Interview with Quincy Jones award-winning composer, arranger and
publisher.

 



GATES: So we have the largest black middle class in history and the largest black underclass in history.

JONES: Right.

GATES: What is all this gangster culture? With people pretending to be gangsters then some who are real gangsters. Where did it come from? I don't remember that when I was growing up.

JONES: Well, I do. I was raised in Chicago and I guess that was one of the special breeding grounds for gangsters of all colors. That was the Detroit of the gangster world. The car industry was thugs. Jesus, Capone, the Jones brothers, Twohey, Dillinger, everybody. But I think just watching it and being totally involved in it, with my kids and the music business and everything else and knowing all of the players almost, in a way it's a -- seems to be a subliminal way of, artificial way of protecting a manhood, of feeling the manhood. Because the rap attitude is, it's a staggering. It's like a gang thing really.

It reminds me so much of what Chicago used to be like when we were kids. They'd start to play the dozens, two opposing gangs start to play the dozens and the one that lost the rhythm, the rumble started. So that hasn't really changed too much but I think the basic underlying elements have changed a lot.

Number one, it's about you gotta get paid, I wanna get paid. Show me the money. Quick. I think that's the governing force behind it because you're in an era now where in the 60s they may have been dealing with pot and uppers and downers and LSD and so forth, you're dealing with a designer drug now that goes back to commerce again. That is, designer drug that's designed to take you up and leave you there for 15 minutes, the biggest high that heroin or cocaine ever dreamed about and snatch you out of it 15 minutes later and it costs $8 or something. It's like McDonalds and it costs $8 to get back there. Everybody can play that game.

That's why I probably favor a very unpopular view. I think drugs should be legalized tomorrow. I really do. It should be planned. I'm not saying it could be irresponsible, but everybody wants to get high in any strata of society is already doing it and what you would do is you would take, I would guess, $700 billion of cash and put it in a different place and you would stop 80% of the crime.Immediately. We can't do it worse than we're doing now. I just think probably too many government officials can use an extra million dollars a year to look the other way. It's a very profitable thing. It's huge.

And what is happening is if that is the psychological metaphor for the gangster's condition, it still gives them no more control that they had before. It just appears that they are like the least of the -- they reign on their own turf, and they control their own turf; but that's a fallacy too. Because they really don't. Because the supply of drugs are still controlled from the external force.

GATES: But you take a guy like Tupac. Middle class, very well educated. I heard you say yesterday how smart he was. Why is he dead?

JONES: Playing the game, and unfortunately, playing the gangster game is very profitable. It's a strange, strange animal. MTV Raps. You are making entertainment out of something that is just probably the most negative aspect of what we are all about.

It's been marketed very well. Between the films and the newspaper articles, the 6:00 news, etc., you would believe that the whole spectrum of black America is Boyz 'N the Hood. It's just a huge rainbow. I just met the director Ted Winship from Chicago. Brilliant kid. He's dealing with another aspect of black society -- with black alternative music and kids that are going to college and everything else.

There are so many colors in that rainbow but this fear is created because you are taking two or three percent of the population and making it the norm and making everybody think that everybody is like that so it gives everybody a great justification if they have even a seed of racism inside to just keep it up and so forth.

Not only that -- on a platter they are handing them a favorite word -- the big N word as though if we keep playing with it, it will press the button; and it won't mean anything anymore like Lenny Bruce tried that. Like Richard Pryor tried that. Richard Pryor went to Africa and said, "I will never say that word again." If you are handing it on a platter to a little 11 year old blue eyed, blonde kids from North Dakota and saying it's OK. But back to the significant tone coming from Africa, it can be done affectionately. It can become straight from the heart where it is literally taken and meant and felt as what the world was invented for. It's to be derogatory. It's too much subjectivity out there to be that careless with the word.

