Crafting iconic music across multiple genres has allowed Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, producer James Mtume to create his own blueprint as his contribution to America’s soundtrack. The name “Mtume” means “messenger” in Swahili, and it fits his persona since he has delivered a powerful message of not being afraid of exploring, growing, and pushing boundaries in his musical career. His discography consists of jazz, R&B, funk, and pop.
While Mtume is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band. He went on to fill his bucket list of top three talents he wanted to work with, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
The Philadelphia native took what he learned from working with Miles Davis and began creating avant-garde jazz compositions filled with culturally conscious themes. In 1972, the Mtume Umoja Ensemble released Alkebu-Lan – Land of The Blacks, followed by Kawaida, Alkebu-Lan, and Rebirth Cycle.
By the ’80s, Mtume took jazz and transformed it with drum machines and synthesizers. The jazz, funk, and R&B sound created Mtume’s brand of “sophistafunk” that can be heard in songs like “What Ya Gonna Do with My Lovin?” by Stephanie Mills. He also produced and wrote for artists like Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and Mary J. Blige. He co-wrote the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway classic “The Closer I Get to You,” and Stephanie Mills’ hit song “Never Knew Love Like This.”
In the 1980s, he created the band Mtume that included singer, songwriter Reggie Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee. In 1983, Mtume released the legendary hit “Juicy Fruit” from the album Juicy Fruit, a song that broke new ground with a man writing risqué lyrics from a woman’s point of view. That song would later provide the template for sampling in hip hop especially after the Notorious B.I.G. sampled the song in 1994. The group had other hits including, “You, Me, and He” and “Give it On Up (If You Want To).” Mtume’s magical pen has scored music for movies and television shows such as “Native Son,” and “New York Undercover.”
Mtume has consistently proven time and time again that he is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to straddling the lanes of music genres. I caught up with the living legend to talk about groundbreaking moments, creating timeless music, and why the face of R&B is changing.
Shameika: What has been the highlight of your career?
James Mtume: It’s hard to say the biggest, that’s like my favorite movie, there’s more than one. One highlight was being able to score the music for the show “New York Undercover.” At that time, I was probably the only black composer for a dramatic series on television. They were hiring black people for comedies, but “New York Undercover” was a groundbreaking show and it reflected us. The challenge for me was to put our music on television in a way that it had never been heard. That was an extremely gratifying emotion for me.
Shameika: It’s still a huge part of our culture even today.
James Mtume: Absolutely. I also had the opportunity to have a special place in the series called Natalie’s. It was a place where I could bring in new artists, redo the tracks, and have them perform a classic. For example, Mary J. Blige performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” or 112 doing “After the Love is Gone.”
I also had the opportunity to bring in classic artists and have them redo their hits like B.B. King did “The Thrill is Gone,” Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, and more. So, it was very time consuming because I had to put in 17 hours a day between scoring and redoing those songs. None of those tracks were from the record, I had to redo those and that’s where my producing chops were very helpful.
Shameika: Your music has had a huge influence on R&B, Hip Hop, and Jazz over the course of several decades. Why do you think your music is timeless?
James Mtume: I always say I never lied to the music and the music never lied to me. One of the axioms and principles that I try to do music by is always be honest to the idiom that you’re writing in. If I’m writing in jazz, then it’s straight up jazz, if I’m writing funk, it’s straight up funk, if I’m writing pop, then it’s straight up pop. It’s just about honoring the music and also never being afraid to embrace change. You know if you listen to where I started in avant-garde jazz, I did a couple albums of that then that was it. Then I joined Miles [Davis] and that’s where the electronic influence came in. So, to be able to grow and be honest with how you are growing. You always have to embrace change. I always tell people if you don’t change, eventually you’ll be changed by change. I was able to move from acoustic to electronic because it was a natural evolution for me. It was not like I was fighting reality, I tried to embrace it.
Shameika: A lot of artists seem to feel they have to conform to the type of music that’s out now, whether it’s incorporating auto-tune, or completely changing their style to fit what’s hot right now. What are your thoughts on that?
James Mtume: That’s a great point. If you just change because it’s what you think is happening, that’s called adaptation, trying to fit in. If you change because you are fitting into something, that’s metamorphosis. I evolved into those things.
“Juicy Fruit” was considered vulgar. When I took that song to Epic Records they didn’t want to release it. I had to fight to get the song released because they were so afraid of that one line. It’s the line that everybody waits to sing. Now if you compare that one line to what’s out here now, it’s like a nursery rhyme (laughs). You have to write for where your heart is. If you just write to fit in, it never works because it’s just imitation. I don’t believe in imitation, I believe in innovation.
Shameika: Speaking of “Juicy Fruit” you broke ground writing sexual lyrics from a female’s point of view. How different was that switch for you?
