Years Active: 55.
Provenance: Traverse City, Michigan.
Essential Albums: Explosions (as Bob James Trio, 1965), One (1974), Two (1975), Three (1976), BJ4 (1977).
Essential Songs: "Nautilus," "Valley of the Shadows," "Night on Bald Mountain," "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," "Farandole," "Westchester Lady," "Where the Wind Blows Free," "Night Crawler," "Heads," "Angela (Theme from Taxi)," "Shamboozie."
Influenced By: J.S. Bach, Quincy Jones, Vince Guaraldi, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal.
Influence On: Hundreds of 1980s and 1990s hiphop producers, Lonnie Liston Smith, LTJ Bukem, Adam F, Noel Brass Jr.
Precautions: Those allergic to smooth-jazz cheesiness should avoid swaths of James's post-Heads output.
Why You Should Give a Fuck: Golden-era hiphop and 1990s drum 'n' bass would sound very different and diminished without the input of Bob James's CTI Records era (1974–1977). Producers from those genres sampled "Nautilus" and "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" hundreds of times, and for good reason: They're undeniably, complexly funky, of course. But they also carry those vaunted CTI production values, so every detail hits you with the salubriousness of acupuncture needles. (Having Steve Gadd, Idris Muhammad, and Harvey Mason behind the drum kit helps, too.) The crucial two-second organ part in "Nautilus" that sounds like the chillest, illest ringtone in history has added mysterious tension to so many classic hiphop, drum 'n' bass, and triphop tracks—and it never gets old. The opening breakbeat of "Mardi Gras" (a blessed Paul Simon cover) possesses the inexhaustibility of James Brown's "Funky Drummer," the Winstons' "Amen, Brother," and Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache." Ask a B-boy/B-girl for confirmation. For a smooth-jazz icon, James sure helped to make a ton of rap cuts sound filthy. You have to laugh at the seeming absurdity of this mild-mannered, bureaucrat-looking white guy being so key to hiphop and other club music, but James's rich tones and suavely funky arrangements don't lie.