African Rhythms: Mid-70s Jazz, Funk, and Spiritual Sounds from the iconic Black Fire labelAfrican Rhythms: Mid-70s Jazz, Funk, and Spiritual Sounds from the iconic Black Fire label


African Rhythms: Mid-70s Jazz, Funk, and Spiritual Sounds from the iconic Black Fire label

The spirit of Black Fire is still burning. The record label was founded in 1975 by saxophonist James "Plunky" Branch (of Oneness of Juju) and local DJ and record promoter Jimmy Gray. Together they revolutionized a new way to run their label, with fairness for artists at its very core. Up to this day, producers including J Dilla, Diamond D, Madlib, and J. Cole all sampled Black Fire's music, which is a testament to the longevity of their spiritual jazz, funk, and Afrocentric grooves. That timelessness is also evident through the contagious enthusiasm James "Plunky" Branch evokes in this interview with Tracklib.


Danny Veekens


May 25, 2023

The music of Black Fire seems to live on through different cycles. The original releases in the 70s, Larry Levan remixing the music in the early 80s and playing it in his legendary DJ sets at Paradise Garage, hip-hop producers sampling the music throughout the 90s up till today… And that brings us to 2023 with new reissues by Strut Records.

Oh, it's so wonderful… I have goosebumps even contemplating that concept of cycles and the world continuing to spin, and characteristics spiraling forward. This idea of circles and a spiral implies going around and round, but it also implies moving forward. So I'm extremely excited and gratified by that.

But let me share something I haven't shared much in the past. From the beginning, I always felt there was a future for the music that I was making. From the early days when we recorded A Message From Mozambique [in 1972], I was into documenting that process. I always had a feeling it'd have an impact on the future.

I once met Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records at a music conference, and he told me: "It's better to be ahead of your time. That way you can still be around to tell people 'I told you so.'" So I'm taking that by heart. I'm still here trying to create things for the future.

African percussion was at the core of your group, Oneness of Juju. Decades later, hip-hop producers like J Dilla reinvented rhythm in their own way. Do you see that as a lineage of what you were doing with Black Fire in the 70s?

I see the rhythm aspect of sampling as an extension of what we learn from traditional rhythms from Africa, Cuba, Brazil… The way those rhythms are constructed, beat by beat, is not too dissimilar from what people do when they sample or take a piece of the rhythm. That may involve several beats or measures, put together with other beats. So in a sense, [beatmaking] is like creating and layering polyrhythms: different rhythms playing at once. Sampling gets right at the heart of that: it creates new rhythms out of traditional rhythms.

Do you remember the first time you heard your music being sampled?

I have a big smile on my face again as I have to talk about this. Back in the 90s, I was in a local record store. They were playing a track with the bassline from one of the songs off Juju's A Message of Mozambique. I went to the guy behind the counter to ask what he was playing, and he told me it was a brand new record by a guy called Big Pun. ["My Turn"]

The second story I have is about J Dilla, who just released a record called Welcome 2 Detroit. Someone sent me the CD to notify me about his version of "African Rhythms." They had reproduced the song so closely, I thought they had sampled it! I went to my brother Philip Branch [a.k.a. Muzi Nkabinde] who played the bass on that song, but he immediately could tell by the vibrato that it was somebody else playing the bassline.

That's why I didn't pursue that. I thought they were just some young guys from Detroit. No big deal. The record won't go anywhere…

[Laughs] Well, we all know how that played out! Speaking of which, decades later, J. Cole and producer Ron Gilmore also used "African Rhythms" for a song on 4 Your Eyez Only—but they used Jay Dee's version.

They ended up paying me money, so that means I was indirectly getting paid from J Dilla's version through J. Cole's song. More recently, rapper Logic sampled the intro of our second album, Chapter Two: Nia, for "Kickstyle" on his album Vinyl Days.

black fire oneness of juju sampling

"I see the rhythm aspect of sampling as an extension of what we learn from traditional rhythms from Africa, Cuba, Brazil… The way those rhythms are constructed, beat by beat, is not too dissimilar from what people do when they sample or take a piece of the rhythm."

—James "Plunky" Branch

I saw a photo on Instagram shared by Jamal Gray, the son of Black Fire co-founder Jimmy Gray. The photo showed Kanye West digging in a record store, holding a copy of Experience Unlimited's Free Yourself. Smiling and showing the record to everyone. What's it like to still inspire artists like him to this day with the music released on Black Fire?

To me, that validates what we were trying to do back then. It even validates creating Afrofuturism before we even knew what that was or before the term even existed. Black Fire always had a Black music orientation to what we were doing.