I've had a lot of arguments with rappers about this. They think "it's just a thang." Just lay down like a lot of other things they say. I think that they'll grow out of that though. I know most of the players, and they are having kids now. Ice T has a little kid. Ice Cube's got kids. Maybe five or six. EZ E has kids. They all shift. I've got seven kids from three to forty three. I get every generation test market in my house. All the pure dynamics of every decade.

GATES: Are our people better off today than they were in the 1960s, do you think?

JONES: The 60s? I don't know, I think it's probably like the Dickens cliche, the best of times and the worst of times, but I can't really call the 60s the best of times.

GATES: You know, so often now people my age and younger say how bad segregation was. It was a terrible thing and this is better. But was the segregated black world all bad or were there good things about the neighborhood.

JONES: It was rough. It depends on who's pouring and who's drinking. [LAUGHTER] Back to that thing. I remember starting in the 50s, you know, it was not so cool because it was just inconvenient and painful to have to find a place to stay all over America. You know the hotel situation. Even places like Philadelphia. But the south was a nightmare to try to stay someplace just for a night and all that nonsense that was going on then, and the 60s was the turning point and so there was a lot of turmoil and that's why I said the best and worse of conditions.

The climate in the 50s and 60s for black performers or black people in the entertainment business was atrocious. It was atrocious. The music was happening and everything else but when you call it the music business they were in just in the music and not in the business at all because the stories of what used to happen with management and record companies and so forth in the 50s, I mean it's nothing like today. People walk around, like Michael Jacksons and Princes and Babyface or whoever is happening, they are industries, I mean serious seriously big industries. I remember working with Nat Cole on a tour in 1959 and he says I'm Nat Cole, a singer and a jazz piano player but I'm also an industry and he became an industry. Michael Jordan is an industry, huge industry. Shaquille O'Neil is an industry. Oprah Winfrey is a nation. [LAUGHTER] Is a nation, it's incredible. It's true, though. She's, it's absolutely incredible. There's nothing even close to that in the 60s. Nobody even dreamt about anything like Oprah...

JONES: Astounding.

GATES: Astounding and that is a nation. Well, you are a nation, too. One of things that is interesting about you is that you had the foresight I mean even in the '50s to get control of your own commercial self. In 1954 when the famous Brown V. Board Supreme Court desegregation decision was announced, you already owned the rights to publish your own music. How did this come about man, and where did this come from? How come you are different?

JONES: Like Duke Ellington said sometimes it's nice to have the right people give you just one sentence of advice, and a couple of people told me that I remember things and I start -- you're in a situation. When I first went to New York, you're just barely trying to survive and so you're starting from the [NAME OF CLUB] or wherever you think you can get work, as a songwriter, arranger, whatever and New York was slick because we'd hang with out with four guys, from New Yorkers, and I'm the only outsider and we'd met at ten or 9:00 and [NAME OF CLUB] and hang out and talk and stuff and about 12:30 one dude would say oh, I got to go do my thing and he'd disappear for about an hour and a half and he'd come back, then another one disappear. They were all going home to eat. It was 10:00 at night and I hadn't had a bite. It's slick in New York, though. And so you were on that side where you're just from hand to mouth survival and so when somebody said they're publishing Lionel Hampton's band or I write for Basie and the Morris Levi dynasty at that time, Teddy Reed and those guys would say OK, the publishing goes to Basie's company, it goes to Morris Levi's company. Somebody else always wanted, which is really saying it's half of your song. If you write a song, the publishing is 50% of that. So they're saying I want 50% of your creation and sometimes they would put their name on the composer side, so that means you get 25% of your own creation. That was normal.

GATES: That's terrible.

JONES: That happened all the time in the 50s and 60s so in terms of exploitation, Charlie Parker would record for X record label and Charlie Parker was addicted and they'd have the dope dealer, the connection, standing out in the lobby and before each song they'd take him in the bathroom and shoot him up before he would sign a contract to give up all his publishing royalties, his composer royalties which is immoral, and his performance royalties as an artist, just to get that next fix. And so there were too many things like that happening. They had scenes back then, Skip, when managers used to have life insurance policies on that artist. They record him, send him to Vegas, record him, tour him and smoke him.

