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Marquee Names: Bob James’s “Nautilus”

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Oliver Wang remembers one of the most sampled and interpolated songs in history, and points out why “Nautilus”, and songs like it, are heavy sample fodder.

To hear him tell it, no one is more surprised by the enduring popularity of “Nautilus” than Bob James himself: “‘Nautilus’ was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” James told Vice‘s J. Pablo in 2013, adding “it was recorded last minute….it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”

That’s the beauty of making music: regardless of intent, listeners can respond to songs in ways that the composers never intended or predicted. When James set out to release One, he was hoping its cover of “Feel Like Making Love,” would blow up, but a younger generation gravitated to the spooky atmospherics and deep groove of “Nautilus” instead, turning it into one of the most sampled and interpolated songs in history.

What sets the song’s success apart is that “Nautilus” can’t be reduced to just one hot break or loop. You can practically needle-drop anywhere on the song and find some bars worth flipping (as James himself said in that interview, “it was easy to loop in two measure chunks”). It helps that the rhythm section is anchored by Gary King’s now-signature baseline and Idris Muhammad’s stick work, but “Nautilus” unfurls all manners of different moments across its five minute length.

If you want to get a thorough sampling of all the different ways producers have worked with the song, check out Cut Chemist’s recent “Nautilus Special” episode of his Stable Sound radio show.

Cut crams in as many “Nautilus” flips as he can into two hours, including several songs I had never heard before such as the obscure 1982 single by Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, “Doing the Do,” possibly the very first hip-hop use of “Nautilus,” and the Howie Tee-produced “Wild Thing” by E.S.P. from 1988 which chopped up a one-bar break similarly to how Large Professor would later do with “Live at the BBQ.” Cut also includes one of my all-time favorite “Nautilus” flips: “My Mic Is On Fire” by Lord Shafiyq which not only liberally samples the song but does a nice job of cutting up those mesmerizing keys that kick off “Nautilus.” As shown in the literally dozens of other tracks on Cut’s show, the sheer creativity of how people reworked the song only deepens one’s appreciation for how powerfully it inspired producers to find new ways to tinker with it.

“Nautilus” also highlights why so much of the “digging in the crates” era focused around jazz. Soul and funk songs, obviously, were heavy sample fodder as well, but most of those followed stricter forms of song structure in order to make them commercially friendly. A jazz song, however, is meant to move and meander in unexpected ways. No one would confused “Nautilus” with free jazz but much of the melody was created in the studio, as James and his crew rushed to knock out the song and finish up the One LP. As James told Wax Poetics’s Dave Ma: “I was just looking for a nice groove to improvise on.” Mission accomplished.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Bob James – “Nautilus”

Articles, Beatmaking, BeatTips, Editor's Choice, Marquee Names

About Author

Oliver Wang is a music writer, scholar, and DJ who created Soul-Sides.com. Since 1994, he's written on popular music, culture, race, and America for outlets such as NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, Scratch, The Village Voice, SF Bay Guardian, and LA Weekly. Wang is also an associate professor in sociology at CSU-Long Beach and author of the book, "Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the SF Bay Area."