BOB JAMES / “Nautilus”
“My favorite break is ‘Nautilus’ by Bob James. And if I figure out a way to flip it again, I will.” —Evil Dee, of Da Beatminerz / Black MoonThe common definition of ‘friction,’ the one we all know, is ‘the rubbing of one surface against another.’ In the world of physics, ‘friction’ is defined more specifically. ‘Friction’ — from a scientific point of view — is ‘a force that resists the relative motion or tendency to such motion of two bodies in contact.’ In other words, ‘friction’ creates ‘stickiness.’ When two bodies make contact, they exchange bits of themselves, whether they intend to or not. Sampling – the act of lifting, splicing, cutting, scratching, looping or otherwise re-recording a previously recorded piece of music – creates friction. Lots of it. The first ‘body’ in question is Bob James’ "Nautilus." The second body is hip-hop. Hip-hop DJs and producers have sampled "Nautilus" many, many times. Each time hip-hop samples "Nautilus," friction is created — a piece of "Nautilus" is embedded in the body of hip-hop. But, friction is bilateral, it goes both ways — each contact also leaves a piece of hip-hop imbedded in "Nautilus." The concept of musical friction explains why hip-hop fans sometimes like the jazz, R&B and funk records that have been sampled by hip-hop as much as they like the hip-hop records themselves. We may be listening to a slightly schmaltzy Smooth Jazz instrumental, but what we’re hearing is hip-hop. So, for all you hip-hop fans who’ve never heard Bob James’ "Nautilus," I’d like to be sitting there the first time you do, just to see the look on your face. That, and I’d like to know which hip-hop song you first think of out of the probably 40 or 50 that have been blessed by this beat. And I have news for you: if you make it through the first 20 seconds of "Nautilus" without thinking of a hip-hop song, you can keep on calling yourself whatever you want, but you ain’t a hip-hop fan. For me, three records come to mind before any others. The first is Slick Rick’s "Children’s Story," mainly because the "Children’s Story" rhythm is the original, the first time anyone sampled the "Nautilus" bass line and drum loop. I thought. But when I went back to listen to "Children’s Story," I realized Slick Rick is rapping over a replayed version of "Nautilus" as opposed to an actual sample. If you’re in the habit of reading the fine print of your CD inserts, you’ll recognize that the "Children’s Story" rhythm is properly called an interpolation, not a sample. But it’s dope and Rick is a genius, so I’m going with it anyway. The second song is Ghostface Killah’s "Daytona 500" because Raekwon (“index finger be sore, bustin’ these fly scripts”), Ghost (“the arsonist who burns with his pen”) and Cappadonna (“your out-of-order tape recorder can’t record my slaughter”) are so amped and because RZA took what is essentially a mellow, clean groove and made it sound aggressive, hype and very, very dirty. (I wonder if he used an old copy of the record. The cymbals sound like shit. In a good way though.) The third record that comes to mind exemplifies one of the most beautiful-est things about sampling. (Extra points for recognizing the reference ). About 3 1/2 minutes into "Nautilus," as a lead-in to the bridge, Bob plays a two-note keyboard riff. Bob’s little riff is one of those ‘Blink And You’ll Miss It’ moments, a segment of sound no longer than a second (if that), but it was distinctive enough for Run-DMC to hijack and reuse it as the musical hook for one of their last singles still worth listening to after all this time, "Beats To The Rhyme." For a fan of Eighties- and Nineties-era rap music, listening to "Nautilus" is like listening to a hip-hop instrumental that should loop but never does. Instead, the opening bell-chimes (one familiar sample) drift into a drum break (another familiar sample) which drifts into a piano solo, which ends with that odd two-note figure (yet another sample), etc. For those who’ve ears have been tuned to pick out rap samples, "Nautilus" is a classic: a Smooth Jazz record that has come to suggest hip-hop without actually being hip-hop. