Few bands dominated the R&B charts in the 70s and 80s like Kool & the Gang. The group emerged from jazz beginnings in Jersey City in the 60s to become one of the heaviest and most successful funk bands on the planet, scoring massive hits like “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Higher Plane” that relied mostly on fat horn riffs, deep grooves, and the ingenious bass lines of group leader Robert “Kool” Bell. The band was essentially instrumental at the time, employing little more than chants and soulful exhortations. Working with the Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato in 1979, the band brought in a real singer in James “J.T.” Taylor and reinvigorated itself for another decade of hits, including the all-time wedding party anthem “Celebration.” Kool is interviewed by Wayne Montana, whose nimble, complex bass patterns form the musical backbone of the Eternals. He also leads and plays guitar in I Kong Kult. —Peter Margasak
That riff of all time, the “Jungle Boogie” riff, has been in my mind since I was a little kid. How did that happen? Let me give you a little, quick story. Our record company at the time wanted us to get with a producer—the guy that was responsible for Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango. We said, “Hey, we can do our own thing. Why do we have to have a producer?” We went to a rehearsal hall that evening and started jamming. That night we wrote “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Funky Stuff.” After that the record company didn’t give us any pressure anymore.
There’s a clip on YouTube of you guys performing on an old TV show called The Midnight Special. You guys are wearing these incredible suits. They all have these superwide lapels with raised black typing on them. Of course, you have the baddest one, the bright yellow one. Any recollection of that suit? Yeah, that was a designer, a guy who was out of Jamaica but lived in Harlem. He came up with those bright colors, the whole Jamaican festival-bright look.
You guys have written so many great classic funk and soul tunes, and because of that have been sampled many, many times by hip-hop groups. How do you feel about that? We feel pretty good about it now. At one time we weren’t getting any dough from it because people were just taking ideas and sampling. And then when they passed a law where you have to get sample clearance, the record companies wouldn’t put them out unless they got sample clearance—and if not they have to pay a portion of the song to the writers of the sample.
So you guys feel like you’ve been treated fairly? Yeah, it lends creativity to some of these artists, like Will Smith with “Summertime,” using “Summer Madness.” I think that’s his biggest record to date. And you have Diddy, at that time Puffy, with “Hollywood Swinging,” Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Madonna. Janet took a little part of this here and there.
I know a little bit about your older style, when you were mixing more jazz influence into the music. I was very inspired by that as a young guy. Did you feel like you had to change with the times and leave the jazz vibe behind, go more into funk? When we started playing jazz back in the 60s, we weren’t doing straight-up, straight-ahead jazz. We would do cover songs, people like Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner. Those guys would be around in Jersey City playing on the weekends. My brother was influenced by John Coltrane and our saxophone player was into Cannonball Adderley and I was inspired by Ron Carter. We started by backing these groups in Jersey City, and we ended up getting the name the Soul Town Band, because we were the band for the Soul Town Review. Now the Soul Town Review had maybe about 15 or 16 artists and we would have to learn these songs, and the songs were all Motown hits, so the Soul Town Review was like the Motown Review in Jersey City. When we did the set by ourselves, we would do an instrumental version of some of these Motown hits, like “Since I Lost My Baby” or “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep.” We would do a jazz/funk version because we didn’t have the singers. That developed into the Kool & the Gang sound. That was the late 60s. In the 70s, we had songs like “Sea of Tranquility” and “Breeze & Soul” and “Chocolate Buttermilk” and “Raw Hamburgers.” And then we had to back up a little bit on the style because we had to make room for a lead singer. Our producer at the time, Eumir Deodato, said, “Hey, you’ve got a singer in the group now, so you can’t put all those riffs in there. You gotta work around.” And he was very clever in what he did in producing us with “Ladies’ Night” and some of the other stuff in the 80s.
How do you feel about this little trip you’re doing with Van Halen? It’s been quite interesting. We’ve been out for about two weeks. Tomorrow’s our 12th show. David [Lee Roth] was telling me he saw us perform last year at the Glastonbury Music Festival, and when he was getting back together with Eddie and Alex Van Halen he said to Live Nation, “Hey, I’d like to have Kool & the Gang open up for us.” I guess they was wondering, “What’s going on with that?”
So David Lee Roth was pulling for you guys? Yeah, he said, “I saw ’em and I think they’re the perfect fit.” They were the rock party band of the 80s and we were the rock funk band of the 80s. He said, “We did ‘Jump,’ you did ‘Celebration.’ Let’s go out and have a party.”
So have you had any hangout time with them? Backstage, at sound checks. We chitchat a little bit. When we rehearsed out in LA, we had a little more time because we were putting our shows together. But yeah, we’re having a good time. One review said it was it was ridiculous to have Kool & the Gang and Van Halen, but it was ridiculously awesome.