James Mtume, a musician sampled by Notorious BIG, dies

James Mtume, a musician, songwriter and producer who played in Miles Davis’ electronic band in the early and mid-1970s before forming the R&B group of the same name whose 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” became one of the most recognizable samples in hip history -Hop was died Sunday. He was 76.

His death was announced by his family in a statement that did not state the cause or where he died.

Described as “sophistifunk” in the artist’s words, Mtume’s sleek yet finely detailed music layered lush, jazz-inspired chord arrangements over uncluttered post-disco grooves that could make slow jams feel like club tracks and club tracks like slow jams. “Juicy Fruit,” with a stuttering drum machine beat and risqué lyrics suggesting the joys of oral sex, topped Billboard’s R&B chart for eight weeks (and, according to Mtume, prompted a legal investigation by the gum company wrigley).

In 1994, Notorious BIG prominently featured the song for his own “Juicy‘, which peaked at #3 on the Billboard rap chart and has been streamed more than 1 billion times on Spotify and YouTube.

With longtime creative partner Reggie Lucas, with whom he played behind Davis, Mtume also wrote and produced slick, late ’70s romantic soul hits for Phyllis Hyman (“you know how to love me“) and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (“The closer I get to you“), among others. In 1981, the duo won a Grammy for an R&B song for writing Stephanie Mills’ “I’ve never known love like this before.”

Taking to Instagram on Sunday, Mills called Mtume “an amazing music mind” and said the chemistry she shared with him and Lucas (who died in 2018) was “unmatched.” Hip-hop DJ Premier, who once sampled Mtume’s score for the 1986 film Native Son, said Mtume was an “icon” and took to Twitter to thank him for his “incredible contributions to music.”

James Mtume.

James Mtume in 1973.

(Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Mtume was born on January 3, 1946 in Philadelphia. His biological father was Jimmy Heath, the jazz saxophonist who died in 2020 despite being raised by James Forman, a pianist who played in Charlie Parker’s band. When he was a kid, famous musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk used to visit the family home for dinner, as Mtume recalled in a Interview 2014 with the Red Bull Music Academy. “I was never hip enough to know what a brilliant situation that was, but what I did know about jazz musicians was that they were an extraordinary group,” he said.

Mtume attended Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship; While in California, he became involved with the US Organization, a black empowerment group led by activist Maulana Karenga, who founded Kwanzaa. (Mtume derived his stage name from the Swahili word for “messenger” or “apostle.”) After college, he returned to the East Coast and began playing drums professionally, first with McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard, then with Davis, who himself In his autobiography, he wrote that his band “set down a deep African cause” with Mtume. Davis albums on which Mtume performed between 1971 and 1975 included On the Corner and Get Up With It, densely funky albums that divided audiences then but are widely admired today.

Of Davis’ management style, Lucas told the Fader in 2005: “The band built up to these massive crescendos, and then he put up a hand to signal us to just stop – like an acid rock James Brown. It was his version of ‘Hit me!’.”

Mtume made similarly adventurous records of his own while working for Davis, including the trippy “Alekbu-Lan: Land of the Blacks‘ in 1972.

A band performing on stage.

Mtume performs in 1985.

(David Corio / Redferns)

After their time with Davis, Lucas and Mtume played in Flack’s band before writing and producing for other acts. The group Mtume, featuring Lucas on guitar and James Mtume and Tawatha Agee on lead vocals, released their major label debut Kiss This World Goodbye in 1978; a sequel, In Search of the Rainbow Seekers, appeared in 1980.

For “Juicy Fruit,” James Mtume said he resisted an engineer’s advice to digitally streamline the beat he programmed on a then-novel LinnDrum machine. “When something is accurate, it weighs on me, especially as a drummer,” he told Questlove in a Podcast Interview 2021. “I want it to tilt a bit. So if you’re listening to this beat, it’s intentionally slightly off. It feels human.”

Biggie Smalls was just one of countless rap and R&B acts to sample “Juicy Fruit”; It was also used by Alicia Keys, Warren G, Keyshia Cole, Chris Brown, Jennifer Lopez, the Game, Faith Evans, and Nas, who said he originally wanted to loop the beat of “Juicy Fruit” for “Life’s a Bitch” in “Illmatic.” ‘ from 1994, before using a gap band sample instead. (Nas ended up using “Juicy Fruit” for a remix of his song “One Mic.”)

The group Mtume scored two more top 10 hits on the R&B chart: 1984’s Slinky “you, me and him‘ sampled by Aaliyah and Eve themselves, and ‘Breathless.” James Mtume went on to work with Mary J. Blige, K-Ci & JoJo, and R. Kelly, and worked as a music supervisor on the TV series New York Undercover; In 2003, Beyoncé and Luther Vandross recorded a rendition of “The closer I get to you‘, who won a Grammy for his R&B performance.

Mtume’s survivors include his wife Kamili; his brother Jeffrey Forman; two sons, four daughters and six grandchildren.

In the interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Mtume recalled that in the early ’80s, executives at his record label were skeptical about the prospects of “Juicy Fruit” because they thought the song was too slow.

“To their great surprise,” he said, “after the first week they got calls from all the radio stations across the country.” James Mtume, a musician sampled by Notorious BIG, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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