Oneness of Juju: How an Avant-Garde Jazz Group Created A Cult Classic in the Black Arts Movement
The high elder of Oneness of Juju, James “Plunky” Branch, recounts DC’s Black Fire era, J Dilla’s impossible precision, and the latest life of his debut album.
The have/want ratio on Discogs isn’t always a sturdy indicator of an album’s quality or staying power. The going rate on an original pressing is often just as deceiving. But every fourth lunar rotation or so, you’re liable to pull a grail worth its weight in wax and bills. Oneness of Juju’s debut album, African Rhythms, is precisely that occasional full-bliss come-up.
Nearing a half-century since its release, the inaugural album from DC’s immensely influential Black Fire Records imprint has risen to an uncommon sector of reverence for both crate-diggers and producers. To the former, an intermediary era of DC’s mid-’70s renaissance is unearthed, revealing a direct link between the city’s spiritual jazz heritage and the buoyant regional titan, go-go. To the latter, a boundless bin of quotables is presented; equal parts source and refuge for the diasporic cadences of South African drums and Afro-Cuban percussion.
The brainchild of James “Plunky” Branch, Juju’s first incarnation was born of resistance, resonance, and displacement. Branch began his career as a musician at Columbia University in the mid-’60s, but shipped out to the Bay Area by the end of the decade. Planted in the summer of love’s potent political and artistic afterglow, Branch soon became acquainted with a South African drummer living out his exile in San Francisco, indoctrinating the Virginia export in a new musical morality and ethos. Suddenly, Branch had awoken to a new purpose in his craft. Or, as he tells it, “the possibility of black music being more than just entertainment; being a political force, a social and cultural educational resource for the community.”
Carrying a wealth of freshly-minted influences and rhythmic revelations abound, Branch once again uprooted himself, returning to his hometown of Richmond, a city historically rooted in altar-quaking gospel and radio-ready R&B, hoping to convert old neighbors into current fans of left-leaning, politically-minded jazz and fusion. Not an easy sell. But he added a guitarist, vocalist, and drummer, to expand the band’s ranks and sound, bolstering the high-flying polyrhythms he’d picked up out west with local aces. The new outfit took on an all-encompassing moniker in Oneness of Juju.
More than an aesthetic shift, the change in name and personnel commenced a new life for Plunky and his rapidly- ensemble. With a good friend in Black Fire founder, Jimmy Gray — and access to his vast network of local DJs, promoters, booking agents, and political organizers — Oneness of Juju joined a roster comprising local legends, splitting the difference between the steel-toed funk of Experience Unlimited and the astral projections of Wayne Davis.
Through Gray’s contacts at Howard University’s WHUR, the title-track of African Rhythms became a regional anthem and was adopted as the theme for the nightly news segment, The Daily Drum. As demand rose, Plunky and Oneness rotated headlining sets with their labelmates and opened for damn-near any jazz heavyweight that passed through the mid-Atlantic stretches of I-95, including, but not limited to, Gil Scott-Heron, Roy Ayers, and Dexter Gordon. They’d also found a powerful platform in performing at rallies, demonstrations, and protests, aligning themselves with the sharper sentiments of the dosed and dazed Bay Area brain trust that inspired Plunky’s political pivot.
But by the close of the disco decade, go-go had been elevated to a sacred status. And Chuck Brown might as well have had his own monument on the national mall (how is this not a thing?) The city bowed to the hallmark bop of its new king; a distinctively DC funk fixture. As the texture turned in his old stomping grounds, mounting creative differences drove a wedge between Branch and Gray, capping their Black Fire output after four albums.
More than 40 years down the line, African Rhythms is on to another bend in the space-time coil. Directly indebted to modern sampling techniques — specifically, a rejuvenating turn-of-the-century touch from the late J Dilla, who borrowed Plunky’s opening monologue on a recreation of such impossible fidelity, it became its own source for subsequent generations of musicians — the titular track is taking another big breath. And Plunky couldn’t be more delighted.
