True Blue and truly the best

Jazz singer José James on his hip-hop roots and his move to the Blue Note label


The step-up to Blue Note must have been a proud moment for you
It was a dream come true. Blue Note is everyone’s favourite classic jazz label and it’s exciting to bring something fresh to the legacy. I think Blue Note is making the transition from the best historic jazz label to actually just one of the best labels around right now. I was always into Blue Note. For me, it was kind of an extension of hip-hop. I had the CDs, they had all the samples clearances and that fascinated me. That’s how I got into Joe Henderson, Thelonius Monk, and all that kind of stuff. I knew Blue Note was going to be the right home for the new album. It’s not necessarily a jazz album, but it’s not pure r’n’b either and it’s still with jazz musicians.

It’s obvious from listening to your music that hip-hop is a huge influence on your work

It’s what I grew up with. I remember a time when hip-hop just exploded for me with Ice Cube, Beastie Boys, Pharcyde, Cypress Hill, Digable Planets, De La Soul. It’s natural for me to have a hip-hop vibe to the music, it’s in the air. You have people like Robert Glasper and we dig hip-hop because it’s what we grew up on. It’s not a big statement, it’s just natural. I don’t know if we’re all thinking about it so much. The younger generation of jazz musicians are collaborating more, using hip-hop or soul or r’n’b so there’s a lot of overlapping circles. Sadly, though, you still get a lot of jazz people who just listen to jazz and a lot of hip-hop people who just listen to hip-hop, and there’s not a lot of crossover there.

Some audiences, though, are more advanced in their thinking?
People are always a lot smarter and more open than we think, and that’s the spirit that I made this album in. My goal was always to connect to an open crowd.

There’s a really organic sound and feel to
No Beginning, No End . Was that the plan from the outset?
I was really interested in how the musicians played together and the rhythms they produced. The instrumental part of it was really interesting to me because I wanted to bring hip-hop and r’n’b together and do complex harmonic things on top. I was looking at how D’Angelo and J Dilla and Marvin Gaye and Al Green did it.

I didn’t want to simply recreate what they did but I think there was scope to explore what they had done in a modern setting. I wanted to show all sides of myself and the range of different styles and influences that I have, so working with all the fantastic musicians on there really helped me bring out a lot of different styles.

You worked with Flying Lotus in the past. Did you enjoy that experience?

He came at the right time for me because I didn’t want to do another jazz album after The Dreamer . I met him in London via Gilles Peterson. I gave him all the tracks I had done for Blackmagic just to see what he thought, and he thought we should do something. We started making a lot of tracks for fun, basically, and I thought it was really interesting and something I should pursue. You have to let go of limitations. I think it’s really refreshing to try something totally different. You should always be challenging yourself, that’s how you get better.

What comes next for you?
I’d like to get into production more, a lot more layering of sounds. I think that’s where jazz and r’n’b haven’t really caught up to where indie rock is. I think that’d be a really interesting idea in a jazz or soul context. Also, I’d like to collaborate more. There’s definitely some artists I’d like to work with, not jazz artists but artists who are really individual. I think we could do something interesting together.