May 15, 2018 Interview – James Mtume
If we keep an open heart and mind, evolution will lead us forward. Afterall, it is only our fear that holds us back from progress, right? Something that could be applied to any aspect of life, it is explicitly true in the art form of music, where you can either be like everyone else, or be yourself. Growing up with music in his DNA, James Mtume has never let complacency define him as a creator.
Working with the legendary Miles Davis, Mtume would go on to become an extremely successful musician, producer, and songwriter. Winning a Grammy Award with Reggie Lucas in 1981 for Best R&B Song, writing and producing fellow R&B Artist Stephanie Mills’ top-ten hit, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Mtume talents reach far beyond the knowledge of the average consumer. Recently we had the pleasure of sitting down with the musician to talk his career in music, the legacy of the 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit,” writing new songs, plus more.
CrypticRock.com – Your career in music spans essentially your entire life. From your work with Miles Davis to solo work and your own group, Mtume, to producing and writing, you have done a lot. First, briefly tell us, how would you describe your musical journey?
James Mtume – I would describe it as being eclectic. Obviously, my musical journey is not like most. I was able to be involved and create in many genres of music. First and foremost starting with Jazz, I have always told people I was born in a Jazz household. At 10, 11, 12 years old, I had the advantage of listening to people like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane discuss music. I always say I didn’t know how deep that was, but of course, hearing those conversations prepared me for where I decided to create music. There were so many wonderful songs and information I already had.
CrypticRock.com – That has to be amazing. As someone who comes from a Jazz background, you have never limited yourself as a musician, writing in various styles. Do you enjoy having that diversity?
James Mtume – Absolutely! Not only did I enjoy it, but none of that was sitting down saying, “Ok, what is my next move?” It was always very organic for me, I always say my musician development was more a matter of metamorphosis. That is a lesson I learned from Miles Davis – when you are finished with one genre, or crossing a bridge, burn that bridge, so you can’t go backwards, keep pushing forward. That is probably the rule I use for my music for life – as a musician, writer, producer, a composer for television/film, and then putting my own band together. Change is the only thing that’s constant.
CrypticRock.com – That is great advance. You don’t want to back peddle, you want to keep moving forward.
James Mtume – Yes, what’s the advantage of looking back? You already did that. (Laughs) A lot of artists unfortunately get caught in what I call the quicksand of stagnation – they do one form and never really evolve.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that is across the board in various genres of music. You are celebrating the 35th anniversary of the album and song “Juicy Fruit.” That in mind, it is not too often a song has second life in the limelight, but thanks to sampling, the song would resurface a decade later. Is it humbling to you to see the song have that much power that artists continue to use it as part of their music?
James Mtume – Absolutely, it’s humbling, and I appreciate it. When Biggie did it, it propelled our music into the next generation. You can’t ask for anymore as an artist than for your music to be appreciated in generations after yours, it’s an honor.
CrypticRock.com – Definitely, and not just The Notorious B.I.G., but many artists have sampled the track.
James Mtume – Yes, we have about 80 samples of “Juicy Fruit” during the Hip Hop era. I think my favorite was “Let it Go” by Keyshia Cole and Missy Elliott.
CrypticRock.com – That was a great track too. The sampling is true testament to your music. Let’s talk a little bit more about the track and LP Juicy Fruit. A wonderful album, it is atmospheric, it is trippy, there is a lot going on. Tell us a little bit about it.
James Mtume – I am going to give you a story. When I was recording that album, which we eventually called Juicy Fruit, that song hadn’t been cut. What happened was one night, we were finished, and I just felt there was something missing, I didn’t know what it was. Everyone went home that night, I was sitting there in the studio and I saw this thing on the side called a Linn Drum Machine. I told the engineer to hook it up, I messed around, and that is where I found the beat for “Juicy Fruit.” I called everyone back and we cut that record in about an hour and a half. Tawatha Agee was out on tour with Roxy Music, she had 2 days off in London, I flew her back, we did the vocals, and she flew back to London.
Here is the pinnacle of the story, when I finished “Juicy Fruit,” mixed and complete, no one wanted to release it. They said it was too slow and the other thing they were concerned about was the lyric, “You can lick me everywhere,” which was risqué then. I had to argue and fight before they said, “Ok, we will release it, but only for night time airplay.” After 1 week, program directors from around the country were calling, and they were forced to release it for all day time radio. From there it exploded, and that record almost never reached the air.
CrypticRock.com – That is a wild story. They treated it almost like an X-rated song. The entire Juicy Fruit album is wonderful, the production quality is phenomenal.
James Mtume – I really appreciate that. One thing I have always concentrated on, whether I was doing Avantgarde, Jazz, or anything, I spent a great deal of time on my mixes. No one gets perfection in any art, but when you hear my music, you know someone spent time polishing up the furniture. That is with all mixes, that’s the varnish on the furniture.
