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Ubiquity Still Virgin After All These Years: An Interview with Roy Ayers

Matt Rogers

Called by some the king of neo-soul, Roy Ayers has influenced a multitude of today's top recording artists -- including Neptunes, Erykah Badu, and Mary J. Blige. PopMatters caught up with him to discuss his new album and what keeps him going after all these years.

Roy Ayers is a musician, composer, producer, writer, singer. Prolific beyond his 63 years, few have impacted popular music to the degree of this musical mastermind. Growing up in a musical family in Los Angeles, he was given his first set of vibe mallets at age five by perhaps the greatest vibraphonist of all time -- Lionel Hampton -- while attending his concert. After this royal anointment, he pursued the vibraphone, eventually landing gigs with jazz greats like Teddy Edwards, before being escorted to the Big Apple by the late Herbie Mann. From there, Ayers formed his groundbreaking Ubiquity in 1970, which strove to combine elements of jazz, funk and pop into music for the masses. This music would help lay the foundation for hip hop and house, both to the adulation and disappointment of some fans. In the early 1980s, after many jazz (and funk) giants had been eclipsed by disco and major record companies began dropping their musical stalwarts, Mr. Ayers started his own record company, Uno Melodic, and continued churning out product. And he's never looked back.

Guru looked him up for the first (and best) Jazzmatazz set and he's collaborated with many since, including the Roots and Erykah Badu. BBE (Barely Breaking Even) has just released Virgin Ubiquity, Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981, a magnificent thirteen-song set culled from gems sitting in the crowded Ayers vault. They all display that distinct Ayers blend of funky horns and drums, heavy bass, mellow keys, floating vibes and belting divas. Many of the heavyweights found on Ayers recordings of the period, such as Merry Clayton, Bernard Purdie, William Allen, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Edwin Birdsong, strut their stuff. And after talking with THE MAN, I can say without a doubt Roy Ayers is still full of piss and vinegar and, if you're lucky, coming soon to a town near you.

Roy Ayers: I'm up energized and excited. The new record Virgin Ubiquity is a great opportunity for me. I've got 88 albums/CDs that I've recorded under my name (not including what I've recorded with other people) so my career continues to soar. With all the record companies and all the changes they've made, like dropping all the artists who have been with them for years it's a big change. Being with BBE, the company I'm now with, has allowed me to have another outlet to keep my records distributed and played all over the world. So it's great and I hope this can happen for more artists, both new and veterans.

PopMatters: I'd love to talk about you as an independent businessman. You started your own label quite awhile ago and your website is excellent, shows you've really taken control of your career, for you were with the majors for quite awhile.

RA: Yeah, it wasn't necessarily by choice, but sometimes things happen. That's why I mention to you that the majors, they have to control the distribution, the record outlets, the radio and, in some cases, even the venues. And downloading and pirating have also put pressure on the majors. I think if downloading and pirating weren't here things would be a lot different for many artists, but unfortunately these things were created by the very industries themselves (Philips and Sony who created the devices to copy). So there has to be a better way. So when I met Peter of BBE records, he's a club DJ so he's in the club, which is wonderful. This will be my first worldwide release. Even when I was with the majors I never had a worldwide release simultaneously. I feel fortunate that now I get exposure first of all with people directly in the clubs. This is a unique situation for me. Of course I've been doing it a long time. I've no trouble working, I've got a good show, a strong band and this offers me to really get my records distributed on a heavier level. BBE has their own distribution out of Germany and the U.S. So it's really a good deal.

PM: They're really in touch with what's happening in the clubs. And their DJs really know their musical history. So 20 years ago or so, when major artists such as yourself started their own labels, was there a stigma attached to that? Before, if you weren't on a major people might have thought "Oh, what's wrong with this artist?"

