From the chills of New York emerged the man whose name is rinsed and repeated through the ages of music. After a week tracking him down, the first words from Roy Ayers are “I’m still cooking!” By Rip Nicholson.
American jazz-funk composer and vibraphonist Roy Ayers holds a unique sphere of influence on a new generation of musicians as perhaps the most sampled artist in music. So much so that a documentary (The Roy Ayers Project) is in development featuring a swag of hip hop artists who regularly dig through crates for the all-time legend’s work.
With such an insane back catalogue (upwards of 70 albums if you include his collaborative works), there’s plenty of material to work with, and when asked just how he feels about the continued prominence of his recordings in today’s sonic landscape, the enormity of the journey is not lost on the Godfather of acid jazz. “It’s been a long ride. You have no idea how really…” Ayers pauses, somewhat lost for the words to express his gratitude. “It’s such a wonderful feeling when people are sampling your music, it makes me feel so good.”
His signature hit, 1976’s Everybody Loves The Sunshine, from the album of the same name, was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios. Since, the single has been so popular in the hip hop community that Whosampled.com counts it as being reused by artists in a whopping 117 songs. These include: Wake Up (Reprise In The Sunshine) by Brand Nubian, Common’s Book Of Life, Funkdoobiest’s Dedicated, and My Life by Dr Dre, not to mention Mos Def, Naughty By Nature, PM Dawn, Masta Ace and homegrown heroes Hilltop Hoods on Leaving Sideways.
But of the lot, it was R&B giant Mary J Blige’s take on My Life (1994) that would reverberate most with Ayers. “…When a record comes on like Mary J Blige. When she took on that sample, which is probably her biggest, it was wonderful. It really makes me feel great.”
Another of Ayers’ tracks left an indelible mark on hip hop came when six emerging rappers wed The Boogie Back to the hook of a record straight outta the very same stomping grounds he once cut his own teeth — South Central Los Angeles (then called South Park). Produced by South LA native Dr Dre — that track was NWA’s Fuck Tha Police, which would forever change the course of rap and the standing of hip hop today.
“That’s right, that was a great sample!” Ayers cries out. “I’m so glad that they did it.
“I think it had a massive effect on the crowd out in the Watts area and across the greater Los Angeles area. It was very well put together. I think NWA and Dr Dre took it to the max. He was incredible.”
Ayers’ journey hasn’t just been carried on through samples, however. Over the years Ayers has collaborated with an array of celebrated artists, such as Rick James (bitch!), afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Chaka Khan, and later on with Guru (Gang Starr) and Erykah Badu. Two years ago the most unlikely of bedfellows were made when Ayers jumped in on Tyler, The Creator’s album Cherry Bomb (on Find Your Wings).
Ayers’ career also detoured through film when he was asked to soundtrack the blaxploitation classic Coffy (1973), which he produced, composed and arranged. This resulted in one of the sub-genre’s most evocative scores – filled with an array of Ayers’ rich, textured grooves. “I think the experience that I had scoring of films was unforgettable with the Coffy soundtrack.”
One highlight of scoring Coffy was the chance to meet blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier. “This was my first film work. The president of Polydor sent me to California where I met Pam Grier,” he recalls fondly. “She was beautiful! The essence of Pam Grier in that film and another film she did, Jackie Brown, was very nice.”
On Jackie Brown, Ayers recalls he had no idea that music from Coffy (Aragon and Brawling Broads) would be used on the Tarantino film. “I told my wife, this is my music. I had no idea that they had sold the music to [Tarantino]. I said we got big money!“ he laughs.