Not content with having the world’s foremost soul music site, David Nathan and his team now turn their attention to revisiting long since forgotten and timeless classics from the soul vaults with the launch of their aptly named SoulMusic.com imprint. They begin by dipping into the catalogue of Mtume – the nom de plume of James Mtume and songwriting partner Reggie Lucas - and feature three of the act’s five albums for Epic. The group’s 1978 debut, “Kiss This World Goodbye” is backed with their sophomore release “In Search Of The Rainbow Seekers” on the first double set, while the free-standing “Theater Of The Mind”, from 1986, would prove the last release by the collective.
Hailing from Philadelphia, James Mtume was raised in a musical family where his father and uncles played professionally as the Heath Brothers. It came as no surprise that he too would follow in their footprints, initially working as a percussionist along side jazz giants Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and ultimately Miles Davis. As guitarist in Davis’ band Mtume played alongside a young Reggie Lucas, the two bonded instantly with a magical writing chemistry that would in time see the two pen a string of hit songs for Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (“The Closer I Get To You” and “Back Together Again”), and Phyllis Hyman (“You Know How To Love Me”), additionally adding to the catalogues of Stephanie Mills, Lou Rawls and Gary Bartz.
With a recording deal on the table “Kiss This World Goodbye” was a mixture of P-Funk influenced jams, percussive Africa rhythms and soul-drenched ballads. Centred around vocalist Tawatha Agee (who would later record and tour extensively with Luther Vandross) she quickly shun - the spin chilling “Closer To The End” and her reading of “The Closer I Get To You” perfectly showcased the immerging talent. The funkier side of the album included the bumping “Funky Constellation”, “Metal Flake Mind” (closely influenced by the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23”) and the gritty “Just Funnin’”, itself not a million miles removed from Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam”.
By the time the group cut their sophomore set their sound was considerably more refined - the rawer funk of their debut taking a backseat to the smoother polished soul grooves of the new decade. “So You Wanna Be A Star”, the opus’ standout, and still a highly collectible to this day is now considered a true boogie classic: a sublime midtempo gem fusing soulful grooves, uplifting lyrics, and unforgettable hooks harking back to the hedonistic days of disco. The set also housed the group’s first top 30 R&B single in “Give It On Up (If You Want To)” - another midtempo shuffler picking up on the sound that group’s like Aurra, Starpoint and Skyy where enjoying crossover success with. “You Can't Wait For Love” and “She’s A Rainbow Dancer” two further great examples of the early ‘80s boogie sound. The fact that the album featured back up from the likes of Luther Vandross, Gwen Guthrie, Hubert Eaves III (D-Train) and Brenda White, only underscored the growing importance of the act and signalled the greatness that would follow.
James Mtume credits Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” with opening the door for a song like “Juicy Fruit” to break radio. The lyrics of the group’s chart topping ballad from 1983 did cause some controversy, but that only fuelled the public’s interest in the infectious and mildly risqué lyrical content. The same rules applied to their 1984 tale of infidelity, “You, Me And He”. After the success of the respective albums of the same name, the group returned to the studio in 1986 to record what would prove to be their final album, “Theater Of The Mind”.
With Lucas having left in the early-‘80s to pursue a successful writing career (Madonna one of the beneficiaries), “Theater Of The Mind” adhered to the mid-‘80s sound prevalent in R&B at the time. Synthesized drums were the order of the day with crisp beats borrowed from the Jam & Lewis school of production that had helped make Janet Jackson and the SOS Band household names of the era. Less-was-most-definitely-more with the stripped and stark “P.O.P. Generation” elevated to single status; the equally neo-minimalistic “Breathless” and “Body & Soul (Take Me)” perfectly dovetailing where “Juicy Fruit” had left off. Their reading of Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You” a fitting compliment to the featured bassist on the album, while Tyrone Brunson (of “The Smurf” fame) did his best Kurtis Blow impersonation on the socio-political “Deep Freeze”.
Three decades on, like much of Mtume’s work, it’s fair to say that the group were ahead of their time. Their blend of sexually charged slow jams, politically edgy lyrics and commentary on the world of their day is as relevant today as it were insightful at the time.
Ratings: 7, 8 and 8 respectively
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.