Best known as the R&B and jazz artist/producer behind the 1983 classic, “Juicy Fruit,” James Mtume has died—just days after he turned 76. His son, Faulu Mtume, confirmed the news to Pitchfork. No cause of death has been revealed.
James Mtume was born James Heath Jr. on Jan. 3, 1946, in Philadelphia to jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Heath, and Bertha Forman. Forman raised her son with her husband, James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist in Charlie Parker’s band. The musician introduced young James to jazz’s finest including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.
James also grew up with activist roots and moved to California in the mid-1960s. It was there he joined the Black empowerment collective, the U.S. Organization whose founder, Maulana Karenga, created Kwanzaa. James also began his recording career with early solo projects like Alkebu-Lan – Land of the Blacks. Upon returning to the East Coast, he changed his surname to Mtume and joined the jazz band belonging to McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard.
After the brief stint, Mtume later joined Miles Davis’ band for four years and by 1978, he had created a self-named genre, “sophistifunk,” in the form of a hybrid R&B-jazz ensemble with Reggie Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee. Together, Mtume (the band) released five albums: 1978’s Kiss This World Goodbye, 1980’s In Search of the Rainbow Seekers, 1983’s Juicy Fruit, 1984’s You, Me and He, and 1986’s Theater of the Mind.
“Juicy Fruit,” the single was the group’s biggest hit and was most famously sampled by the Notorious B.I.G. on his 1994 classic, “Juicy.” When the group split in the late ’80s, Mtume went on to co-write hits with Lucas like Stephanie Mills’ Grammy-winning single, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” plus Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet, “The Closer I Get To You,” and produced projects including Mary J. Blige‘s Share My World. Additionally, Mtume was an on-air radio personality for KISS 98.7 FM in New York City and composed the soundtrack for Native Son (1986).
For this rising generation of songwriters and producers, Mtume spoke on his inspirations in a 2014 interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “Things that are pure. Sound. When you hear something that makes you feel something. When you start to hear enough things, everything sounds the same, you’re numb. But then you hear that one thing that makes you go, ‘Ooh,’” he expressed. “There’s too much sameness now, man. Everything is cookie-cutter. Art was never meant to be that. Art was always meant to be the difference in the familiar, not the familiar. We selling product, man. It’s like branding. Everybody is worried about their brand. Well, worry about your music. What’s your music sound like? Am I getting through?”
When speaking on his legacy in that same conversation, he shared, “If my music has inspired anybody, the thing I would want them to be inspired to do is pick up the baton, because this race is not finished. All you need is to have your imagination excited.”
Watch the video for “Juicy Fruit” below.