Few artists/producers during the last year or so have equaled the prolific and creative output of multi-talented composer/arranger/producer/percussionist/businessman and son of a Jimmy Heath of the renown Heath Brothers, James Mtume. In 1978, after 10 years of professional playing experience, including four years with Miles Davis in two years with songstress Roberta Flack, Mtume decided to undertake a new direction.
Mtume teamed up with close friend, guitarist/songwriter Reggie Lucas, who also played with Miles for two years, to form a group called them to me.
Together and to mtume/Lucas and listed the talents of writer Howard King, who had previously worked with McCoy Tyner and Roberta Flack; bassist basil Fearington, who worked with Sister Sledge before they became a nationally known group, and the newly formed group Love Committee; keyboard wizard/songwriter Hubert Eaves, also a veteran of Roberta Flack band. (Eaves has written several songs for many top performers, including Phyllis Hyman); lead vocalist Lady Tawatha, who can be heard as a background vocalist on albums cut by leading artists Jackie Moore, Norman Connors, Keith Barrow, and Roberta Flack; and Gwen Guthrie, Luther Vandross, and Brenda White as background vocalist.
Mtume debut album, “Kiss This Goodbye,” was released in 1978 and featured the hit single Just Funnin’, and a moving rendition of The Closer I Get To You, a Mtume/Lucas classic band for Roberta Flack and the late Donny Hathaway.
ROUTES met with James and to me recently at Rutgers university in New Jersey to discuss his work and his future plans.
ROUTES: You have successfully produced many singers recently. Do you have a special formula?
Mtume: I try to have complete control of the situation. I don’t mean petty power Plays or ego trips. I mean in the sense of providing an environment very open to creative input from other people — but always on a work level. I don’t allow any hanging out in the studio. There’s no drugs, not for any Moral reason, I just don’t do drugs. Besides, I know that once you get that into the studio, it takes on a carnival atmosphere — a fantasy situation. We are trying to do something serious. It’s business and not play. The joy is listening to the final product, but what goes into it is very serious. Keeping the proper attitude helps to get more work done. It also helps to work with artists whom you enjoy.
ROUTES: What kind of artist do you like to work with and what qualities do you look for?
Mtume: They have to be good at whatever they do. They must be open to suggestions. We are in this business to make money and to enjoy what we are doing. What better way is there to make money then with someone who is good at what they do? I can’t work with an artist who is not really an artist: that’s why I never went into the disco thing. It’s too manufactured.
ROUTES: Disco has always been criticized for its monotony and same this. However, some people have felt that your productions of Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman sounded like. Was there a difference?
Mtume: They’re sounding similar is stating the obvious. Motown records sound similar; gamble and huff sound similar. Actually, they are condemning the albums for sounding the way they’re supposed to. They are supposed to be similar because there is a sound at work as opposed to an artist or a song. When people criticize the albums, I am very happy. They don’t understand that they are criticizing exactly what I wanted to accomplish. What you don’t want to do in the studio is repeat yourself. That’s the difference. When you get into repetition of sound, then you are boring.
ROUTES: What were you looking for when you produced Stephanie’s album, “Sweet Sensation?”
Mtume: I saw Stephanie do a showcase at the grand finale. I realize she was a great artist. But the problem was she didn’t have any songs. Everyone who would cut her previously, always dealt with the higher register of her voice. Stephanie is really a mid register Singer. That’s what I wanted to work with.
ROUTES: Now that you have had such success with other artists, what can we expect from your own band?
Mtume:The new direction is to redirect the old one. The first album, “Kiss This World Goodbye,” was too adventurous. It was rewarding aesthetically but not in terms of record sales and marketability there were certain realities we had to except. We’ve dedicated our second album “In Search Of The Rainbow Seekers” in memory of the first.