So if we have anything that demonstrates we were ahead of our time, that we were doing something positive for the community, and lastly, that the music finds relevance for other musicians that, truthfully, have an even bigger impact than we… That shows the music grew beyond our limited scope, reach, and capabilities as Black Fire.

When you affect people like J Dilla, Kanye West, KRS-One, or J. Cole—that speaks loudly!

With Black Fire, you were also pioneering a new way of running a label. Such as fair splits for artists—similar to Strata-East—which was an innovative model back in the 70s. What struck me is that to have Black Fire's music on Tracklib now, fits that history, in a way.

Black Fire was one of the first indie labels early that set out to try to be fair. Fairness was one of our creeds, so the idea of Tracklib is exciting to continue that process. Because it does continue the concept of fairness and innovating ways to do business; to not be trapped in a singular old-style operational capability. So that's gratifying.

You can't see my camera now, but I have a big smile on my face as I talk about this! I'm always eager and happy to do new things. I strive to be ahead of the curve. Even at this age, I'm still trying to carve out ways to do that.

It's inspiring to hear your son, Jamiah "Fire" Branch and Jamal Gray embark on their own paths in music. In which way do you hear the legacy of Black Fire in their work as producers and musicians?

In the case of my son Jamiah "Fire" Branch, he literally samples some of the music on Black Fire. So he's directly using the label's legacy. Ten or twenty years ago, I gave him permission to use my recordings. That brings us to the music that was made available on Tracklib. A lot of those songs are second-generation samples. Jamiah sampled some of our music, put new beats to them, and incorporated rhythms with those samples, and thus new songs were created. Reconstituted and now made available for sampling again.

In the case of Jamal, he's into creating totally new music, just like his father Jimmy Gray was. He uses samples and layers of samples quite extensively. But his orientation tends to be more like free jazz. He's not so beat-centered—his orientation is not so much to make people dance, but to make people think and feel just like jazz musicians do.

Together, Jamiah and Jamal capture what Jimmy Gray and I were doing with Black Fire. The concept of jazz music as something that's introspective and something to make you think. As well as the concept of Black dance music.

oneness of juju james plunky branch

"To me, working with [their] samples wasn't too different from improvising. It's what I've always done. Improvisation is when I do my best work."

—James "Plunky" Branch

Does listening to their work bring you new ideas as a musician as well?

That's a supreme understatement! I am totally inspired by what they do. In fact, I rely on them and other producers to give me new ideas and sparks. Their music is part of the reason I think I stay young. They inspire me tremendously. In the case of Jamal, we did a whole ten albums worth of songs. Jamiah, very similarly, he and I have made entire albums together. One album in particular, which is available on Tracklib, came from a record called Plunky On Fire—"Fire" is his nickname. It's me, Plunky, performing over his tracks.

Jamiah inspired me to approach things differently, such as when he took a song like "Be About The Future" my brother Muzi wrote, originally off 1977's Bush Brothers & Space Rangers. Jamiah looped a sample of that to create a new groove. That inspired me to treat the words "am I playing?" in a very futuristic way. The original funky, reggae-type song was always about the future. But with new sounds created by sampling in a new way, made me play in a Sun Ra type of style over the track.

So in a sense, collaborating with them wasn't new to you? More so a continuation of your work with Black Fire?

I've always been largely an improviser. For me, my music was always avant-garde, arrhythmic. My group [Oneness of] Juju was kind of different in that way. The free jazz players often play free time or timeless; they wanted to suspend time. Whereas my group Juju was rhythmically locked-in. Using African polyrhythms but locked in with all the grooves. So to me, working with samples wasn't too different from improvising. It's what I've always done. Improvisation is when I do my best work.

That's also what makes the catalog of Black Fire so rich for producers to dig into for samples.

Absolutely. They can find what I'd call 'indie funk' or 'gritty basement, bedroom, garage funk and grooves.' I say those words because some of the music was recorded in studios. But much of the music was recorded in home studios just like the people who are likely to sample are doing right now themselves. So they will find grooves that are ready-made with an analog sound.

I don't want to shut anybody out, but I think Black Fire's catalog is largely made for producers who make hip-hop, pop, R&B, and funk. I'm very interested and eager to hear what the Tracklib community is going to come up with and what they are going to discover.

Black Fire's music is indeed very percussive with crazy grooves. That also showed when deejay Larry Levan started playing your music in the iconic Paradise Garage club—the music works on the dancefloor.

Exactly. As far back as the early 70s, it was always about making people dance. I'm not a singular artist myself, so you get free jazz, introspective music, contemporary jazz… But a lot of it was meant to be dance music. The lyrics on "African Rhythms" express just that: "African rhythms make you clap your hands / African rhythms make you dance." So for the next fifty years, it's hopefully going to do just that through the work of the Tracklib community.

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