We spoke with the high elder of Juju just ahead of his departure for Brooklyn, where the artwork for African Rhythms and a grip of Black Fire catalog releases (the subjects of a joint venture reissue campaign from Now Again and Vinyl Me Please,) will be on display at OkaySpace in a gallery installation.
Scroll on for his full accounts of the Black Fire era, getting duped by J Dilla, not daring to compete with go-go, and the creation of an album that’s as much an extension of Chocolate City’s deeply dynamic demography as its history of innovation in the arts.
What was it like making music in DC before the rise of go-go?
I actually started playing in a soul group at Columbia University in New York in 1967 called The Soul Symphony. From there, I went to San Francisco and lived there for a couple of years where I played with Indiko Slava, a drummer from South Africa. He sort of indoctrinated me into African music. He was in exile and he taught me about the possibility of black music being more than just entertainment — being a political force, a social and a cultural educational resource for the community.
How did that fit into what you were already doing with soul?
Well, I related this to what Pharaoh Sanders and some of the other spiritual jazz players of that era were doing. When I finished playing with Indiko, we formed a band called Juju. In 1973, we moved from San Francisco to New York. We released our first album, which was recorded in San Francisco, but released on Strata East. We came east to help promote the record and align ourselves with the label, and we stayed in New York for a year and a half, two years, working directly with Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. I got a chance to record with Pharaoh Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And then I took that information, that cultural history and the things I learned in San Francisco and New York back to my hometown of Richmond. And in Richmond, to make the story short, I found that playing avant-garde African music was not an easy sell.
What was the dominating tone of Richmond at the time, at least when you got back?
R&B and gospel. And that was the music that I had grown up on. Basically, what I made a conscious decision to add elements of R&B to what we were doing. So we added a drummer, a guitar, and a female vocalist. And then we changed our name to Oneness of Juju. I was living in Richmond, so we made weekly trips to DC. So much so that people in DC thought that we were a local group.
Did that create any problems in just getting you guys seen out there?
When we released African Rhythms, we had a friend who was the general manager of the radio station WHUR, which was a very popular black station housed in Howard University. They used the song “African Rhythms” and some of the others on that album as the daily theme song for their show The Daily Drum, which was their news hour. So we were very visible in DC. This was a locally produced album on the radio every day. Then we aligned ourselves with a booking agency called Charisma Productions, a black-owned agency that booked in the DC area for Roy Ayers, Chuck Brown, Lonnie Liston Smith, Norman Connors. And Gil Scott-Heron, which was their number one client. So we got a chance to open shows for all of those acts around town, and our consideration as a part of the history of go-go came about because the backbone of Juju was African percussion.
Outside of funk, go-go, and the spiritual jazz sets, what else were you hearing in DC at the time?
DC had probably one of the more diverse palates of music anywhere outside of New York and San Francisco. But you would hear a lot of Afro-Cuban music, even on the streets, percussion jam sessions in the park, people playing congas and timbales, and that kind of cross-pollination was going on. There was a very heavy, steady dose of straight R&B. There were African drum troupes to draw from. In fact, my band had a couple of Latino percussionists at various times.
One of the things I attribute to the diversity of music in DC is that it’s a very international city, simply because it’s the northern region, it’s the capital of the US. So you had all these embassies and people coming from all over the world for various reasons and different parts of their culture were based in DC. Beyond that you had a lot of classical music. The Kennedy Center and other cultural institutions are in DC. A number of foundations that support art music, European-based art music and world music festivals. A lot of political activity that had cultural aspects to it, music used to gather people for demonstrations, Malcolm X days and various things.
I’m glad you mentioned the political influences. From what I understand, you guys had some access and some visibility through the protest scene?
Absolutely. When you say the word Gil Scott-Heron, you immediately think of politically oriented poetry and spoken word. If you say Chuck Brown, you almost hear go-go. If you think of Experience Unlimited, which is now a Go-Go band, it started out as a black rock group. But all of those dudes, Gil Scott, Chuck Brown, Oneness of Juju, Experience Unlimited, a big part of what we did in those days was not just parties and nightclubs, but also participating in demonstrations. There were any number of other community-based activities in the public parks; summer-long festivals and weekly concerts that all those acts would participate in. They started out as street concerts and would get thousands of people to come out. And music was the drawing card.