I come from a rock-oriented background. I love ballads and heavy rock hits. Black radio is not ready to deal with that. Being black, you have a little access to white AirPlay, unless you go top 10 rhythm and blues first. When you try to do something that is not familiar to blacks, it’s almost impossible to get the kind of airplane to take you to the top 10. So you can do one of two things: either you stay out there and continue to play that way and hope that after a given period of time people will begin to gravitate to your sound; or you pull back in and try to grab those people with a lesser form which is more palatable to their taste. I think I’ve learned a couple of things from doing other acts. Because of the experience and gain knowledge, we stand a better chance of producing a head. The band now has a new identity because of this new album, there’s a lot more funk.
ROUTES: Do you think there will be a new direction for rhythm and blues?
Mtume: I don’t know if there is a new direction. I think there’s a continuation. Things that are done with artist like Stephanie Mills, Roberta Flack or Phyllis Hyman lean toward R &B and may have what you call pop overtones. I think our trucks probably tend to be a little hotter. For example, What You Gonna Do With My Lovin’ is not just an R&B record. It’s a kind of quality production that goes into work of people like Quincy Jones, Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell.
ROUTES: What’s in store for us to musically?
Mtume: Self-contained groups are going into an acid funk direction I think we are seeing a drought for rock artist, because they have no more nectar to suck from. And for all practical purposes, with just about font ourselves out. Funk is becoming like warmed over oatmeal. The new direction will be based on the frustration of those two-forms. They will reach a point where they will give birth to a new thing as simply called acid funk for lack of a better term for example it will be a Parliament mix with Led Zeppelin sound.
ROUTES: How do you measure the contributions of black music to music in general?
Mtume: The music around us is black music in one form or another. Black music is the root. Even if you’re talking about rock, rock is based on Chuck Berry. No rockstar will tell you any different. The Rolling Stones will tell you their source as well as the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and the Doobie Brothers. Where else can it come from? That’s the hottest stuff in rock music. It all comes from black music. The only music I consider a white form is country and western. I respect that music. I’m not into it, but I respect it as an art form because it’s their thing. But the rest of the music they can’t lay claim to. They’re experiencing a weird phenomenon — the only thing that is selling rock artists are sounds that are black oriented or country and Western. Look at the country and western artist they don’t even look like the rest of those pop artist. They’re the ones who wear those big cowboy hats. They’re funky — their way. That’s the music and the lyrics in country and western music are very much like ours, they talk about very real things.
ROUTES: How do you rate yourself among today’s producers?
Mtume: I don’t. It would be totally unfair. What criteria do you use? If you are using record sales, that’s one thing. When you talk about reading, it’s a question of whom are your favorites and I have favorite producers. I like Quincy Jones, Leon Sylvers, Gamble and Huff and Tom Bell because of what they have contributed. I like George Clinton for what he does and I think Maurice White has made a great contribution.
ROUTES: Do you see any innovators?
Mtume: I don’t know if production is a job of innovation. Producing is maximizing two things: technology and art. Production is trying to master the synthesis. Technology is the art of best exploring the qualities of a song.
ROUTES: What’s a typical day in the life of James Mtume like?
Mtume: It’s like any buddy else’s. I am very preoccupied. I constantly search for the next level, the next step. I live daily with the reality that I may not live another day or write another song. I am a constant planner. I don’t go out much. I don’t go to discos. I enjoy a good horror picture and good movies. I believe totally in the materialistic Reality of the human mind and human existence. I don’t absorb what’s around when I’m hot, but plan when I’m called.
I am a human being who gets bored easily; I’m not bored yet with production. I don’t think I’ll ever be bored with it simply because I won’t allow that to happen. I am dealing now only with the acts I want to deal with. That’s why it’s very important to build an organization that can handle the work. We are talking about cutting 10 albums within the next year. It becomes less of a burden when you have other individuals within the organization who are ready to deal with production. I made a rule that everybody has to write music and out of that a couple have written hit songs. This allows me to pull back and only deal with three or four projects. It’s the art of duplication!