That was a great mix, I really enjoyed that mix. It was a different kind of atmosphere sound-wise. The song “Juicy Fruit” is very atmospheric with the chords and colors on top of that beat. I am not saying it because I created it, but there was really nothing before or after that sounded like that. There has never been a record quiet like that in terms as sound with the beat, and not to mention, one of the great vocal performances of all-time with Tawatha.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely! Interestingly enough you will be featured on the TV One series Unsung on Sunday, May 20th. What was it like to sit down and, in detail, recollect your career in music for this documentary?
James Mtume – The truth is I had turned Unsung down for 6-7 years. My son and daughters convinced me, you are 71, at least leave a document. I was very skeptical about doing it, because that is just not my thing, but the experience was actually rewarding. The one they did on me is more a biopic – they start with my background in Jazz, my days with Miles, my days as a radio host commentary, they did the whole thing.
CrypticRock.com – That is wonderful that they covered everything and did not keep it one dimensional.
James Mtume – Right, and that was always my main concern. I am very satisfied with it and anyone who watches it will know the various stages of music, which like you said, it is very unlike most musicians.
CrypticRock.com – There is no question. It will be great to see the episode air at 9 PM Sunday, May 20th. As you mentioned, beyond music, you also hosted your radio show and remained a strong activist. How would you compare speech and music as forms of communication?
James Mtume – Well obviously they are both avenues of communication. I never really believed in that old saying, “music has its own language.” No it doesn’t, it has its own sound, music is a sound, it’s not a language, but you communicate feelings through music. Your voice is your voice, that is a different form of communication. They are all different lanes on the same highway.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed, and they all move you and make you feel something in a different way. Seeing you have collaborated with so many musicians through the years, what would you say you have taken away from it all?
James Mtume – Obviously of all the people that I was fortunate enough to learn from, Miles Davis was the most impactful. I always say Miles was my mentor. I learned so many lessons, and the main lesson is what we talked about earlier – never look back, keep forging forward, don’t get satisfied with cliches. As artists – find different ways to get to the destination, stop using the same street. You have to bring variations to the way you arrive to a destination, that is always forcing you to rethink things.
CrypticRock.com – That is great advice. Now, in recent years, you have turned your attention to other things beyond music. That in mind, are you planning on doing any new music perhaps?
James Mtume – Actually, I am just stepping out of retirement after a bunch of years. I am working on an album with Tawatha Agee, we are in the studio now. I will be working with a lot of young producers and writers, I will be the old guy to put the cherries on top. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – That will be really great to hear something new! Music is constantly changing, as is the format we consume it. It seems like nowadays it is very easy for an artist to get lost in the shuffle with the oversaturation of social media. What would be some advice you have for an aspiring, young performer facing these challenges?
James Mtume – Unfortunately, originality, in many instances, has been sacrificed. What’s important for an artist to understand, it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there. You only stay there by finding your own voice, your own sound, your own signature. That is one of the things that I don’t think is held to the level that it should be. Great art comes from people who have their own sound. A lot of stuff unfortunately sometimes sound like cookie cutter music – 1 person does something, the next day you wake up, 60 people are doing the same thing. Be original! Prince is a great example of being original. The main thing I say to that is there is a great quote by Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” (Laughs) I live by that. As an artist, be yourself, don’t copy people. You can have people influence you, or be influences for you, but ultimately, you have to find out who you are.
CrypticRock.com – Completely true. That seems to be an issue with popular music, it appears a lot of record labels will mold an artist or tell them what they want them to sound like.
James Mtume – Right, right. Another thing that is available today for young artists, which we didn’t have, is that social media you mentioned. You don’t need a record company, you can create your music, press send, and it’s all over the world. That is a great opportunity that we didn’t have. We had to have record companies and radio, you don’t need that now.
CrypticRock.com – That is the positive of social media, reaching a broader audience. You have the ability of reaching people all over the world. It is all about using the medium properly. In regards to your new music, what can listeners expect?
James Mtume – Well, one thing I can say you will get is good music. We are not necessarily concentrating on a particular genre. We might do some classic ballads like “My One and Only Love,” with some classic songs, along with some R&B. We are not limiting it to a sound. All I am trying to do is good music. I am trying to find a mixture that is not quite right out there. Again, you have to experiment and see what works, but it ain’t going to sound like nobody. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Very cool, and something to look out for. Last question. CrypticRock covers all music but also Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of these genres, do you have any favorites?
James Mtume – I am a fan of both. Historically to me, one of the greatest Horror movies is 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. In terms of Sci-Fi, come on man, all the Star Wars stuff, and I love the Marvel Comics stuff. I love all that stuff, I love The Avengers, I love Black Panther. I can’t wait to see the new Avengers and the new Deadpool. The original Night of the Living Dead was unbelievable though!