RA: You grow and learn a lot about the industry and what happens behind closed doors over the years. Like what I said to you earlier about the majors having to control� like I won't name the store but I'll tell you what happened. I released an album in 1999 and a major store here in New York ordered 100 records and I took the records to them myself and the week after they ordered 100 more and this continued until I had sold 800 records in this one store in about two months. It was great. Then, the next year I came out with another album and I called up the buyer at that store and I said, "Hey, this is Roy, how ya doin'' and he says, "Fine Roy, how are you," blah blah blah and I said, "I have a new record out now," and he said, "Great, but we have a new policy now; you have to deal with our own distributor," and I said, "Oh but I have my own distributor (me)," well he said, "This is the policy now." Of course I didn't give him any records. I figured it. You know what, only a certain number of people are going to go to a store over the period of a year. So when a person goes to the store and they see my record on the shelf and of course the store can keep putting it on 'cause they have plenty of them right, it eliminates someone else's record from being sold. You see? Not only me but other artists were doing the same thing. And I'm sure these major labels said, "Hey look, we've got all these big artists on our labels." So they call the stores and influence what's on the shelves by forcing the independents to go through their distributors. So then, for instance, I send my records to that distributor, say 100 copies, then what happens is the distributor sends the store five copies, right, and therefore the store will sell the five copies whenever they sell them. Then when they call the distributor for some more records the distributor would take their time and send them five more. So what they do is cut down on the continuation of selling a lot of records: the sales volume.

PM: Ah ha, very interesting.

RA: But hey it's business. I'm sure if I was in their position I'd want to do the same thing, you understand. So it's about continuing to try to find new ways to sell new records. It's very difficult for a new artist because no one knows who that new artist is. But in my case, I'm established, so I generally sell my records online or at the show. For example, I played a show with Boney James. We sold our records out front and so did Boney James. Everybody at the concert bought records. And you can undersell the distributor and the stores and people know what they're getting cause they've just seen you live.

PM: You've got a lot of talented musicians on this new release, including the Pretty One: Bernard "Pretty" Purdie (most recorded drummer in the world).

RA: He is one of the most incredible drummers I've ever worked with. You know he did the African tour with me in '79 [note: where RA gigged and cut an album with Fela Kuti] and earlier stuff at Polydor from about '75-'84. He's phenomenal. It's amazing I was able to keep all of this stuff. I have a very aware, intelligent attorney-

PM: Gotta have one of those!

RA: Yeah, you just gotta luck up. He organized a production deal. I was a recording fanatic, recording like 28 hours a day, fall asleep in the studio, wake up and say "Hey let's get out of here!" I have over two hundred 24-track tapes and we used only thirty to get these songs off. So it's an incredible situation where I have a lot of masters that I always thought -- now this is important, check this out -- that they were not good enough for the albums. And the reason why I thought that is because I was being an artist, being sensitive and technical as artists are. I'm sure Leonardo Da Vinci did that. Said "Aww this is crap!" put it in the corner, then someone else saw it and said, "Damn this is it!" Know what I'm saying? Generally speaking, artists don't always feel the same as others feel about their work. So when Peter Adarkwah of BBE heard the music he went completely bonkers. He started doing what I call the Jamiroquai, doin' a little dance. I said to myself, "He really likes this." Then I said, "Oh this is nice. This is bad stuff! I should have put this out!" Then I'm thinking artists don't always know. Almost every song that I ever recorded that was a hit at the majors that the promotional people picked I didn't think it would be a hit. I was wrong every time! Which shows you what artists know! But DJs and people in the street they know what they like. Specially the DJs. So how you been man?

PM: No complaints. Just trying to stay warm up here in Harlem.

RA: I hear that! So you understand the situation. I'm now 63 years old, I've been in show business now 41 years and it's been good to me. I'm thankful to the creator for just having life, for having all my facilities and make music that still has the spice and the fire: it's a wonderful feeling, believe me. I'm just happy to be partaking, participating. And getting a little respect here and there and just having fun 'cause that's what music is all about.

PM: You've put out so many types of sounds and styles, like a guy like Pretty Purdie, who also recorded a lot with someone else who put out so many different styles and who sadly passed last year: Herbie Mann.

RA: I did some great stuff with him. And he produced three records of mine.

PM: So what was it like playing with him?

