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.
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.
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…
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.
"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
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!
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.
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
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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