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Breaks With Tradition: “Nautilus”

Breaks With Tradition is a Stereogum column that examines a certain song that’s been frequently sampled and how that song has been used through the years.

There are a lot of ways I wish I could use time travel to fuck with people on a trivial but entertaining basis. Maybe nothing so cruel as sending a Mets fan in 1986 a ghostly warning to enjoy it while it lasts, or anything based around the whole stomach-turning guess who our President is situation, but just silly little things about unexpected changes in the cultural winds. Like informing someone watching a brand-new episode of Taxi in 1978 that the guy who wrote and performed the cheerful smooth-jazz theme song became a pivotal component of a looming movement of transformative black American music. Then they’ll realize I’m a music critic and probably beat me up and throw me out on to the street, but time travel’s always had its risks.

Anyways, Bob James: side-eyed by jazz purists in the ’70s for a pop-friendly and occasionally frothy form of fusion that ranged from gloriously bombastic kitsch funk to windswept orchestral toes-in-the-sand demi-disco to the ideal soundtrack for a night of burglary in Malibu, the keyboardist/composer regained favor for a lot of the same reasons the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan have: a level of now-elusive sophisticated smoothness that translates surprisingly well to hip-hop reinterpretation.

James was a popular DJ selection because his pop-chart omnipresence was just notable enough that his stuff was easy to find (often in cut-out bins), and also because he had the habit of hiring the kind of tight session players — like Steve Gadd, session drummer extraordinaire — who were well-adapted to perform metronomically enough that their work made for seamless extended break loops. And while the opening percussive bell-rocking salvo of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is an all-time classic, “Nautilus” might be Bob James’ most astonishing work of b-boy bait, with or without hip-hop’s role in taking its profile to the next level. Master turntablist Cut Chemist got more than two hours out of it a while back, but for now, let’s look at just a few pivotal points in its evolution.

The Original: Bob James, “Nautilus” (from One, CTI, 1974; no single released; album peaked at #2 Billboard Jazz Albums, #48 Top Soul Albums, #85 Pop Albums)

If you’re a millennial and you’re worried that you still haven’t made it, keep in mind that Bob James didn’t write and perform the song that became his first omnipresent sample standard until he was 35. Granted, he got an early cosign from Quincy Jones in the ’60s that he developed into a string of gigs doing arrangements for the likes of Grover Washington Jr. and Stanley Turrentine, and he didn’t have to worry about crushing student debt or unaffordable housing, but still, dare to dream. “Nautilus” made for a strong early impression as the closer from James’ first solo album, appropriately titled One. (After Two, Three, and BJ4, he got more creative; his sixth album, the one with the Taxi theme on it, was called Touchdown.) Named after a sound in the synthesizer intro that reminded producer Creed Taylor of a submerging submarine, “Nautilus” is so complex and restless that it sounds like it involves more musicians than it actually does. But aside from the string section, it’s really just a trio — James on keyboard, Gary King on bass, and Idris Muhammad (yep, that one) on drums.

And every member of that trio wound up becoming a big part of the success of “Nautilus” in sample-based music. For James, a couple different melodic fragments from that opening synthesizer have laced dozens of beats, as well as the stuttering keyboard refrain at around the 52-second mark. Gary King’s bassline is the most directly, instantly recognizable part of the song, and the first element of the song to really catch on as a loop (as we’ll find out shortly). And Muhammad’s drums are a crucial reason the track was picked up in the first place — crisp, steady, and stuffed with great fills, with a pivotal stretch where it’s isolated and left sparsely adorned with a couple of stray synth riffs (just after the 3:30 mark).

“Nautilus” was thrown onto One as a last-minute addition and left at the end of the album, where the group figured it’d languish in such a low-profile Side 2 slot that nobody would notice it. (Among other concerns, the placing on original vinyl pressings would mean that the grooves would be narrower than the ones at the beginning of the side, which would ostensibly reduce the quality of the bass tones.) But since it was also an opportunity for Bob James and his trio to actually cut loose and relax, you can really hear all the idiosyncratic flourishes and ideas that made the song so distinct. And instead of becoming a throwaway, hip-hop producers caught on that, like “A Day In The Life” on Sgt. Pepper’s and “Fame” on Young Americans, “Nautilus” was one of those cases where the sequencing left the best for last.

The First Sample: Ultramagnetic MC’s, “Bait” (12″ acetate, Next Plateau, 1986)

“Nautilus” was such a hit in hip-hop block parties and DJ sets that the studio bands who backed rappers in the pre-sample era spent nearly five years putting their own spin on it before anyone ran it through an SP-12. Among the replayed interpolations of “Nautilus” were Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s “Doing The Do” in ’82, Rockmaster Scott And The Dynamic Three’s “It’s Life (You Gotta Think Twice)” in ’83, and Greg Nice of Nice & Smooth’s early beatboxing appearance with Nasty Comedians, “Take A Bath,” in ’85. (Though the interpolations didn’t stop once sampling caught on, as the most famous replay is still the one on Slick Rick’s 1988 classic “Children’s Story” where the bassline is transposed to piano.)

By 1987, the actual sample was everywhere, from Staten Island vet Lord Shafiyq’s first single “My Mic Is On Fire” to Ice-T’s Rhyme Pays deep cut “409”. But recognition must be given to this legendary Kool DJ Red Alert promo by Ultramagnetic MC’s — cut as an acetate in ’86, officially released the following year as part of the Red Alert Goes Berserkcompilation, and not fully restored until the 2004 remaster of Critical Beatdown, at which point it had earned years’ worth of Holy Grail status among hip-hop heads. It’s a raw slab of early-sample-era greatness, back when a beatmaker like Ced-Gee was doing things with a sampler that nobody else knew about, and the fact that it’s juxtaposed with brief but recognizable snatches of other break standards like Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution” and Cerrone’s “Rocket In The Pocket” was just rubbing it in, history-wise.