Was there any overlap in the two ensembles (Oneness of Juju and Experience Unlimited) in terms of the sessions or the Black Fire brainstorm? Were you guys sharing members at all?
Yes and no. We appeared on shows together. In fact on their album, in the liner notes, there are a couple of fliers advertising Oneness of Juju and Experience Unlimited at various parks and Malcolm X day. So yes, there was a cross-pollination of ideas. And over the years, there’s been a continued relationship between the two groups, because we’ve done many, many shows together. Over the years, they’ve evolved into a straight go-go group, one of my favorites. I always love playing with them.
Did you ever feel like you were in direct competition with go-go?
Let me say this: I happily and proudly would be a go-go band. It’s probably one of my favorite kinds of music. My band would sometimes look at me and say “You know, everything doesn’t have to be go-go.” ‘Cause I would be doing a go-go version of everything from “My Favorite Things” to “Summertime” to “Softly as the Morning Sunrise.” I take any jazz song and put a Go-Go beat to it, ’cause to me, it’s such an infectious sound. And for me, it’s African. These last 30 days, I’ve tried to characterize my music, and I’ve never been able to do it without a lot of hyphens and a lot of cross-genre names. I’ve kinda narrowed it down to three or four, and I would say it’s African, jazz, and funk. To me, all of that together is go-go. The African part is historical and arty, the jazz is art and culture, and the funk is about fun.
So you see go-go as a confluence of all these influences?
I do. Now, there are those who have a much lower opinion of go-go because it has taken some hits in the local scene. In the same way that hip-hop can have a negative connotation and a very positive connotation, depending on what context, what lyrics, what influences, what setting you put it in. But for me, go-go is to be cherished.
Glad you brought hip-hop into this. Are you aware of how many different ways Oneness of Juju, specifically “African Rhythms,” has been flipped and reinterpreted over the years?
Absolutely. It gives me goose pimples. I’ve read interviews of lots of older musicians. Not all, but most of them will say something similar: “What a great thing when there are new uses, new interpretations, new services to be rendered from something we recorded years ago.” I would say “African Rhythms” has been on maybe 15 or 20 compilations, most recently one called Soul of a Nation out of England that was done in conjunction with a big art exhibit at the Tate Gallery museum in London. African Rhythms has been sampled or things from that album have been sampled, most recently by J. Cole, before that J Dilla.
The Dilla flip is the one that introduced me to the track.
OK and that’s one where there’s a side story. When I first heard that, I thought they had illegally sampled the track, but they later convinced me that they had re-recorded it, and it’s that version that J. Cole sampled. But when I approached J Dilla’s people about trying to get compensation from it, they said “Oh no, we didn’t illegally sample it, we gave you credits as a writer,” and I said to myself, “Well, these are just some young guys from Detroit, I’ll just let them go, I won’t collect anything from them.” I almost didn’t believe it because it was so close. Only two things, my brother, who played the bass, said: “No, that’s not me, I can tell by the vibrato, it’s somebody else that played it.” But they used verbatim my opening monologue: “These are African rhythms, passed down to us.” So I think of it as quite a tribute, and I’m so honored.
All these years later when J. Cole used it and his people came, I said: “Well, you can use it for a very low rate, just make sure I get paid for the mechanicals from the original J Dilla song.” And they did. It’s kind of a humorous story. Brings a smile to my face that the music could now be almost on its second or third incarnation.
I guess that brings it full circle. Now Again being the ones to reissue it along with Vinyl Me, Please, that’s a direct link to hip-hop’s African Rhythms indoctrination.
I think you characterized it exactly right, it’s wild, and it’s full circle, and I’m very excited about it.