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. If anybody knows what the title "Daytona 500" has to do with the song, please click the ‘comments’ button and let me know. Click here to purchase One Bonus tracks: Slick Rick – "Children’s Story" from The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick (Def Jam, 1988) Ghostface Killah feat. Raekwon & Cappadonna – "Daytona 500" from Ironman (Razor Sharp/Epic, 1996) Run-DMC – "Beats To The Rhyme" from Tougher Than Leather (Profile, 1988) I hate Smooth Jazz …and that’s putting it mildly. When Mtume wanted to feature "Nautilus," I said to myself: you can listen to whatever you want but I will never sully my ears with that shit. Mind you, I know Bob James is an accomplished musician and has been a source-lode for many a fusion production in addition to all the rap sampling, still, a man has got to draw the line somewhere. Far as I’m concerned, Bob James is the Kenny G. of pseudo-jazz piano. Yeah, "Nautilus" has a catchy little melody. So what? Well, in addition to drawing a line, Nuyorican Soul has me admitting another 'sometimes,' i.e. sometimes a man got to admit his limitations. When I hear something like "Nautilus," what I hear is overlooked/ignored Ramsey Lewis, who could do that shit in his sleep, and at a far, far hipper level. I hear a funky jazz pianist like George Duke. Who? Many of you are probably saying that without realizing how many times you have heard George Duke’s keyboard work without knowing it was George Duke because George was working as an unlisted sideman (which is just the way it is in popular music, where, unlike in jazz, the sidemen seldom get listed). When I listen to stuff like "Nautilus," I don’t just hear what is, I also hear what is not sounded/acknowledged. So, anyway, I don’t have a rational response to "Nautilus." To tell the truth I don’t believe I’ve ever consciously listened to it all the way through. And then here comes Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and ‘Little’ Louie Vega (collectively known as Masters At Work), the founders of Nuyorican Soul, and they drop their version of "Nautilus" (retitlted "MAWtilus"). What can I say? I can’t say nothing. This shit is the bomb! I guess if Trane could re-make “My Favorite Things” into something definitively hip, then why couldn’t the Masters take "Nautilus" and do something truly funky with it? Which in fact, has always been the way of Black music, i.e. take shit and turn it into sugar. Check out the fatback drumming of Vidal Davis (even though the drums are way forward in the sound mix, this doesn’t sound like a dance record. It’s the use of a real drum kit that make this more of a jazz influenced tune rather than a hip-hop influenced tune employing a drum machine). Yeah, a combination of real drums and the use of real strings gives a jazz flavor to the proceedings, even though the production is decidedly influenced by hip hop. And by the way, that’s Peter Daou on Fender Rhodes, Vince Montana Jr. arranging and conducting the strings, and that's me in the corner nodding my head like a junkie smacked out on some uncut Afghanistan horse — yeah, I know, that’s a terrible simile, but that’s how much this twisted version has upset my head. When it’s correct like this, all you can do is nod and admit how much you dig it. By the way, Nuyorican Soul is a classic album all the way through. It’s not to be missed, especially the track featuring George Benson — hell, we’ll drop that one too, so you can see what you’re missing and see I ain’t joking when I recommend this as a must have addition to any collection of classic funky jazz, or jazzy funk classics, or whatsoever you call the instrumental stuff you nod to. —Kalamu ya Salaam Click here to purchase Nuyorican Soul Hearing the same thing differently Ears, ears, ears. It’s funny how we can hear the same records so differently. The reason, I think, is because we’re not listening to the same thing. Hell, we’re not even talking about the same thing. Aside from his records that have been sampled (the other notable one being “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”), I don’t know anything about Bob James and I can’t honestly say he’s on my shortlist of artists to learn more about. I don’t consider Bob ‘the Kenny G of pseudo-jazz piano,’ but it isn’t because I have a different opinion about Bob James, the truth is, I don’t have any opinion about Bob James. When I listen to or talk about “Nautilus,” I’m not listening to or talking about Bob James; for that matter, I’m not really even talking about “Nautilus,” per se. What I’m actually listening to and talking about are the sounds encoded in “Nautilus,” sounds which have taken on added meaning, sounds which have shifted in context because they have been re-recorded and re-contextualized into music that I love. Bits and pieces of “Nautilus” have become part of the fabric of hip-hop – not unlike bits and