GATES: Really?

JONES: Oh, yeah. Big time. We're doing a movie about this. That was the rule of thumb. The funniest one was when they'd see, you'd look up on Broadway and you'd see Jackie Wilson held by his heels out a 30 story window and they'd say what's going on, they'd say is he re-negotiating his contract? It was terrible. It was awful.

And we all saw it, we felt it, we experienced it and everything else so it's very hard for me to say that the 60s -- the 60s started to change because I remember that's when I went in as A&R and vice president. I'd lost so much money I had to go with a record company when I had my band in Europe and that's when I said I better pay attention to the other side because it is a music business and fortunately people like Billy Taylor and Irving Green and Steve Ross and people like that would pull my coat and say hey, if you don't own at least a piece of your masters, negatives and copyrights, you're not in the music business, you're just a gun for hire and you're not in the business. You'll always be a gun for hire.

And so all the young kids know that now because they have attorneys that they pay. They walk in the door at 16 years old with a publicist, a business manager, a PR man -- actually that is a publicist -- and everything when they walk in for a record contract. Have not sung one note or made one record and they've got all this protection that Michael Jackson and Prince and all these people invented, but they didn't have that kind of protection then. They didn't have it at all so there's a gigantic difference now in terms of what that's about. And one step leads to another.

After Steve Ross did almost a revolutionary thing with our relationship in terms of a joint venture between Time Warner and Quincy Jones Productions it was that at first, it was major stuff. Major stuff. I mean we are co-owners of what we acquire and that's a huge company. You're talking about a company that grosses $21 billion a year. Not to that me share that but in our own little joint venture, though, you have a right, and Steve says you have to be an asset player. You have to be where you can call the shots, and that part is growing, part's growing all the time. More and more you see Latifah's got a production company, Denzel Washington's got one, everybody. Wesley Snipes, my ex-secretary runs his company now and a lot's happening so when we were having the conflict last year when I produced the Oscars with Jesse, the Oscars was the wrong target. That's not where we need to go. That's just a receptacle for what's already happened. That's a consequence, that's not a cause. We have to go to producers and writers and studio heads and directors and stars that have muscle to make sure that the right things go in because all we get there is the best of what's come out, at the Oscars. Hopefully.

JONES: And I didn't get paid.

GATES: You didn't get paid?

JONES: No. I didn't know producers got paid.

GATES: You had a salary.

JONES: I had a contract and it said in the contract in no event, in no event, will you make over X amount of money, and it was not very much. But I didn't know what that meant then because I didn't know producers got paid because I learned producing by being an arranger and as an arranger Bobby Shad, I'd say Bobby, I found this incredible saxophone player just came into town with his brother from Florida. I was living in a basement on 91st street in New York, Cannonball and Nat Adderly. He's incredible, man, trust me, we got to record him. He said great. He didn't even want to hear him. This was Thursday, he said Wednesday book a session, book the studio, get the engineer, call the musicians, write the arrangements, write the compositions that you have to and I'll see you next Wednesday or Thursday. That was it.

So as an arranger I was doing everything you do as a producer anyway and then some guy would come in the booth that night after we put that together and he would say take one. And take two. And that was the producer -- he was making money. And I didn't know you got paid for that.

GATES: The system has worked so well for you and you've worked the system, and it's worked well for me. I mean the capitalist system as we know it which does not appear to be going anywhere. Do you think it can be made to work for more of our people?

JONES: It is. Are you kidding? I bought my man, the billionaire.

GATES: Bill Gates?

