Started in the '60s as a jazz group (founding member Robert "Kool" Bell told the
crowd that his godfather was Thelonius Monk), the band morphed several times,
fusing jazz's experimental ear with funk's tough edges in the '70s. They also landed
a song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, one of disco's definitive crossover
moments.They shifted gears again when they drafted a vocalist. According to Bell,
they got the idea after going on tour with the Jackson 5 and observing the success
of other big-band funk ensembles like Earth, Wind & Fire and the Commodores.
When the singer James "J.T." Taylor came on board for their 1979 album Ladies'
Night, Kool & the Gang concocted a series of high-energy party records.
The band's pliability extends to their web of influence: as panel-moderator and
Billboard contributing editor Jem Aswad pointed out, Kool & the Gang are "the most
sampled band in history." Just as Kool charted a path through decades and across
genres, samples of their work pop up seemingly everwhere: M/A/R/R/S' "Pump Up
The Volume," in 1987, Madonna's "Erotica," in 1992, 2Pac's "Picture Me Rollin," in
1996, D'Angelo's "Send It On," in 2000, tracks by Lady Gaga and Elle Varner from
later in the '00s.
And Bell and his bandmates still work hard to surprise. As one member of the band's
management put it, they're always "keeping the brand alive," but they're changing
the brand as well. In addition to touring with other classic soul and funk artists like
Gladys Knight or Chaka Khan, the band relishes opportunities for unusual double
bills. They discussed recent tours opening for Kid Rock -- whose blend of country,
rap, and hard rock is a long way from Kool & the Gang -- and Van Halen. In both
cases, Kool's opening act wowed the audiences, who might not have been expected
to dance so intensely at a rock show.
Bell also showed that he still keeps his ears open to modern pop. At one point he
noted, "electronic music is what's happening today," and pointed out that an electronic
dance remix of Kool & the Gang will be appearing in the not-so-distant future. In addition,
the band now often incorporates rap into their show. And in recent years they've
collaborated with Nile Rodgers, the famous disco guitarist whose riffs have landed
in songs by Daft Punk and Avicii.
Some of the panel's most interesting moments occurred when the band was dissecting
their past, not planning for the future. An audience member, declaring "'Celebration'
is an anthem," asked about the origin of the track. It turns out it actually did come out
of a celebration: Bell's brother Ron came up with the tune at the American Music
Awards -- where Kool & the Gang were being honored for a previous single. On
another occasion, the record company told the band they needed more hits; after
one day in the studio, they produced three eventual hits, including "Jungle Boogie."
Bell's description of their songwriting process was simple: "it started from a groove."