pieces of a shirt or curtain might become part of the fabric of a favorite quilt. The shirt has significance, but only because it is a part of the quilt. The difference being, in the case of music, the ‘shirt’ isn’t destroyed in the process; it survives, still whole. It’s “Nautilus.” Anyhow, I like the Nuyorican Soul version of “Nautilus” a lot, but the way I hear it, it sounds like a hip-hop remix—not really a remake—of the Bob James version. “Nautilus” is a light jazz tune with an odd arrangement; I would expect a remake of it to have the same hook and changes, but little else. But the Nuyorican version repeats the quirks of the Bob James version turn-for-turn. They even replicate the little piano thing Bob did on the original. What’s different is the production quality and instrumentation. As any beat-miner knows, almost all pop and jazz records that were recorded during or before the mid-Eighties have a thin, light sound. (Of course, this is true only in retrospect. In 1974, the production quality of “Nautilus” wouldn’t have sounded ‘thin’ at all. It would have sounded ‘normal.’) Primarily due to the influence of hip-hop, most popular records today have a thick, bass-heavy sound. (This is true even of records that would seem to be out of the realm of hip-hop’s influence: jazz, country, soundtrack recordings, what have you. Everything sounds ‘boomy’ these days.) The biggest difference I hear between the Bob James version and the Nuyorican version is the heaviness. Nuyorican’s sound is thick, full and bass-heavy—their record sounds like a good hip-hop record should. BTW, I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the Nuyorican version because of a funny thing that happened while I was listening to it. Late one night, Kalamu stopped by to give me a stack of new CDs to check out (something he does all the time — I don’t know where he finds the time to listen to all the music he listens to); the next morning, I popped the Nuyorican Soul in my CD changer, skipped straight to their remake of “Nautilus” and started driving. I was on the highway, doing 70, when they got to the part where Bob would do his little Run-DMC “Beats to the Rhyme” bit. I thought: “I know they’re not going to do it. That was just a little throwaway thing that people remember only because Run-DMC happened to sample it. They’re going to play right through it.” But sure enough, they did it! I hit the roof, literally. I was bouncing in my seat, laughing out loud. I couldn’t believe Nuyorican actually put that little bit in there. As soon as the song was over, I reached for my cell phone to call Kalamu. But before I dialed, I realized there was a problem: there was no way Kalamu would know what I was talking about. For us to talk about Nuyorican’s little ‘tribute’ to Run-DMC/Bob James, he would have to know both “Beats to the Rhyme” and the original version of “Nautilus.” It would be like telling a joke I knew he wouldn’t get, then trying to explain the punchline: the more I explained, the less funny it would get. Anyway, my point is this: Nuyorican’s inclusion of that Run-DMC sample isn’t a coincidence. The way I hear it, it’s a wink and a nod to hip-hop—just a little something from Kenny Dope and Little Louie to let us hip-hoppers know that we’re all on the same page. Then again, it occurs to me that the remake itself is no coincidence. If rap DJs and producers had never sampled “Nautilus,” there’s an approximately 0% chance that Masters At Work would have remade it. They weren’t remaking a Bob James song — they were recreating/remixing/updating a hip-hop sample source. And like Kalamu said, they did it correct. —Mtume ya Salaam Timing is everything But, of course, now we are having a real conversation about Black music. Check this: I have a poem I wrote (but which has never been committed to paper) called “words have meaning but only in context.” That poem reflects a concept I hold as key to an African Aesthetic. Another example: in the Richard Pryor movie Jo Jo Dancer, the character Billy Eckstein plays tells the young up-and-coming comic that “timing is everything,” which I hear as another way to express the primacy of context. The primacy of context does not negate the importance of content, but rather indicates that content is not solely self-referential, i.e. what something means is not just what it says it means but is also a function of how it says what it means and when and where it says what it means. Which, I guess, is why “Nautilus” (a piece of music which neither of us are overly