JONES: No, the brother, the food -- what is his name? Lewis, Reggie Lewis. But everybody, I mean come on, brother, Johnny Johnson, Ed Lewis, there's a lot of things going on. But people don't hear about that and they need to hear about it because that will inspire somebody else to go through the same door. I know five situations, including Russell and Andre Harrell and Babyface and a lot of them, they have the same deal now. They have multimedia companies. Never been heard of before. And Babyface just signed a deal with 20th. It'll be great. He's in a picture already. He's got a two picture deal going on, and television, whatever he wants to do, and that's the way it works. If it's successful --

I found this out over the years, that racism is a thinly veiled disguise over economics and money. It really is. You can call it racism if you want to, but the people that are fighting us happens when it's the 20 and $30,000 homes. You don't see a brother have a problem when he buys a million dollar home next door to anybody. It's about that and it's sad. It's really sad that it's like that but that's what it comes down to, you're a threat to my job, blah, blah, blah, perceived threats, when there's really enough for everybody. But that's what it's about.

As you look at it on the big scale that's what's happening and that's happened throughout history, that the people that are making a lot of money keep the people not making money fighting with each other, stir that up so they won't pay any attention to us.....That goes back to -- that's European. African too. That's an international sensibility.

GATES: But do you worry, man? Do you worry about the fate of our people? About your own obligation? I spend a lot of time thinking about that. What are my obligations to people in Roxbury? In Compton?

JONES: Man, I do everything that twenty people could do. I don't worry about anything. I'll be concerned about stuff. There's not time to worry because I have to work 18 hour days and I'm 63 and we must do 60 or 70 what we call B flat gigs a year, everything from AIDS to young children's centers, north side to children's centers to all over the country, all over the world. So I don't even think about that because it's natural, it's automatic. I'm going in to do five next week in New York.

So that's all you can do. They getting all I've got. And everybody else does too and I've got to say this, that entertainers have more empathy with that than anybody. They are there for everything. Everything. They get put down too and it upsets me because it's not true. Always there. I mean people that are making not even a lot of money are always there for whatever cause it is. Musicians or singers or actors or whatever. I mean Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard and we've been involved in the Mandela thing. They're everywhere, doing as much as they can between their schedules, breaking their neck to try to squeeze that in to get this done. Cosby, and right now Cosby be trying to go over and do something for Mandela, this guy Ralph Gathrada, who was in prison with him? We met with them and there's 550 prisoners that got out with him and 500 of them are really destitute in Capetown and we're trying to raise some money for them.

GATES: Do we have a crisis of leadership in the black community?

JONES: Yeah. I think so. It's a big one. I really do. I don't think it's just the black community. It's in the white community too. Maybe more so in the white community. It affects the mores of any civilization. Everybody's hustling and stealing and scheming and the kids are seeing that that's the way you do it, that's what we have to do too. I mean our leaders are doing it.

But you know what? There's something I'm sure in you too that believes in the best of. I really do. Something happens. You've got the minds here that have to be fed properly, that have to be nurtured. I didn't know what nurturing meant until the last 10 or 15 years. Like Maya Angelou says if you don't get a hug, you don't recognize a hug, and it's true. But I thought if you had shelter over your kids head, they go to school and they eat, man, you are doing great. Wrong. Because it all is formed by nine years old and we had this session with John Bradshaw about the inner child at Oprah's house. Oprah gave it to me as a present and she had him there for three days and said I could bring seven people and he said you have to have a male and female caretaker, not necessarily mother and father, that really are on your case from nine to 18 months, that's the whole thing. You get it all done in ten months.

GATES: How did you get here? You were a poor kid, right?

JONES: Oh, man, we were so poor we had to go outside to change our mind. No, we paid our dues, man.

GATES: Really?

JONES: Oh, yeah. We had rats, man, in Louisville. My grandmother, the security system was a bent nail over the back door. Kerosene lamps and coal, no electricity. I know what both sides feel like so when something good happens I appreciate it because I know what it's about. I used Grab those rats' tails still moving, some greens, man.

GATES: Did it taste good?

JONES: Seven years old, I didn't know the difference. She was a slave, man, she knew how to survive.

GATES: Somebody in your family knew how to survive because you have not only survived but thrived. What do you attribute your -- I know it's a hard thing to answer but what do you attribute your success? Your brother's a judge, right?

JONES: Yeah.