James Mtume: No two women can make another human being, and no two men can make another human being. It’s a male and a female sensibility that creates all of us. Now I’m not talking about sexual preference, that’s a different conversation. I’ve always believed that most men have a problem embracing their femininity. You have masculinity and femininity, women have it too. My mother explained it to me. So, writing as a male from a female’s perspective, it’s very easy for me. I just write from that. “You, Me, and He” was another one I wrote where a woman was telling a man about another relationship. There are plenty of songs, especially in R&B where the man is telling the woman about something. The man had to hear it. It wasn’t really a challenge, but it was an interesting perspective to have. So that’s why when you hear “Juicy Fruit,” the lyrics are very imaginative. I think women are much more sensual and they don’t think in stark ways like men do. “Candy Rain, comin’ down, taste you in my mind, and spread you all around,” and “You’re my chocolate star” that’s just where I come from, and I address that part of myself. It has nothing to do with sexual preference, it has to do with sensibility.
Shameika: How did you find your musical voice?
James Mtume: I think it goes back to the way I grew up, and the context that I grew up in. I grew up in a musical family. My biological father is Jimmy Heath, jazz saxophonist and composer of the world-famous Heath Brothers. My uncles are Percy Heath and Tootie Heath. The father that raised me, and I don’t use words like stepfather, but the father that raised me was also a great pianist out of Philadelphia, James “Hen Gate” Forman. I grew up maybe at dinner one night there might be Dizzy Gillespie, or another night it might be Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, or Miles Davis. They would come to Philly and more often than not, they’d be over to the house. So, I grew up listening to these great jazz musicians as a kid. That was in the late 1950s. So, I’m watching the birth of R&B, here’s Motown exploding, and we had Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” so I kind of had both worlds growing up with jazz, funk, and R&B. Of course, there was James Brown, so I’m musically schizophrenic I guess (laughs). I love all of it. I think that also allowed me to be open to growth, knowing there was more than one world. Of course, as I got older I began to listen to European classical music. When people say classical music they automatically mean European, but I say no there’s also African American classical music, our classical music is jazz. I can safely say I grew up with the classics. It was all full circle.
Shameika: You grew up listening to Miles Davis and then went on to work with him. What was the biggest lesson you learned from working with him?
James Mtume: The biggest lesson I learned working with him was once you cross a musical bridge, burn that bridge so you can never go back. That’s been my mantra. Once I feel that I’ve crossed, or accomplished a goal in one dynamic in music, I burn it, I can’t go back. If you don’t have a rearview mirror, you can only go forward. You can’t even see what you just did. People, especially artists get stuck in the quick sand and think they need to do the same thing and do the same music. But if you don’t grow then you are stagnant. If you burn a bridge you can’t repeat yourself. That’s what I learned from Miles. He also said once you begin to hear a new sound in your head, you have to change your band. When you change your music, you have to change your band. Who better to learn that from than a man who changed the direction of all music 3 or 4 times? Miles constantly evolved and succeeded. It also evolved with music.
Shameika: If you can’t go back then what do you think of people that say they miss the music from the earlier decades? Do you miss any music at all?
James Mtume: I always say this, music is the only art form that touches you, but you can’t touch it. What I mean by that is I can touch a book a poetry, a sculpture, or a painting, but I can’t touch a B Flat. You can’t touch sound, and yet sound touches you. That’s what makes music different from every other art form. Where were you the first time you heard a certain song? Was that with your first boyfriend? We have emotional and mental memory banks that takes us back to a period. I understand when people say they miss the music. I don’t miss any music period. I just acknowledge what was good during that period and what wasn’t. There’s only two types of music, good and bad, everything else is personal preference.
The thing that I do miss is the absence of young black bands. If you were to ask me to name you three black bands right now, I couldn’t. You can say The Roots and that’s where you get stuck. I love The Roots, but take them out then who do you have? Why are there no black bands? When I came up there was Earth, Wind, & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Parliament Funkadelic, Ohio Players, and the list goes on and on. You don’t have any black bands now and bands have a different emotional connection with people. That’s a sign, they don’t sign young black R&B singers if we really want to be honest about this. Usher has been around 20 something years, Chris Brown and who else? It drops off. Now videos are being made to replace the original sound of the art form.
They are out there but they’re not black. Justin Timberlake is doing it and he’s not black. It’s becoming more and more true. I say the goal of this business was to control black music without using black people. Some of these young artists are really talented but none of them are black, they won’t sign them. If you think about it, most of the young R&B singers are young white singers and some of them can really sing. What I’m saying is young people coming up don’t have a reference. We created an art form that we’re not even claiming anymore or that has been taken and removed from us. I don’t care what male R&B singer you had, we still had Al Green, I don’t care what young white band you had, we still had Sly Stone. We don’t even have the references anymore. That’s happening to rap music. Whoever controls the image of the music, controls the definition of the music. So, the image of R&B and soul music is not our face.
