Beyond ‘Juicy Fruit,’ Let’s Also Salute James Mtume’s Radio Days
James Mtume, who died Sunday at the age of 76, was one of those musicians whose career could sneak up on a listener that hadn’t paid attention.
His R&B band, Mtume, was best known for its suggestive 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit,” which topped the black singles chart for eight weeks and later was sampled — at first to Mtume’s financial displeasure — by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez.
He co-wrote, with Reggie Lucas, “The Closer I Get To You,” a hit for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, and “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” a Grammy winner for Stephanie Mils.
Before he moved into R&B Mtume had been a jazz musician, working for four years with Miles Davis and also playing on records by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath.
He eventually got weary of the music business, feeling that creativity had been supplanted by safe, repetitious commercialism and that the biz itself was unfair to artists like, say, himself. Beyond his early skirmishes over payment for sampling, he sued Sony Music and Epic Records in 2018 for the rights to “Juicy Fruit.”
But when he backed away from music, he didn’t fade out. He made another of his many marks by moving more publicly into political activism and becoming a radio talk personality, helping extend the long and underappreciated tradition of galvanizing conversation on black radio.
For years he was part of a three-man front with the late Bob Slade and Judge Bob Pickett on “Open Line” over New York station WRKS (98.7, KISS-FM). While Slade was the host, Mtume and Pickett got equal microphone time. Other guests also joined the rotation at times and that flexibility was one of its strengths, with producer Fatiyn Muhammad holding it all together.
“Open Line” ran on Sunday mornings, and as WLIB and WWRL moved away from talk formats, “Open Line” remained one of the few black talk shows in a city whose demographics suggested there was very likely room for more.
While Slade always said he was grateful to WRKS for providing the forum, he also worked hard to ensure that “Open Line” and its Sunday night black-talk bookend, “The Week in Review,” kept their foothold.
Another of the city’s most prominent black talk hosts, Imhotep Gary Byrd, said black talk radio had long served as “the drum” for the black community. While black radio was often on low-power, low-budget stations and thus flew under most of the mainstream media radar, black radio played an indispensable role in the civil rights movement and community causes.
Perhaps the most prominent example with “Open Line” was the Central Park Five case, where five young black men were jailed for a notorious rape with which they had nothing to do. Slade and Mtume, in particular, hammered relentlessly at what they saw as glaring injustice when most other media saw it as a closed story. The convictions were ultimately overturned.
On a more day-to-day basis, Mtume was an outspoken critic of Mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani’s police crackdowns seemed to disproportionately target the black community. He, Slade and Pickett tackled maintenance and crime issues in public housing. They focused on inequities in the judicial system and the lack of community representation in decisions that affected neighborhoods. They analyzed imbalances in the public school system.
They spotlighted underplayed news stories like the discovery of an African burial ground in Lower Manhattan.
At the same time, the “Open Line” hosts never positioned themselves as anti-anybody. They shared the city’s outrage and grief over September 11 and they were not reluctant to criticize black leaders they felt were on the wrong side of a given issue.
They were also known to criticize each other, respectfully. Mtume took a more militant view than Pickett on some issues, which led to sharp exchanges and in the end made the show stronger. Like the black community, a conversational talk show has no single monolithic voice.
“Open Line” also had its lighter moments and since Slade was a serious music fan, he would tap into Mtume’s background to start a discussion about some aspect of the music and entertainment industries.
Mtume, whom Slade addressed as “Tumes,” would warn young men that envisioning riches and fame as music stars — or basketball stars — was fine as a dream, but that it was critical to have a backup plan that included an education.
Mtume himself never came across as a musician who happened to have a few random opinions on the world. He was a political activist back to the late 1960s and he would often face ideological opponents in one-on-one debates. He was well-read and articulate on a wide range of subjects, underscoring that he took seriously the meaning of the Swahili name he adopted: “messenger.”
As skilled as he was playing keyboard on records. James Mtume was equally skilled on radio as the drum.