James Mtume Remembered: 5 Songs That Perfectly Captured ‘Sophistafunk’

We honor the late jazz and funk musician best known for making us dance.

In an update to the sad news about James Mtume’s passing, it was confirmed by his publicist Angelo Ellerbee that the cause of his death was cancer.

The Philadelphia R&B, jazz, and funk experimentalist was born to musical royalty and was known for his unique brand of expression that led to hits for Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and even The Notorious B.I.G.

Mtume’s father, Jimmy Heath, a South Philly jazz saxophonist who died in 2020 at 93, encouraged his son to begin playing music at the age of 10. According to a chat with the Inquirer during that same year, Mtume would pick out R&B hits on the piano and eventually landed his first professional gig in 1968 in Los Angeles, playing percussion for Leon “Ndugu” Chanceler.

After moving to California, Mtume, then known as James Forman, attended Pasadena City College, where he met Maulana Karenga (who created the holiday Kwanzaa) and changed his name to Mtume, which is Swahili for “messenger.” This led him to join the Black empowerment group the US Organization and from that moment on he sprinkled knowledge of self and positive rhetoric into his music.

RELATED: R&B Trailblazer James Mtume Reportedly Dead at Age 75

Davis, who happened to see his performance at the Village Vanguard in the 1970s, loved his work and hired him as a percussionist. Mtume would play with him for five years, crafting an experimental jazz fusion album called On the Corner, and took his exploratory ethos to heart, sharing that he studied at “M.D. University,” when referring to his enhanced musical education.

Mtume’s fame would expand into the pop and R&B world after forming his own namesake group — Mtume, adding guitarist Reggie Lucas, who died in 2018, and lead singer Tawatha Agee. The trio would go on to write and produce for a number of artists in a style Mtume called “sophistafunk,” including the likes of Mary J. Blige, Teddy Pendergrass, and Detroit’s own Inner City.

Forever an advocate for young musicians, James Mtume never shied away from defining and redefining originality.

To honor his legendary impact, proudly shares a few songs that perfectly captured the sonic fingerprints he left behind for the next generation to enjoy.

“Black Love” by Carlos Garnett

The great Carlos Garnett switched things up for his 1974 release, titled Black Love, adding Mtume’s signature congas style on the title track. Featuring lead vocals from Ayodele Jenkins and background riffs from the incomparable Dee Dee Bridgewater, “Black Love” is an essential and eccentric number, that highlighted how impressionable Mtume’s sophistafunk was becoming in tight-knit social circles.

“Astral Traveling” by Lonnie Liston Smith

A hallowed improviser in his own right, Lonnie Liston Smith’s music has been called “spiritual jazz” alongside Pharoah Sanders’s work, due to the rich, meditative aesthetic and religious concepts incorporated into his work. The 1973 effort from the debut album of the same name found Mtume as part of a cohesive band that helped Smith develop a wealth of brilliant ideas, with “Astral Traveling” eventually becoming a rewarding listen for those looking for headier grooves to play.

“You Know How to Love Me” by Phyllis Hyman

Described as a “relaxing, pleasant, and easy listen,” by Allmusic, Phyllis Hyman’s You Know How to Love Me album from 1979 was an example of how to expertly use her amazing voice. Produced by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, with the former also on keyboards, percussion, and backing vocals, the title song may have never reached the masses, but it grew into a certified classic that was covered by artists such as Lisa Stansfield and Robin S

If you wanted to ever know how sophistafunk broke into the top ten R&B charts, all you had to do was play this single and watch the dancefloor turn into a joyous bash.

“Never Knew Love Like This Before” by Stephanie Mills

Most audiophiles will recall seeing Stephanie Mills perform this massive hit as part of DJ Cassidy’s Pass The Mic series. But back in 1980, the Mtume-and-Lucas-written R&B hit appeared on Mills’ fourth studio album, Sweet Sensation, and won Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 1981 Grammy Awards. Inspired by the birth of Mtume’s niece and Lucas’ daughter, Lisa, the sophistafunk-tastic song would live on in pop culture infamy as part of the second season of FX’s Pose, performed by Candy (Angelica Ross).

“Juicy Fruit” by MTUME

Written by James Mtume as the lead-off single from his band’s third album, also titled Juicy Fruit, the mid-tempo groove is arguably the penultimate song in their catalog. Immensely successful, “Juicy Fruit” reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart and would go on to become an essential hip hop sample, imbuing works by Alicia Keys, The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, and others with sophistafunk-y sound that will forever be a well-known hit.

Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.

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