with a straight sample, a way of tipping his hat to all who would catch it and know what he’s working with. And then the chops, and the accented notes, and that drum pattern that stutters and marches all over the track. Frig.

If pressed, this will always take the crown of my favourite “Nautilus” flip. While I’m sure Dilla had to have messed with it once or twice, the only commercial release I’ve come across was a brief appearance on his remix of Keith Murray’s “The Rhyme” (and it’s the least impressive part of that song). Personally, I think 9th may have deaded the sample for a lot of cats with this one. I mean, good god, where could someone take it from here?

Exploring the man’s catalog via the recently released compilation Rhodes Scholar, I’m amazed byhow much of his music I already knew, at least in passing: NWA used “Storm King”; De La used “Sign of the Times”; Jazzy Jeff used “Westchester Lady”; Rakim used “Shamboozle,” and on and on. Even in the most typically smooth jazz compilations, some banger of a groove will come out of nowhere and jerk your neck around. His contributions to hip-hop are sizeable, and his name deserves to be mentioned alongside titans like Brown and Clinton whose work, impressive on its own merits, helped build the foundation of a new art.

While James admits there have been occasions where he hasn’t been completely happy with how his music has been used, he respects how the art has lead a new audience to his work throughout his career (including guys like me), telling David Ma in Wax Poetics, “I still don’t know why everyone chose my music to use. But here we are, twenty years later, and people are still talking about it. I’m very proud that my music has taken on this new life, and for the most part, the hip-hop audience and musicians have treated me with great respect. It seems like I’ve always gotten the final say throughout my career. You really can’t ask for anything more than that.”

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2 comments

  1. Interesting, I had the opposite experience. Rdio’s always worked up here but after getting a taste of Spotify I got all twitchy for it. And I seem to have this memory of Rdio’s restrictions on free being a little stifling for my liking. But everybody got their something.

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