Did you know that Bernie Grundman (Purple Rain, Thriller, Electric Lady Land) was gonna be the one to remaster the tapes?
Not when I initially made the deal. I didn’t realize that we’d be going that far, and I really didn’t know that we’d be going as far as we did just with the packaging and the overall care with which Now Again handled it. They worked with me, and I worked with them every step of the way, but I have to say no, I didn’t know that he would be doing the mastering. Those tapes, I’ve held for forty, fifty years. Many of those years in my garage on nice shelving, but not taken care of in the best way. But he said he got an amazing sound out of them when he went to master. We were proud that the tapes had held up as well as they did and that the original recordings were done as well as they were.
Speaking of the packaging, Black Fire’s album aesthetic is about as distinctive as its sound. Could you speak to the label’s art direction? I noticed many of the paintings are also by a Branch.
That’s my brother. He’s the bass player on African Rhythms. He’s been my bass player since my second album, Chapter 2: Nia, which is another one of the reissues. People often speak of me as if I’m sort of some Renaissance man, but my brother, Muzi, is the one with the Masters degree in Fine Art. For African Rhythms, he put the finishing touches on that painting in the van driving up to deliver it to Jimmy Gray.
The eleventh-hour special.
And the one for Space Jungle Luv, that painting we don’t have. But it was like six feet by six feet. So that was a fairly dynamic period, and Muzi was being an artist, and we were doing this music, and it was all around that same time frame, and you say it had a kind of characteristic tenor to the artwork from Black Fire, and that’s true, because we were trying to reflect the black power movement, the black arts movement, and that’s what we’re about both in terms of sound and visuals.
But also in terms of compensation, right? This 50/50 split deal seems like a common sense deal, but it wasn’t really in practice at the time. And it’s become the framework for all independent label contracts. Did you guys have a sense of how pivotal that deal structure was?
We did, but let me say this. Our position was actually a fallback position from the Strata East position. On the one hand, the standard record deal that existed from 1920 til the late ’60S was that the artist got 5-10%, the labels got 90%, and all the expenses came out of the artist’s little percentage. Strata East looked at it and actually did a much better deal than we arrived at. They created a label that was a collective and in their model, the artists paid all the recording costs, as well as the initial pressing and manufacturing costs for the first thousand records, which they then turned over to the labels to market. We would get 85% of the return, while the label kept only 15% in order to stay in business. The Black Fire model was a little bit of a modification, but actually less progressive than the Strata East model. In our model, the label paid the initial costs.
Back in those days, to take yourself into the studio and pay the initial cost of pressing a thousand records, was really not something that every musician could afford. If we had relied on the Strata East model, we wouldn’t have had the artists that we had. A group like Experience Unlimited, these were young kids, basically out of high school, college age, and they didn’t have the money to go into the studio. They were making great music, but their goal in life was to be discovered and have somebody take them into the studio. And that would’ve locked them into the old model deal of getting maybe five, seven, ten percent at most. So we said, “we’ll split the net with you 50/50.” We were trying to be as progressive as possible, but we had to try to stay in business. And most people thought that was a great deal, ’cause they had no better deal in place.
It seems like Strata East was a really good anchor for you guys.
Absolutely. I would give them lots of credit both in terms of the pioneering way, and as I understand it, they really followed in the footsteps of the label Strata which was out of Detroit. But we were all in that era together trying to work out new ways to do things that would be both fair and progressive. We were really trying to be political and cultural, if not warriors, at least pioneers. We were trying to put in practice some of the theoretics that had come in the beginning of the 1960s and 1970s. We were trying to put into practice some of those very progressive ideas.
Did that ever complicate running the label? Trying to be progressive, while weighing those options against what it actually takes to keep the thing afloat?