RA: It was wonderful. One of the things that Herbie did with me anyway was that I learned the business end. Herbie would give me three or four credit cards (I never told people this); I was like a road manager/musician and I could pick up the band at the hotel get them places on time, rent cars, I was like a straw boss. What it really did for me was help me be a better leader for my band. And I patterned a lot of things that I do after Herbie Mann's way. He was such a sharp leader, a great guy. One time in my career he cold signed for a loan for every one in the band. He was that kind of guy. He will certainly be missed. He had a certain way of looking at the industry. His mind was so creative all the time. Always had an idea about music. He'd come up with a reggae cut with a Japanese chant or something, always different! He was a great leader (and I've been with five or six), he was the most impressive, a real gentlemen and friend. He will certainly be missed by me and many others. I think his greatest contribution was that he loved music so much and loved staying creative. He instilled that in me.

PM: Another person you started with also passed last year: Teddy Edwards.

RA: Oh man! I remember when I worked with Teddy with the Gerald Wilson Big Band and I remember recording with Teddy and Leroy Vinegar oh my god that was great! Teddy was a giant! The great thing about Herbie, just to jump back, we had great people on those albums, like Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Gary Bartz and Hubert Laws and Grady Tate, Bruno Carr, Reggie Workman, so many greats.

PM: And so you started Ubiquity when you were still with Herbie and started pushing and blending sounds and styles.

RA: I started that right then when I joined Polydor. The concept was to reach wider recognition. I had been an instrumentalist before then and I wanted to incorporate voices and stared using people like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Edwin Birdsong, Chicas, Merry Clayton and I'm just glad I kept the tapes. Some people throw them away or put them in storage, forget they're there. Let's just take Herbie Hancock. Hypothetically speaking. Let's say he did X number of records for Blue Note, and let's say that he did a certain number of things that he didn't like and they have it there on the Blue Note shelves, forever. It would probably never be released because people don't back into the archives too often. All the companies have records that have never been released. People leave, die, retire. Interesting, isn't it?

PM: Definitely. Now, with Ubiquity you were pushing the jazz/fusion/funk whatever you want to call it, around 1970. Miles has started going that direction, then Weather Report, Return to Forever�

RA: (Laughs) I was just happy to be doing it. Good to hear some people listen. Erykah Badu was telling me I was the neo-soul king. And I said what's neo-soul? She said people like the Roots, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys and herself formulate their music after my style, that it's been a very influencing force on their music. Great compliment. Just a wonderful thing to hear from the younger artist. Like when I did this interview with a young artist, his name is Pharrell of the Neptunes, and he was telling me, "you don't know what you did to me!" When I did this song called "Daylight" for this group called Ramp I produced, and he said it turned his whole musical head around and I said, 'I'm glad it did.' We talked about possibly do something together later on. It's always good to collaborate.

PM: Do you think growing up in California listening to that West Coast sound had more of an influence on you than an East Coast sound? Were you listening to Cal Tjader (who was in LA) on the vibes?

RA: I was listening to Cal Tjader a lot (of course Lionel Hampton was my first influence). But I was bored with the West Coast because the energy factor was so low-key at that time. You call a guy for a recording, tell him the session is gonna be at 12:00 and he'll say, 'I can't get there 'til three', then come poking in. I was working with Stanley Clarke (later on for a Columbia record) and I asked him, 'what's wrong with these people?' and he said, 'there's nothing I can do man, they're so laid back.' That was always a problem for me. I always had this energy level that made me want to come to New York. When Herbie Mann called me with a job I was so elated and I worked with him for four years, did some great things with him in New York. And after I left and started my group I still did things with him. Really gonna miss Herbie; one of the greatest cats I ever had the opportunity to work with and be with.

PM: He was amazing. When you look at everything he put out, the diversity and level of quality is incredible.

RA: Exactly.

PM: Did you ever play with vibraphonist Johnny Lytle as well?

RA: Johnny Lytle was from the Cincinnati area. I only played a few dates with him. We jammed together with Herbie Hancock. He passed away a few years ago. Great vibe player and boxer too. He used to call everybody Shorty. Great guy who will be missed. (Pause). You mentioned Bernard Purdie, I want to mention Dennis Davis who's been with me a long time (and is also on this album. He's one of the most underrated, prolific drummers out here. A great drummer and people should know his name.