The Early Sample: Run-D.M.C., “Beats To The Rhyme” (from Tougher Than Leather, Profile, 1988)

In the first decade of hip-hop as a major force in popular music, all it took was two years to separate “biggest thing in the world” and “necessary self-reinvention.” Things moved fast, and just as “Sucker M.C.’s (Krush-Groove 1)” drew a line in the sand between post-disco uptempo old school and drum-machine mid-tempo new school in ’83, the crews that sprung up between 1986’s Raising Hell and 1988’s Tougher Than Leather were making their own claims. Think of all the hip-hop acts that emerged just in that short span — there’s Ultramagnetic MC’s, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, and EPMD, to say nothing of those West Coast upstarts like N.W.A — and you can see why not even a theatrically released quasi-blaxploitation action flick was enough to keep Run-D.M.C. at the top of the hip-hop world.

But they still came away with at least one sign that they were capable of hanging with the new stars of the late ’80s golden era: “Beats to the Rhyme,” co-produced by Run-D.M.C. and Davy DMX, rolls off a couple bars of the Idris Muhammad drum break and the hypnotic two-note James riff that goes with it, a respite from their rock-crossover material that winds up sounding like the hardest-hitting thing on the album. Who knows what would’ve happened if this was pushed as their main direction instead of rock-throwback schmutz like their Monkees remake “Mary, Mary” — maybe the attempted hardcore reconnection of 1990’s Back from Hell wouldn’t feel too-little-too-late.

The Breakthrough Sample: Ghostface Killah, “Daytona 500″ (from Ironman, Epic, 1996)

I don’t think you need me to tell you that “Daytona 500″ fucking goes: it’s the RZA having a blast with a classic break even as he’s doing his best to salvage Ghostface’s first solo record from the devastation of his beat-archive-destroying 1995 studio flood. (His best gave us Ironman, so yeah, he succeeded.) It’s got Ghost and Raekwon doing the most thrilling post-Cuban Linx victory lap imaginable and Cappadonna spitting the verse of his life, with enough power to go beyond that titular 500 miles all the way through to some Rolex 24 Hours worth of endurance in a roaring Porsche 962.

It all comes together better than any of the other dozens’ worth of “Nautilus” beats, and not just because RZA’s got this remarkable ear for subtle juxtaposition in even the hardest-hitting moments (notice how he captured a snippet of that familiar bass riff from the middle of the track, around 3:17, right at the point where a subtle but suspenseful portion of the string section undergirds it). It’s because everybody on the mic — including the Force M.D.’s and their “Turn the Beat Around” homage of a hook — sounds like they were actually dosed by the production, and are in simultaneous competition and synthesis with the beat itself.

The Weirdo Sample: Alias, “Am I Cool Now?” (from Muted, Anticon, 2003)

Producer/rapper Brendon “Alias” Whitney’s death earlier this year at the age of 41 feels like one of the quieter yet deeper tragedies of independent music this year. Anticon, the independent label that Alias co-founded with six other musicians in 1998, first came into its own at a time when anything that experimental and abstract in hip-hop was deeply and mercilessly scrutinized for credibility gaps, and their early output remains relatively underrated today — go back and bump Deep Puddle Dynamics’ The Taste Of Rain… Why Kneel or any of Odd Nosdam’s haunting zero-fi beat tapesif you want a proper dose of how strikingly, compellingly bizarre their early catalog can still sound. (Then cop everything Serengeti and Baths put out later on to get a notion of how well the label’s done for itself in the ’10s.)

Alias has generally felt like one of the more understated members of the roster, in that he’s always seemed a bit more low-key and restrained compared to the likes of Sage Francis’s and Why?’s intensely confessional indie-crossover moves. His earlier records revealed someone not so much a revolutionary iconoclast than an artist emphasizing the personal in the familiar, though the evolution you can hear over later albums like Fever Dream and Pitch Black Prism revealed some post-genre brilliance that seeped into ambient and future bass turf with the ear of someone who was secretly always ahead of the curve. That makes “Am I Cool Now?” such a weird experience to listen to now: boom, here’s a maniacally chopped, two-ton-force blow-up of a well-worn break, enjoy it, dammit — and feel free to snicker at the cartoon kid voice scowling, like so many early bloggers and messageboard warriors before him, at how fake Anticon is (“They’re only popular on the internet… it’s just stupid nerd rap”).

The Recent Sample: Maxo Kream ft. D. Flowers, “Go” (from Punken, Kream Clicc, 2018)

The wild thing about “Nautilus” is that it still gets sampled by everybody, and in pretty close stylistic quarters. The opening synthesizer figure is one of its most frequently-looped bits, and even in the last couple years, when sampling has taken a backseat to original compositions in mainstream post-Southern-takeover hip-hop, you can get these waves where you’ll get the same notions across a few different tracks.

Less than a year before Maxo Kream spit “Go” off a Mitch Mula & Drumline-concocted trap beat that turned that pendulum-swing riff into a crawling speaker-rattler, the same trick was pulled in Chris Travis’s “Drive”, Night Skinny’s “On Tour,” and Boysindahood’s “Tili” — almost like “Nautilus” was as much a meme as it was a break. I’ll give “Go” the nod through recency bias, but getting to hear such a vintage break maintain its impact in such a timely form of hip-hop across so many different regions and continents is pretty damn remarkable.

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