Yeah, and not even just at the label level, which is sort of the macro of it, but even at the micro of it. Even at the group level, that comes into play. You can have great ideals and say “This is gonna be a communal effort,” but then you have to measure that against the practicality of living in modern society. Meaning, it’s a great ideal to say we’re gonna split everything even. We can all do the best of our abilities, but then what happens when somebody takes a job and other persons are doing this keeping the thing afloat full-time? Is it fair to be equal distribution at that point? Or if one person writes all the words and writes all the songs and somebody else just plays the accompanying guitar part, is it fair to make everything equal at that point? What happens when somebody leaves the group? And somebody will surely leave, ’cause life is like that. Somebody will get married, or somebody’s mother passes. Life interferes with the theoretics.
I’m sure there are a lot of opinions on that.
Yeah, yeah. And you have to try and just deal with it.
Was there anything that you would have done differently in administering the label at the time or since?
Well, it has been documented that Jimmy and I took a different path after the first, maybe, 5 albums were released. One of our differences: I wanted to have more of my things out sooner. And so, I put out a couple of my things on a different label called Name Brand Records, including the Every Way But Loose album and track, which got a lot of traction for us. During that period I made a deal with Feature Records, which was an upcoming imprint of Buddha records. Then this DJ Larry Levan that played Paradise Garage started premiering the song in all the booths and the Buddha people came to me and said “Well, you know, we wanna release that album. It’s hot we can get you on Billboard charts and an international play.”
This was in the ’80s then?
Actually, yes. ’81 is when I recorded it. They did this in 1982. Jimmy and I still functioned. We were together, we were still partners, but I started doing my thing, on my groove, on my own label. But I sold the master outright. I didn’t make a license. I didn’t make a deal. I sold them the master.
But having x number of thousands of dollars in hand gave me a chance to do some promotional things. The work was making business happen. Surely there’s both good and bad things now, but the epilogue to that is that I have since gotten the rights back to my masters. And I put them back in my catalog.
That’s amazing. A lot of people aren’t as lucky.
The other thing I’d do differently was when I took my music and my resources and just worked with Jimmy on an administrative basis. It took some of the momentum from Black Fire. So for me, just about the whole decade of the 80’s literally lead to this thing on Black Fire.
We came back. Jimmy bought this label back to life in the 90’s, and began to reissue some of the early recordings on CD, as well as some of the others that hadn’t made it to CD. That’s sort of how we reentered. Then, unfortunately, Jimmy passed away in 1999. I bought his half of the partnership from his family. They were happy to have me take it over. At the time, none of them were involved in music at all. And that is sort of how we got to today.
It’s really funny that you mention the frustrations over projects getting delayed or, you know, other things getting prioritized. Even today, when you can release something with the click of a button, those are all very prevalent frustrations for musicians. We’ve come a long way, but not that far.
It’s still, in some ways market driven. You can have all this wonderful theoretical and ideological things that you are trying to portray and promote, but still, in a world that involves some capitalism, to say the least, markets still have a place.
Still need that hit.
Yeah, you still need a hit.
Did you ever find your self chasing one?
Yeah. Maybe everything I’ve done since African Rhythms. Maybe African Rhythms was chasing hits. Maybe African Rhythms was trying to find a way to combine my ideologies and my optimism, and my progressive Afro-centric views of how the world could be, all meshed in a way that could find some commercial success. But as Jimmy and my story, and all the other labels and all the other progressive people with their varying failures and measures successes will tell you: it required some capital to participate.
The coldest gospel.
You just can’t do it because you love. You just can’t do it because you’re Christ-like. You can’t just do it because you have some great theory of how the world should be. Until the world gets there you have to use the same banking system. Use the same dollars. In some ways, I’ve been chasing a hit ever since after the second album. A hit can be growth. I’m not trying to excuse everything, but in some instances, what you’re chasing is the wherewithal to keep going.
Okayplayer, in partnership with Vinyl Me, Please and Red Bull Music Academy, is presenting a Black Fire Art exhibit at the Okay Space in Brooklyn on Thursday May 9. It will feature a multi-media experience featuring Black Fire Records album art, paintings, photos, memorabilia, a Q&A with Plunky and Jeff “Chairman” Mao from Red Bull Music Academy and a vinyl DJ set by Egon from Now Again Records.