Between production jobs, Mr. Mtume and Mr. Lucas recorded with their main musicians as the Mtume Band, which featured vocalist Tawatha Agee. Mr. Mtume called the group’s early albums “sophistifunk”, using lavish harmonies and elaborate orchestrations.
But one day he came to a realization. “I was playing something that felt like something else I had done,” he said. “I got up and left, and disbanded the band, and decided not to do any more productions.”
He assembled a second Mtume lineup, without Mr. Lucas, and moved towards a style he called “neo-minimalism”, using only a handful of instruments and fewer effects. The new line Mtume recorded “Juicy Fruit”. At first, Mtume’s label, Epic, dismissed the song as too slow for daytime radio, but it became a #1 R&B hit.
The title track from Mtume’s 1984 album, “You, Me and He” – a confession of polyamory – reached No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B chart. On the band’s last album, “Theater of the Mind”, released in 1986, Mtume turned to sociopolitical commentary in songs like “Deep Freeze (Rap-a-Song) (Part 1)”. That same year, he wrote the score for the film “Native Son” and produced a solo album for Ms. Agee.
In a radio interview in 1988, during an era of freewheeling hip-hop where samples were widely used without payment or credit, Mr. Mtume denounced hip-hop’s reliance on sampling, calling it ” Memorex music” and complaining that the creators were being ignored. Hip-hop group Stetsasonic responded with “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” which claimed, “Rap brings back old R&B/And if we didn’t, people might forget.”
Eventually, the sampling – then licensed and credited – would keep Mr. Mtume’s music on the radio. “Juicy Fruit” has been sampled by Alicia Keys, Warren G, Jennifer Lopez, Keyshia Cole, Faith Evans and dozens more, and many more songs and productions by Mr. Mtume have made their way onto new tracks.