Kool & The Gang have been making music for almost 60 years, and during this time the R&B funk titans have become one of the most sampled groups of all time.
As Hip Hop approaches its 50th anniversary, the group’s co-founder Robert “Kool” Bell sat down with HipHopDX to discuss being a key ingredient in rap’s global takeover, the tracks he thinks best sampled their work, and how the group helped discover some of Hip Hop’s biggest stars.
According to WhoSampled, Kool & The Gang have been sampled almost 1900 times, with the majority of those songs being by those from the world of Hip Hop — which Kool still finds mind-blowing to this day.
“I didn’t know we had that many samples,” he told DX. “I think Questlove and a few others did their homework on that. Yeah, that’s a lot of samples. I’m trying to figure out where they all came from. Over 1800?!”
With their obvious influence on Hip Hop, and specifically rap music, Kool said it was his late brother and former bandmate Ronald “Khalis” Bell who was “on top of the whole Hip Hop thing” while it was in its infancy.
“He was definitely on top of it,” Kool explained. “We liked what some of the artists were doing but we wasn’t okay with everything that was going on. But it kind helped up-and-coming new artists, they were listening to us and we had some influence on them and their music.
“I think one of the things that happened in the ‘70s was we didn’t have any lead singers. Our horns were like our lead singers, and then the bass, the groove, all that. And artists coming up listening to our music said: ‘Well, there ain’t no vocals in the way. Ohhhhh, I like that bassline. Let me get that guitar part. Let me get this. Let me get that.’ So I think that’s why they really jumped on top of our music because it was open like that.”
Asked whether he remembers the first rap record to sample Kool & The Gang’s music, Kool couldn’t give a definitive answer, but the first record he personally heard sampling their music was the Young Nation Mix of A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Scenario,” which samples their 1969 cut “Give it Up.” “It sounded a little bit like James Brown and Kool & The Gang,” he said.
One of Kool’s favorite tracks that samples one of his own is DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince‘s “Summertime.” Produced by Chicago-based producers Hula & K. Finger, the Grammy Award-winning song samples Kool & The Gang’s 1974 track “Summer Madness.”
“It’s very clever how they put that together,” Kool explains. “He did more than sample, he used the whole track … it went No. 1 and went platinum, and then Will Smith went on to be a big movie star.”
Another track he likes is Ma$e‘s “Feel So Good,” which appears on the former Bad Boy rapper’s 1997 debut album Harlem World. Taking its main riff from Kool & The Gang’s catchy 1974 hit “Hollywood Swinging,” the D-Dot and Diddy-produced hit topped Billboard’s rap chart and went on to be certified platinum by the RIAA. “I really like what Diddy did with that,” Kool said.
Not only did Kool & The Gang play a key role in Hip Hop’s rise from a sample standpoint, the New Jersey group are also responsible for discovering and nurturing some of the culture’s most recognisable names, including the Fugees, who Kool said are products of his “camp.”
“My brother [Ronald] kind of discovered the Fugees,” he explained. “They were the Tranzlator Crew — they had to change their name because of a rock group called Translator who had a deal with Sony.
“But my brother’s the one who worked on their first album. He’s the one that suggested for Lauryn Hill to do a [new] version of ‘Killing Me Softly,’ which became huge. They were all in the studio all the time, and they were learning ’cause my brother was very creative in those areas.”
Kool & The Gang were also mentors to a young Teddy Riley, who was in the studio with the group at New Jersey’s House of Music when they cut their 1979 disco classic “Ladies Night.”
“Teddy Riley came through with my cousin,” Kool recalled. “He did an interview [about it] not too long ago, you can pull it up. He said he used to come to the studio when we were doing ‘Ladies Night’ and he wanted to learn.
“We used to send him out to get sandwiches and stuff like that, but he was very into what we were doing. He was very astute. He wanted to learn more about the music business. Of course, Teddy Riley became huge. He did Michael Jackson. C’mon now!”
The discoveries don’t stop there either. Kool’s late wife, Sakinah Bell, used to host the Kool Kids Foundation, which saw the group do meet and greets with children who were doing well in school. During a stop in Oklahoma in the late ’80s, they were approached by a group of kids who wanted to sing for them. The kids turned out to be Bryan Abrams, Mark Calderon, Sam Watters and Kevin Thornton, better known as Color Me Badd.
“They sang four songs acapella, and my cousin and I said: ‘Hmmm, there might be something there.’ So we brought them to New York and started working with them in the studio,” Kool recalled.
Going on to explain how the group came to work with producer Dr. Freeze and create the smash hit “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and how Cassandra Mills and Irving Azoff came into the picture and got the song on the New Jack City soundtrack — which helped launch them to superstardom — Kool is proud of his involvement in Color Me Badd’s success.
“We launched them,” he said, “and we called them Color Me Badd because we didn’t want people to know if they white or Black … they surprised the whole world.”
On Friday (July 14), Kool & The Gang returned with their 34th studio album, People Just Wanna Have Fun, which comes as they gear up to celebrate six decades of making music.
Featuring some of the last studio work by founding horn players, Kool’s brother Khalis and Dennis “D.T.” Thomas, who passed away in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Lead vocals on the album come from Sha Sha Jones, Shawn McQuiller, Lavell Evans, Dominique Karan, Rick Marcel and Walt Anderson, plus rappers Ami Miller & Ole’.
After selling over 70 million albums worldwide and being in the game as long as they have, other artists might be inclined to hang it up and enjoy retirement. But for Kool & The Gang, they want to keep performing until they physically can’t do it anymore.
“It’s our fans around the world that keep us going,” Kool explained. “COVID shut us down for two years. So this is the comeback.”
People Just Wanna Have Fun is out now via Astana Music Inc. You can listen to it here.