Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, bandleader and musician James Mtume (Google Images).
Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, bandleader and musician James Mtume (Google Images).
Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, bandleader and musician James Mtume (Google Images).

Producer, songwriter, musician and bandleader James Mtume built his entire career from constant and intentional transformation. Usually alongside his collaborative partner Reggie Lucas, his Grammy-winning penmanship and knob-turning behind the recording console throughout the late 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s blessed veteran artists like Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman, Mary J. Blige, Teddy Pendergrass, D’Angelo, K-Ci, Chante Moore, The Spinners and Lou Rawls.

The native of Philadelphia’s suggestive 1983 chart-topping R&B hit, “Juicy Fruit,” recorded by his band named for his surname, became one of the most immediately recognizable and frequently sampled songs in hip-hop and R&B music. “As a writer, your creative process involves trying to push your own envelope,” says Mtume, who recently sat on a “Who Stole the Soul?” panel at this year’s centennial conference for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). “Your job as a producer is to mix the song so that each element has a special place.”

Born the son of distinguished jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, the accomplished keyboardist, percussionist and record-breaking swimmer grew up in a bebop household. It was common during Mtume’s childhood to be seated across the dinner table from greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

Mtume, a fan of Frankie Lymon, didn’t realize at the time that he was in the company of some esteemed talent but absorbed all of the game he was getting. “I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I knew how hip that stuff was,” says Mtume. “I had a very different environment to grow up in. I knew it was deep. I was coming up in both schools.”

Speaking with a warm, straightforward delivery, it bothers Mtume anytime musicians and consumers overlook certain frames of reference that affect their craft or listening tastes. The prolific student of music originally honed his chops in New York on the avant garde jazz circuit accompanying cats like Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith and Sun-Ra.

Mtume doesn’t care for people who loosely use the term “genius” to denote exceptional musicianship. He directly name drops Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Sly Stone as three artists he witnessed that truly embody “genius.”

The multi-talented performer actually spent five years in the early 1970s touring as part of Davis’ band. Still sharing enough vivid anecdotes on black musicians to fill numerous volumes of encyclopedias, Mtume, now 68-years-old, passes along some of the same wisdom he soaked up from playing alongside the progressive trumpeter often categorized as a jazz innovator.

Mtume also reveals that he’s working on a documentary possibly for HBO profiling Davis’ legacy. “Nothing is deeper than five years next to [Miles]. Trust me,” proclaims Mtume with a voice crescendo. “When you cross a bridge, burn it. Don’t get caught in the stagnation of now. You can only move forward.”

Making the transition from playing jazz into writing hit R&B, funk, soul and disco-flavored records kept Mtume’s creative juices flowing. Never one to write songs just to net hit records on the Billboard charts, titles normally come to Mtume instantly. He takes time and melody seriously. He says he’s not really a singer by any means but insists that he harmonizes well enough to produce the artist(s).

One song that still haunts Mtume is “Back Together Again” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. During that 1979 weekend recording session, Mtume experienced one of Hathaway’s emotional episodes first hand. The beloved, influential singer was on the bathroom floor crying, insisting his brain was hooked to machines and white people put a hit on him. As Mtume encouraged Hathaway to take time to recoup, the vocalist assured Mtume that he would nail his vocals.

Tragedy struck. Flack called Mtume the following morning to tell him that Hathaway committed suicide. Mtume takes a moment of silence as he recollects. “It’s about the music,” says Mtume. “I always follow my heart. It’s where you’re coming from.”

“Juicy Fruit” almost didn’t happen either. Mtume, who created the neo-minimalist song’s unprecedented, offbeat drum cadence using a Linn LM-1 drum machine, made the track after the “Just Funnin’” and “You, Me, & He” band’s LP was complete. The shoulder-length cornrow-wearing artist’s label, Epic Records, originally passed on releasing “Juicy Fruit” as a single, alleging the song was “too slow” as beats-per-minute became increasingly formulaic in popular music. The label even recommended that Mtume have a producer in the studio with him.

To make matters worse, Epic only released “Juicy Fruit” to quiet storm formats on black radio after Mtume went back-and-forth with the label’s executives. Program directors flooded Epic’s phone lines with complaints questioning why the song wasn’t commercially released. To date, “Juicy Fruit” has been sampled about 89 times.

A humbled Mtume is appreciative that artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Keyshia Cole, LL Cool J and Tamar Braxton breathed new life into the memorable song. “Thank young people for carrying your music,” urges Mtume. “You don’t know why somebody likes your music. What gets you into any art form is intuition, knowledge and technique. You don’t know why you do anything.”

Allowing The Notorious B.I.G. to sample “Juicy Fruit” for his 1994 single “Juicy” was a watershed moment for black musicians being properly compensated for their intellectual property. Mtume sat with Diddy, signed a page-and-a-half contract and negotiated a 50/50 royalties split. “Hip-hop was sampling R&B records but wasn’t paying anybody,” recalls Mtume. “That was one of the first deals structured like that. It was that simple to me.”

Mtume went on hiatus from songwriting and producing in the mid-1980s. He scored the hit FOX police drama New York Undercover, becoming the only black composer at the time for a dramatic series on network television. The activist became co-host of the WBLS radio show Open Line for two decades.

Times have changed for both the sought after talent and the music business. Mtume thinks current music by black artists is stagnant, something he has worked diligently to avoid his entire career. The outspoken performer thinks one possible solution is for older generations to own up to not sharing their knowledge with younger audiences.

“If you don’t define yourself, somebody else will,” warns Mtume. “If you give a jive singer a good song, that doesn’t make the song good. Young people are our mirrors. We want to blame them for what they don’t know and not take responsibility that we never told them.”

The generational disconnect is exactly why Mtume takes pride in connecting with younger people. He often serves on panels and gives keynote addresses. Those moments are chances for the veteran producer to share some of the musical gifts and empowering experiences he was given. Mtume hopes that black cultural production can remain a part of its indigenous community rather than constantly being re-appropriated.

“We always think the white man’s ice is colder than ours,” alerts Mtume. “Every generation has its own music. Right now slowly but surely you’re being erased. There are great white artists, but there is no longer any reference to where the music really comes from.”

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

Follow the Burton Wire on Twitter @TheBurtonWire or Instagram.

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