Bob James' "Nautilus": From End of LP "Filler" to Essential Sample Source
An examination of the timeless 'One' selection and some lesser-known samplings and interpolations.
During the 1970s Bob James worked for Grammy award-winning CTI records producer Creed Taylor while earning himself arrangement credits with celebrated jazz artists like Hubert Laws, Stanley Turrentine, and Grover Washington. Though James wasn’t focused on solo recordings at the time, Taylor was impressed by his work and wanted him to put out a project of his own.
After agreeing to take on a solo album, James viewed 1974’s One as an audio resume of sorts—believing it would likely lead to some more behind-the-scenes gigs in the studio instead of the promising and prolific solo career he soon developed. Weighing his options for song choices, he recorded engrossing classical adaptations of Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (“Night on Bald Mountain”) and famed German composer Johann Pachelbel (“In The Garden”). In addition tackling some classical standards, James also pulled off a smooth cover of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love.” It should be noted that all of these songs became important sample sources in their own right.
Recorded in the pre-CD “LP era” where artists often thought of releases in terms of the constraints of single record, albums generally stayed within the parameters of a 36 minutes (or less) running time without exceeding 18 minutes per side. As recording sessions for the Creed Taylor-produced One wound down, James realized he didn’t have quite enough material to fill up both sides of his LP.
Unsure of what to record next, he brought in a draft version of a track he’d been tinkering with to the studio. “I had been noodling around with a sketch at home, and I brought in this very sketchy piece, which didn’t have a title,” he told Daniel Isenberg in an excellent undated piece on the Bob James website. “And at the last minute, we recorded it. Creed Taylor gave it the title ‘Nautilus’ because there was a sound that I used from the synthesizer in the intro that sounded sort of like a submerging submarine to him.”
James goes on to admit that “Nautilus” was “filler” in the same Eisenberg piece, pointing out that he placed it at the end of Side B with little anticipation it would catch on with listeners. Despite his low initial expectations, in subsequent decades a wide range of rap and instrumental hip-hop producers saw endless potential for reimagining the piece.
When asked what it is about “Nautilus” that made the song a sample staple with producers, James credited the simplicity of its groove and the fact that the intro made for simple looping. He also pointed to the “mysterious”, “atmospheric orchestration.”
In the 46 years since the release of One, producers have interpolated or sampled “Nautilus” over 350 times. The prolific use of the song is a development that left James, whose entire catalog has been sampled a whopping 1500-plus times, stunned. “It was shocking to me when it first happened, and still to this day, it is an amazing example of how music takes on a life of its own,” he told Eisenberg.
The first repurposing of “Nautilus” came just one year after the release of James’ One. Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó executed a beautiful interpolation of the song’s opening on “Time” from his Bob James-produced album Macho.
Seven years later, Tay-Ster Records and Rojac Records president Jack Taylor and Tay-Ster in-house producer Dave MacDonald pulled off an impressive replay of the James classic for Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s energetic “Doing the Do.” The group was a highly innovative early rap act that featured the late, multi-talented industry legend Andre "Dr. Jeckyll" Harrell.
In 1987 co-producers David Sanchez and Rodney Lundy took “Nautilus” and created the backdrop for a song that became a coveted rare rap record in the aughts thanks to its inclusion in Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. Using a rather straightford sampling of James for Lord Shafiyq’s “My Mic is on Fire,” the crunchy drums and expert “Nautilus” scratches on the hook perfectly accent his unique lyricism and powerful delivery.
The same year Shafiyq spit flames on “My Mic is on Fire,” Ultramagnetic MCs’ producer Ced Gee used a heavily filtered, almost-drowned-out-by-drums sample of “Nautilus” for the group’s hard-hitting, pre-Critical Beatdown single “Bait.” The unique, drum-heavy approach to beatmaking is an early indication of the musical direction the group would take in subsequent years.
‘87 also saw Skinny Boys producer Mark Bush make an aggressive, in your face beat out of “Nautilus” on “Poison This Place.” The song is one of many killer cuts from the Bridgeport, Connecticut natives’ brief but powerful discography. Their historically underappreciated catalog has had a resurgence of sorts thanks to the use of “Jock Box” as the opening theme for Comedy Central’s series Workaholics.
Working its way to Houston, Texas, “Nautilus” made an appearance on the Geto Boys’ minimalist track “Snitches” from their ‘88 debut Making Trouble—thanks in part to album co-producer Karl Stephenson. Stephenson, who picked up several early Rap-A-Lot co-producer/producer credits, struck gold six years later when he co-wrote and co-produced Beck’s hit single “Loser.”
And, as seems to be the case for so many sample sources both well-known and obscure, “Nautilus” made its way into Memphis/Three 6 Mafia orbit for several numbers from their early self-released tapes. You can hear DJ Paul’s impressive slicing and dicing of the track alongside The Showboys’ “Drag Rap” at the conclusion of “Drop It Off Yo Ass” from the Lord Infamous and DJ Paul collaborative tape Come W/ Me 2 Hell.
These selections are but a few of 350+ songs that add their own unique twist to the original energy and spirit of Bob James’ “Nautilus.” With Run-DMC, Ghostface Killah, Eric B. & Rakim, Slick Rick, Main Source, and many others making classics out of the song through sampling and/or interpolation, there’s very likely a book’s worth of stories to tell about James’ end of b-side “filler” track and how it altered the sound of rap music.
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