Shameika: What do you think of many artists just going the independent route since they aren’t being signed?
James Mtume: I think that’s the good part about social media; the technology. You can do your music, press send, and it’s all over the world. It’s like that’s the last refuge, because going the regular route doesn’t exist for us anymore. You are being redefined, and this is the music that you created and you are no longer the face of that. It started happening with the videos. I have a daughter that’s chocolate, that’s my chocolate star, and she was watching a video, she was probably around 6 years old, and she looked at me and said, “I guess I can’t be in the video.” I think she was watching a Prince video or something like that and she realized that there were no dark-skinned girls in it. I think about when we shot the video for “Juicy Fruit”, and we came off the road, shot it in one day. There’s an Asian girl in it and I’m not racist or anything, I didn’t think anything about it, but I looked back at it and thought all the videos are being watered down. I didn’t see the Rolling Stones having to have 80% black women in their videos. Why do we always have to crossover to them and they don’t have to crossover to us? That’s a very important point. They have also destroyed the honesty of our music, it became more about who you look like and how you look. It was crazy, I saw a lot. Rick James and I even talked about it. They watered down the music, you couldn’t even be honest to who your audience was.
Shameika: To your point about video, or at least T.V. shows; over the years there were shows that gave African American artists a platform like “Soul Train” or even “106 & Park,” and none of those exist anymore. What are your thoughts about that?
James Mtume: That’s a good point. Yes, we had those and we had Arsenio Hall. He got taken off the air, and the reason why that’s important for me to bring up 1995 was the first season for “New York Undercover.” In 1994, earlier that year, “The Arsenio Hall Show” was taken off the air. That’s one of the things that made me think about Natalie’s. In the script it was just a place where the cops went to meet and talk. I said you know what, Arsenio is off the air and there’s nowhere for people to see black artists. “Soul Train” was still on the air but that was a staple, but on a regular television series, there was no where to see black artists so that’s why I came up with the idea to bring in young artists and redo a classic and bring in classic artists to redo their hits. We started getting mail saying a lot of people were tuning in just to see who was going to perform at Natalie’s in the next episode. There was no place else for us to be seen.
We’d be foolish to not acknowledge that there’s been a design put in place. There’s not even black music departments anymore. There’s a phrase in one of our songs that says “there would be no R&B if not for me” and that’s what has happened.
Shameika: Your work has also been sampled a lot. Are there any particular songs that stand out to you that you love that sampled your music?
James Mtume: First of all, “Juicy Fruit.” I say we are the grandparents of hip hop sampling. That’s a result of Biggie and Puffy embracing it. I remember when Puffy asked me about wanting to sample “Juicy Fruit.” My only thing was anybody that wants to sample my music has to pay me. Back then a lot of artists were being sampled and not being paid. We cut our deal and that was great.
But to your question, I really loved Keyshia Cole and Missy Elliot’s interpretation on “Let it Go.” I’ve been sampled by Eve, Common, DMX, Nas, there’s so many names. Tamar Braxton, Jay-Z did on his first album Reasonable Doubt. I’ve had a major connection with major hip hop artists and I’m grateful for that because it’s important to feel that your music was able to expand beyond your own generation. I’ve been very fortunate with that. It goes back to being timeless. I always wanted to have the feeling that if you put on my music 30 or 40 years later, it would still have the feeling that it was recorded yesterday. That’s how I feel about a lot of great jazz, like Miles Davis. It taps into purity and it taps into that essence and a high musical standard. We can put on Motown records and when I hear “My Girl” it’s still great. Same with music by Curtis Mayfield, and he’s one of my inspirations. The fact is those are great songs. I put on one of my favorite things, jazz, and think oh my goodness it sounds like these cats recorded it this morning. That’s what you want to strive for; to make music that doesn’t get locked into a time reference.
Shameika: What else are you working on?
James Mtume: I pretty much retired in 1997 after “New York Undercover,” the only thing I did was co-wrote a song for a great singer named Bilal called “Soul Sista.” Right now, I’m working with Tawatha Agee, Mtume’s lead singer. We are back in the studio working on a new project for her. After 8 years of turning them down, I’m finally doing “Unsung.” It will air in June.
Shameika: In Kashif’s last interview with Mass Appeal. He mentioned you were one of his musical heroes. How did you feel about being hailed as a musical hero?
James Mtume: My man! Oh wow! Maybe I can give you a little background. Kashif got with Stephanie Mills and had all the charts from all those records we were doing. I remember him telling me that he would sit there and watch and study the chord changes we were doing. He said “it really opened up a door to me.” Needless to say, Kashif went on to create his own genre and his own set of accomplishments. I’m really flattered. I didn’t know that.
Shameika: Fill in the blank: My music matters because….
James Mtume: My music matters because I am just part of an endless link of black music.
African American History
For more information on James Mtume and other musical legends, visit the NMAAM website.