How Bob James’ classic song “Nautilus” influenced the sound of hiphop.

[From Excellent Reception : Episode 7]
By lil’dave

In the hip hop world, there is a drive to find the most unusual or hard to find songs to sample from.  Beatmakers are known for spending hundreds of dollars and man hours digging through dusty record bins just to unearth a rare sample that no one else ever used before.

Occasionally, there is a song that has so many elements that are perfect for sampling that it ends up being used as source material over and over again by many different producers.   There are a handful of these songs, like “Impeach the President” by The Honey Drippers and “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, that have been sampled so often they have become part of the very fabric of hiphop music.  One of these ubiquitous tracks is a humble album cut called “Nautilus” by jazz keyboardist and arranger Bob James .

Bob James is a Grammy award winning keyboard player, arranger, and music producer who is considered to be one of the pioneers of the smoother side of jazz fusion.  During the early part of the 1970’s, he worked with label owner Creed Taylor to produce and arrange some of the many classic albums that defined the sound of the legendary CTI Records.  His own songs, with their beautiful tones and complicated musical arrangements, went on to become favorites of music lovers worldwide.

In 1974, Bob released his first solo album titled “One”.  The album featured a who’s who of notable jazz greats like Idris Muhammad, Jon Faddis, Grover Washington Jr, James Gadd, and more.  The album also produced a few successful songs, like Bob’s version of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love”.  Hidden at the at the very end of “One” was a largely overlooked filler track that would go on to impact a whole new generation a decade later.  This song was “Nautilus”.

“Nautilus” is a really unique song.  It’s a sparse and cinematic tune that balances dark brooding textures with funk jazz undertones.  The arrangement jumps around from a moody film score style to a jazzy breakdown to a playful riff.  The rhythm section consists of a gritty bass line playing off of a hard hitting break beat that occasionally drops into a loose ride driven drum pattern.  The song is helmed by Bob James’ murky keyboard work, which sounds like it is submerged in heavy reverb and delay effects.  These effects provide the textures that give “Nautilus” it’s overall aquatic feel.

Back when Bob James was finishing up the recording of the “One” album, he needed one more track to round it out.  He brought in a sketch of an untitled tune he has been noodling around with at home.  All he really had was a rough idea for a bass line and everything else was improvised on the spot.  Something about Bob’s intricate keyboard work, Gary King’s rugged bass line, and Idris Muhammad’s commanding drums created magic in that session.  After hearing the intro to the song, Creed Taylor suggested that it be named “Nautilus”, because of it reminded him of a submarine submerged in the ocean.

While the “One” album was successful, “Nautilus” didn’t make an impact until years later when break hungry djs unearthed the song to mine for beats and grooves.  It’s easy to see why “Nautilus” is one of the must sampled tunes in hiphop history.  There are so many nuanced moments throughout the song.  Even though some of the melodies are replayed many times, there doesn’t seem to be one single moment that sounds exactly like another.  When any sections of the song are looped up, they pretty much stands on their own.


If you go look at the “Nautilus” page of, you’ll see that it has been used over 250 times.  The entries include classics like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow The Leader“, Ghostface Killah’s “Daytona 500“,  “Daaam!” by Tha Alkaholiks, Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz“,  Soul II Soul’s “Jazzy’s Groove” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Clap Your Hands“.  It’s amazing to see how a song that was pretty much ignored when it was released could go on to become such an integral part of popular culture a decade later.

One of my favorite uses of “Nautilus” is on Run DMC’s “Beats To The Rhyme”, which avoids the smoother samples and instead makes use of the most hardcore parts of the song.

Producer Large Professor took advantage of “Nautilus’ ” jazzy drum line as the basis for Main Source’s classic posse cut “Live At The BBQ”.

Most people don’t realize that Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” is actually built around a replayed loop of the bassline from “Nautilus”.  To top it off, this beat would later be repurposed for Montell Jordan’s massive hit song “This Is How We Do It”

One of the most unexpected uses of “Nautilus” was for the remix to Bjork’s “I Miss You”, which was reworked by UK producer Dobie.

Viennese Trip hop duo Kruder & Dorfmeister dubbed and vibed out samples of “Nautilus” for their chilled out track “Original Bedroom Rockers”.

Throughout all of hiphop’s existence, “Nautilus” has always been the perfect source material for when an MC needs to “bust some super-scientifically” rhymes.  There is no better example then Jeru the Damaja’s “My Mind Spray”, which was produced by DJ Premier.

In addition to sampling,  quite a few artists and bands have done cover versions of “Nautilus”.

Back in 1997, Little Louie Vega and Kenny Dope Gonzales of Masters At Work remade “Nautilus” for their Nuyorican Soul project.

French dub producer Blundetto created a roots reggae version of the Bob James classic with the help of multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee.

Recently, heavy funk band Breakdown Brass release a song called “Nautilus(Hijacked)” which recreates a few well known beats made from Nautilus samples and puts them into a whole new context.

This is an excerpt from the Excellent Reception podcast.  Each episode our host, lil’dave, talks about the stories and influences around a group of carefully selected songs.  Subscribe to the podcast now via iTunes.




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