impressed with in and of itself) can generate this extended philosophical discussion. As Mtume noted, we’re not talking about the same thing because we’re not talking about a particular piece of music, per se; rather, we are each, from our individual perspectives, focusing on the context within which we know that particular piece of music. But better than this abstract philosophical-speak, I like your reference to quilting, i.e. taking a piece of a shirt and weaving it into the overall quilt. The impact of a shirt fragment in the quilt is not due simply to the impact of the cloth sample in its original state but rather to the artful juxtaposition of that piece of cloth into a new context. Moreover, not only is the quilt more interesting than the original cloth and even often of higher overall quality and utility, but indeed the quilt is also of more lasting importance to future generations. Thus, you can say you have no interest in Bob James even as you could talk about "Nautilus" for days, citing when, where and how James’ recording was used. I guess as a non-recovering jazz addict, I remain interested in the back that bore the shirt, and in the tailor of the shirt, and not just interested in a use of a piece of the shirt in a quilt. Or, to put it another way, a quilt is not a shirt, and while I dig quilts (I mean, really dig quilts), I also harbor an interest in shirts. “Nautilus” as a shirt holds no interest for me. One other quick response (then I want to get out the way and hear what others have to say). You correctly note that the sound quality, the mix, has changed how we hear songs, what we determine as a 'normal' way for a song to sound when reproduced. Really, there is no 'normal' in an absolute sense — but that’s another story. The drums up front, the dominance of rhythm in the mix, yes, that is a major hip hop contribution. However, the dominance of rhythm in determining the character of the music is as old as Black music in America and before and beyond that. Generally speaking, people don’t know that when recordings were invented the first thing they did was get rid of the drum sound as the musicians were making it. The drummer had to hit on wood blocks rather than the whole drum set. It took us damn near 100 years to get the drum sound on record. Up until recently, the technology itself couldn’t accommodate what we were doing, what we were hearing, the sounds we were making. Negroes beating on shit pushed the needles into the red, caused reproduction equipment to melt down. There is the story of a Pharoah Sanders recording session. After the first take the musicians were ready to hear what they had played, feeling like it was a great take. The engineer had to admit, the machines couldn’t handle it and that they would have to do it over with some, ah, 'adjustments.' Rhythm. Rhythm. Which leads me to a distinction. We jazz heads hear rhythm organically. Hip-hop heads hear rhythmic mechanically. And that is not a good vs. bad distinction, but rather a simple recognition of the difference in the way the music sounds when made by musicians who interact with each other in the process of playing, as compared to the sound of a producer patiently layering the music using computers and machinery (drum machines, samplers, etc.). Each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, its own dominant characteristics. It’s own feel. I continue to enjoy organic interaction even as I have learned to hear compositional authority in terms of computer-produced beats. My personal prejudice is towards interactive improvisation, and thus I am less impressed by that which is unchanging, but my stance is also a limitation which makes it difficult for me to get excited about and be aware of the possibilities inherent in a piece like “Nautilus.” The organic interpretation of “Nautilus” is why I was so impressed with what Masters At Work did. As much as I dig and use digital technology, I still prefer organic music — but I also uphold another impulse, the need for more than me to thrive in this world. I am diminished when I refuse to recognize the other, whosoever the other be. The beauty of the present time period is that we can have both without sacrificing the strengths or potential of either. Thus, I am willing to discuss contemporary uses of Bob James’ “Nautilus” at length even if I remain unwilling to listen to the original recording all the way through more than once. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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