When people in the United States hear the name ‘Jamiroquai’ they immediately think of the guy with the funky looking hats who did that video with the moving floors. You would be partially right, Jamiroquai the band is much more than that video that engulfed many of us into a incredible sonic journey spanning nearly 2 decades.
The original band members consisted of Jay (Jason) Kay (vocals and man of a thousand hats), Toby Smith (keyboards), Stuart Zender (bass), Nick Van Gelder (drums) and Willis Buchanan (didgeridoo). The name Jamiroquai comes from the combination of ‘Jam’ (which many bands consider themselves doing when they are playing) and the Native American tribe ‘Iroquois’. Jay Kay stated that they selected the ‘Iroquois’ as the part of their name to reflect the empathy for their displaced status musically, as well as many Native American tribe’s earth aware beliefs. Jay Kay’s admiration for the Iroquois and Native American culture is reflected consistently through his lyrics, imagery and his secondary name sake “The Space Cowboy.”
The band was formed after an unsuccessful attempt by Jay Kay to join the Brand New Heavies. Not deterred by the rejection Jay recorded a demo titled “When you Gonna Learn.” A number of stories float around about the original incarnation this song (1989 is the earliest rumored date of the recording) with various mixes with each one fighting for the title of “the original demo version.” Nonetheless the demo grabbed the attention of Acid Jazz Records who released “When you Gonna Learn” as a Maxi Single containing 6 different mixes with the original Demo version included. It was the combination of conscious lyrics and funk laced grooves that would lead to an 8 album recording contract with Sony records that would change the scope of the band almost instantly.
Emergency on Planet Earth released in the Spring of 1993 grabbed the attention of critics. The album’s content is filled with lyrics that raised awareness to social issues, scatting reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and a combination of jazz instrumentals that showcased the bands range. Being a critical success, coupled with a month long stint as the number one album on the UK charts, solidified Jamiroquai as one of the best new bands of that year. The album would garner platinum status in the UK but didn’t chart on the American Billboard. That would change with the groups second album Return of the Space Cowboy.
Some groups and artist, suffer from sophomore album jinx, never living up to the creative energy of their first album. However, for Jamrioquai it would slingshot them across the pond and onto American soil. Return of the Space Cowboy again garnered critical acclaim from US and UK critics. The Single “Space Cowboy”gave the band their first US hit peeking at number 1 on Billboards U.S. Dance Charts. The elements for the song have a very distinct jazz sound led by a Herbie Hancock-eque organ riff. The “Space Cowboy” video would be the worlds introduction to the perpetual motion and dance moves of Jay Kay. No move choreographed but in perfect unison with the bands licks, strums and melodies. Continuing on the road that was paved by Emergency on Planet Earth, Return of the Space Cowboy would go on to sell 4 million copies world wide and begin their ascension into international stardom.
“Space Cowboy” would be in major rotation on MTV (at the time MTV still showed videos on a regular basis), but it was the funk of the music and the pitch of Jay Kay’s voice that led the 2nd wave of the British invasion onto American Pop charts. Groups and singers like Robbie Williams, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Radio Head and the Spice Girls would make dents into the U.S. pop charts that would change the way we experienced music. While all these groups have their roots from other genre’s Jamriquai is the one group deeply rooted in funk and jazz as it’s core.
The creative process for Jay Kay begins with just an acoustic guitar and piano. He has stated “if a song does not sound proper with just the simplest of elements then it will not sound good with other instruments accompanying it.” This approach is most evident as their live shows are legendary for introducing new segments to songs extending well past their album version’s original running time. No track speaks to this more than “Shoot The Moon” which was a an outtake on “A Funk Odyseey” but received the full song treatment at many live performances.
Their latest album Rock Dust Light Star, which still contains a funk and jazz infusion similar to their other albums, the band continues to tour Europe, South America and Asia. The album has experienced a level of success with its core base but has not produced a major ripple on American charts. While Jamiroquai has a loyal fan base around the world the band and its sound remain true to what they started. A band that is as complex as Jamiroquai is, there have been many players who have stepped on and off stage with Jay Kay. Many of the band members site reasons that vary from pursuing their own ventures to wanting to spend more time with family. The two constants of the band are Jay Kay’s relentless dedication to the style that began back in 1989 with a demo instigated by The Brand New Heavies and an incredible array of hats.
Words by Abasi Clark