‘Back in the days when I was a teenager/Before I had status and before I had a pager/You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop/My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop.’
The first few lines spoken by Q-Tip on ‘Excursions,’ the opening song on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic hip hop album, ‘The Low End Theory, embody a conversation, or at least a ‘feeling,’ many teens growing up in post-civil rights America shared with their parents as hip hop grew in influence during the 90s. Unlike much of the rap music produced today for mainstream audiences, hip hop during this era was sample-heavy with musical roots deeply embedded in Jazz, Soul, and Funk.
Boom Bap, as a result, was born from the bebop and bounce of the 50s, 60s, and 70s as ‘golden era’ producers like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Large Professor,Prince Paul, and many others, pulled their musical samples directly from the living room shelves of their parents and older family members. Hip Hop predecessors George Clinton,James Brown, Roy Ayers, Cymande, Gil Scot Heron, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and more created the musical soundtrack for the social movements and energy of the previous ‘baby boomer’ era. The children of the following generation, in turn, took the boom, and added their own bap, to make hip hop what it was in the late 80s and 90s: Soul music 2.0.
Born in 1978, NY-based singer-songwriter José James was one of the young people whose introduction to Jazz came through hip hop. Undoubtedly rooted in both Jazz and Hip Hop, James’ unique sound and style continues to evolve with each album: Soul music 2.1.
You have been called a ‘Jazz singer for the hip hop generation.’ What do you think of that?
I think it’s a good description, if you had to give it one sentence. It works you know. The hip hop generation has a different definition of what Jazz is because we discovered it through hip hop, and through samples. So, we’ve seen Jazz used, literally, in a different way than it had ever been used before. I think one of the first solos I heard was when I watched Juice and heard ‘Know The Ledge‘ by Rakim.
What’s your favorite hip hop style/artist/moment?
For me, the most exciting thing that happened in hip hop was A Tribe Called Quest. They’re like a Miles Davis or a Coltrane where you could really see the evolution from album to album. I wish they would have been able to stay together a bit longer. To me, they’re a great band, in the same way that we have great bands in jazz, or in rock. After them, I would say we have Outkast.
What did you think of the documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life?
I found it sad, you know. I wish I hadn’t seen it. For me, I would rather a band fall apart, and leave me wondering. I would rather not know all the dirty details. To see those Q-Tip and Phife fighting before a show just made me feel really sad man, you know. What I really wanted to know was the actual music making. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the genius of the band.
Have you ever done any collaborations with hip hop artists?
So you’ve never met him (Phife)?
I’ve never met him. But, I’ve worked with Flying Lotus, I covered Freestyle Fellowship on my first album (The Dreamer, 2008) with ‘Parkbench People‘, and other collaborations…remixes…also with Taylor McFerrin.
Do you live in NYC now? How long have you been there?
I’ve been (in NY) off and on for 12 years.
Before that you were in Minneapolis?
Yes, until about 20, but I have lived in Minneapolis, Seattle, London, and all over New York.
When I first became aware of you, I thought you were from NYC because you rock that NY (Yankees) hat so hard man. Do you ever rep a Minnesota fitted?
You know what? If the hat was cool, I would wear it. But it’s not (laughing).
For me, being a musician is a varied thing. You can do your solo stuff, you can write music for other people, and that kind of versatility that artists like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye had, is more important (pause)…than a hit.
How long have you been doing music professionally?
I started when I was 17, like leading a band, and making money from gigs. And then, 2007 was when I first started touring internationally. 2008 is when my first album (‘The Dreamer’) came out.
You started out young. What did that teach you about the music industry/being a solo artist?
I think it was good because I actually had no thoughts about the industry at all. I was just experimenting when I was 17…which I think is a good thing for artists to do in the long run. If you’re that focused on getting a record deal at 17, you probably won’t last that long (even if you get the deal) because you’re already thinking about the industry. For me, being a musician is a varied thing. You can do your solo stuff, you can write music for other people, and that kind of versatility that artists like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye had, is more important (pause)…than a hit.
What’s the Minneapolis music environment like?
Obviously Prince is a big inspiration to people. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as well. There’s a lot of creative freedom. Rhymesayers is a big thing out there now. There’s always been a lot of Jazz, especially from Chicago. It’s a very easy and creative place to live.
Were your parents the ones that introduced you to Jazz music?
My Dad is a Jazz musician, but it was the 80s, so Jazz got a little funny in the 80s, you know (laughing). I wasn’t ever into that kind of style of it. It was through hip hop that I discovered the classics – the Blue Note kind of Jazz from the 40s, 50s and 60s.
What was the first Jazz album that influenced you?
Genius of Modern Music Volume 1: Thelonius Monk. He just didn’t sound like anybody else. He had his own thing. I always strive for that, no matter what. Whether they like it or not – that’s Jose James, you know.
It seems like you have been touring almost non-stop since your 2008 release. Is there a particular city that you always look forward to performing in?
I have to say that the best crowd in the U.S. is always in Oakland. People come to get LIVE. I’ve never experienced that in any other city. Oakland people really believe in what they believe in. There is a certain energy that you can’t find anywhere else.
Have you performed in Austin before? What do you think about Austin as a music city?
I’ve never been to Austin before. This is my first time. I have only heard amazing things about the music, people, food. I’m excited.
On Sunday, June 22, José James performs in Austin for the first time at Empire Control and Garage Room.