GATES: How did you guys make it from --

JONES: I don't know. We were talking about that with Oprah. We talk about well adjusted, well nurtured kids and everything else. I guess most of the people I know that are really doing it have had the brains kicked out when they were kids. And there's a hole down in that inner child that sometimes -- I know it's happened centuries ago. The creators, the classical composers and so forth that had that hole that they had to fill with something and so if it's going to be aesthetic beauty, that's good enough.

I used to go in this little closet and anything that happened to me negative I would try to find a way to go into this other world, music world, and just get out of whatever was going on because I couldn't handle it, and just crawl into that world. I've been crawling into that world for a long time. Beauty and creativity and just convert that same energy -- you can use it. If it comes out bitterness it destroys you, and I'm not going to destroy myself so it's a conversion. It's like taking garbage and making recycled paper out of it, whatever it is. Recycle that energy and guide it that way and put it in whatever it is, a record or movie, a tune, arrangement, whatever.

GATES: Are you optimistic about our people's future?

JONES: Absolutely. When I come here [Harvard University], I get more optimistic because the knowledge has got to be revered and everything else and there were certain aspects of just..... to preserve our blackness, that's the constant thing. It's the rubber band, that pull to preserve the blackness and still grow.

You can't get to the point of where you wear ignorance as a badge and think it's OK to not know. It's never cool not to know, and I tell the hip hoppers that all the time. We can't afford to have a generation of kids that are so in the palms of such influence as the hip-hop generation has in terms of lifestyle, sensibility, body language, graphics, dance, music, slang, everything. We haven't had that since the modern jazz. Rock and roll didn't bring nothing to the table with slang. Far out. A couple of little like acid or something, but they used cool. They were still talking like the jazz musicians talked, spoke.

And the hip-hoppers brought in a whole other thing, which is, that's valuable and it has to just be -- it has to go to the right place and it is going to the right place. It's evolving, it's a constant embryonic stage and it's mixed with serious politics of using the theater and drama of the climate of our--political climate of our country to make a lot of money. And they're very talented dudes, man. Will Smith went from $20,000 to $20 million in six years. And Fresh Prince, he's a triple A player. He's a rapper. First rapper on television. We had to apologize for that when we were talking to the advertisers and Brandon Tartikoff said we have to let them know that it's safe to check out a rapper on network TV and I've got seven kids, they're into the hip-hop and stuff but they're all right. And ten weeks later we were on the air.

GATES: Do you enjoy any part of your great life better than others? I mean of all your artistic endeavors, publishing, TV, making music, I mean do you have a favorite?

JONES: All of it. Just knowing that it's working and once you find the right people in charge of it, and I feel that way about several of our divisions, that they really are on top of it and you just have to deal with the big buttons and so forth and they really have got it together and to me that's big growth, to see that. And now I've got a record company now that they go everywhere together, 26 men strong. Everywhere. They were down in Palm Springs meeting and they stay in office till 12. Weekends, they're with each other all the time. Kidada's with the company now, and Mark Facade who's a Harvard graduate, a brother from Harvard. And he was at RCA so he's got the street, they have the ambidexterity to understand it all. Like Rashida now and all the kids. They don't have any boxed in attitudes about anything. They're wide open.

GATES: And that's the future of our people.

JONES: I agree. I think so.

    When Professor Gates assumed his role as chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, he first sought to endow a chair   in the music department named after a prominent Afro-American musician.  Quincy Jones is that  musician.      Jones started his career playing  trumpet with Ray Charles.  In 1964, the year  the Civil Rights Act was  passed, the number 1 single in America was Leslie Gore's It's My Party ---   produced by Quincy Jones.  He broke the color barrier in Hollywood  writing film and TV scores,  and produced the Michael Jackson, Thriller  LP in 1984, which sold a record 40 million copies.      He is Executive  Producer of VIBE TV show and publisher of VIBE magazine.  His company,    QDE, also produces Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Mad TV. Interview conducted in the spring of 1997.

 

 

 
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