The son of jazz legend, Jimmy Heath (who passed almost exactly two years ago,) and raised by pianist James “Hen Gates” Forman, Mtume enjoyed a rare upbringing amongst pioneering players. Forman, a regular in Charlie Parker’s band, would often host sessions with bebop and post-bop greats. “Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins,” Mtume recounted in a 2014 interview with Red Bull Music Academy.
In 1969, Mtume, already a skilled pianist and percussionist in his own right, began a recording career as a session player alongside Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, and his father, on his uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Kawaida. Between 1971 and 1975, Mtume joined Miles Davis‘ ensemble, was featured in the On The Corner sessions, and contributed to projects from Pharoah Sanders, Ramsey Lewis, Gato Barbieri, Lonnie Liston Smith, and a slew of other spiritual jazz forefathers. During this period, Mtume also formed the Mtume Umoja Ensemble and released the album, Land of the Blacks, via Strata East in 1972.
As disco and r&b began pulling musicians and arrangements from far-reaching jazz outfits (in large part, courtesy of Earth, Wind, & Fire,) another group was assembled at the tail-end of the 70s. Leaning into funk, drum machines, and electronics, Mtume released their debut album, Kiss This World Goodbye, in 1978, ushering in the phase of a prodigious career that would end up defining it for several generations to come. It was with his namesake group that Mtume became the backbone for some of hip-hop’s most celebrated anthems, including, most notoriously, Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy,” which quotes a good chunk of the title track to Mtume’s most commercially successful album, Juicy Fruit.
The lush vocals, sleek harmonies, and percussive piano chops that make up the grip of Mtume’s sonic signature have been utilized by so many producers over the last 30 years, including Madlib, Knxwledge, DJ Premier, and Alchemist, to name just a few.
And so, in our latest installment of In Hip-Hop and Beyond, we’re remembering the late James Mtume through his extensive imprint on all forms of rap and r&b in the years since forging his own group.
Hear it below.
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