PM: You also have some great latin percussion on this album. Is that Chano O'Ferral?

RA: Chano on the congas and Purdie of course. And some great vocalists. I have a lot of stuff I recorded with Edwin Birdsong that maybe we'll release next time. And stuff with Dee Dee Bridgewater that's fantastic.

PM: Oh she is amazing.

RA: She is truly amazing! She is probably one of the most influential singers I've had. With her I feel like a different person. No other singer affects me the way she does. Then there's Merry Clayton who's a real diva. She's formerly with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones (she did "Gimme Shelter"), Billy Preston. She's fantastic. I just called her to see if she'll come out on the road.

PM: So you're touring soon?

RA: I'm doing some spot dates now but we'll really start touring in March. First, Europe and the U.K.

PM: They know what time it is over there.

RA: Yeah. Then Germany, France, Holland, then Japan. Everybody's ready for the record. Never in my life has any record company put out a record and released it all over the world at the SAME TIME. Polydor used to release me at different times around the world. You get your royalty statement: sales here, here, but never over there!

PM: Harder to stay on top of your business that way.

RA: Exactly! But it's a new day and new things are happening. There will be other ways for artists to sell their records and distribute their product.

PM: When can we expect to see you in the U.S.?

RA: In the summer for sure. Hitting all the major cities that have been good to me. But I'll be in Nashville and Houston around the Super Bowl.

PM: So who do you listen nowadays for inspiration?

RA: (chuckles) Well I've been listening to Pharrell. I like his sound. I like the fact that he's a real musician, uses real instruments with the other stuff. The Roots, I like their message. I'm crazy about Erykah Badu, she's a favorite, I like her spirituality. We did Mahogany Vibe together back in May. I asked her, 'why did you name your son Seven?' And she said, 'because the seventh letter of the alphabet is G and G is for God.' When someone gives me an answer just like that it shows me that they're thinking on a whole other level. Positive level. Her mind is so deep it's like that. She's not trying to be spacey or anything. Very serious woman. She studies with people who do numerology. She's a regular person like everyone else, except in the studio she had everything natural, like organic grapes and special tea and she's a vegan. But she's not trying to force anything on anybody. And she sang so beautiful, so unique. I'm getting into a lot of the hip hop cats, the real mellow hip hop cats. I worked with Guru on Jazzmatazz, went on the road with Donald Byrd, the elder statesman; by that I mean he's very in tune. The thing that I like about him is that he's understandable. I don't like rap that you can't understand. The interesting thing is that people who are into hip hop and rap understand everything! Shows you how the youth is so quick and alert. The only problem I had with the Jazzmatazz tour is that I told Guru he should have let us solo longer. Solos were so short, people couldn't really get into the jazz. We'd get forty-five seconds or so, needed a little more room.

PM: You've been sampled many times.

RA: I've been sampled so much and I'm glad it's happened, it's a great compliment. A lot of the hip hop artists don't write music. They write words and in my case they say that Roy Ayers music is the best music for their words and I'm very thankful for that. "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" has been sampled the most and almost everyone who samples it it's a hit for them. And not only that it's very lucrative. Mary J. Blige went triple platinum with that one.

PM: You gotta love it when that happens!

RA: Exactly! It's a wonderful feeling just being in this creative motif.

PM: The song "What's the T" on this new release. Sounds like someone is scratching in the background. Sounds like a turntable

RA: There wasn't a turntable on it though

PM: Right, I know. I don't know if it's the wah wah of the guitar but it amazingly sounds like a DJ in the back scratchin' it up.

RA: Exactly. That's interesting. Must have been the wah wah on the guitar at the time. You're very keen to have observed that.

PM: Ironic given that it will certainly be sampled by some DJ later on.

RA: Very interesting (laughs).

PM: Well, Mr. Ayers, thank you for your time and we'll see you soon.

RA: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

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