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Five Songs By The 'Rhodes Scholar' Keyboardist Of Hip-Hop

By John Murph | NPR
Thursday, October 17, 2013

Professing love for Bob James' music can yield a side-eye in some circles. Jazz purists routinely view the keyboardist's 1970s period as a progenitor to smooth jazz — an idiom they frequently react to as if it were a sign of the apocalypse.

Nevertheless, James knows his way around the keyboards, and has demonstrated a keen gift for concocting catchy melodies and funky grooves, enticing many R&B and funk fans. His music also seduced legions of hip-hop and deep house producers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez. In fact, James' output on the CTI and (his own) Tappan Zee labels is some of the most sampled music in hip-hop.

That's one of the reasons why the new two-disc compilation, Rhodes Scholar: Jazz-Funk Classics 1974-1982, is a motherlode for any DJ looking for jams with a deeper sense of music history that will still ignite dance floors. And don't be surprised if you hear some of today's funk-informed jazz stars such as Robert Glasper, Karriem Riggins and Ben Williams drop a Bob James quote or two in their live performances.

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The airy recurring four-note motif; drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist Gary King's rugged groove: This is one of James' most enduring classics. Hip-hop heads will immediately recognize snippets of this song, ranging from "golden era" hip-hop staples such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Jazzy Grooves" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Clap Your Hands" to such 21st-century joints as MURS and 9th Wonder's "Murray's Revenge" and Nicolay's glowing makeover of the same name. In addition to a hypnotic jazz-funk vamp, James heightens the suspense by draping the song in haunting orchestral strings and delivering a restive Spanish-tinged solo.

Originally appears on One (CTI), 1974.

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

Breakbeat fanatics were biting this remake of a Paul Simon tune back in the 1980s, as evidenced by Run-DMC's "Peter Piper" and T La Rock's "Breaking Bells." Slip the opening bars of this song into a hip-hop or funk DJ set, loop it for about a minute and a half, then watch the crowd go bananas. The song mellows out after drummer Andrew Smith and percussionist Ralph MacDonald's epochal intro, but the groove becomes a bedrock for James' melodic work on the clavinet and electric piano. James' orchestral arrangement gives off just the right amount of cinematic sleaze without veering completely into the ick zone.

Originally found on Two (CTI), 1975.

Westchester Lady [Live]

By now you've probably noticed a recurring theme in James' music: He knew how to grab listeners instantly with a seriously funky intro. Again, hip-hop pioneers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and Low Profile excavated "Westchester Lady" from the crates and churned out newfound classics. Rhodes Scholar features a 1981 live performance (sans the huge string arrangement) that rivals the 1976 studio version. Midway through the live version, James and his sextet begin a snapping groove that recalls the equally potent jazz-funk from fellow keyboardist/composer Patrice Rushen.

Originally from All Around The Town (Tappan Zee), 1981.

Angela [Theme from Taxi]

This gem epitomizes the era when many popular TV shows had seriously funky theme songs. (The intro for Barney Miller's theme still get heads bobbing.) James took a decidedly different route with this one. He still nails the earworm introduction, but its solemn flute melody and plaintive accompaniment evokes the same eerie irony that Johnny Mandel's melancholy theme does for the TV comedy M.A.S.H. "Angela" soon develops into a quiet storm lament that could both provide an ideal soundtrack for a late, late night tryst or a lonely, rainy evening driving ... well, a taxi. Even for its brooding allure, snippets of "Angela" made it onto such hip-hop and R&B cuts as Souls of Mischief's "Cab Fair" and Tweet's "Taxi."

Originally from Touchdown (Tappan Zee), 1978.

Sign of the Times

Nowhere near as dark as Prince's similarly-titled masterpiece that arrived six years later, this capricious gem was penned by Rod Temperton, who wrote stellar tunes for Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Heatwave. It begins with a circus-like riff, then dips into a Chi-town stepper's groove with horn riffs and snazzy vocals that allude to the big band era. For all its whimsical moments, it's intriguing how parts of it made into Warren G's hit "Regulate." That carnivalesque flair sounds far less menacing on De La Soul's "Keepin' the Faith."

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