Robert “Kool” Bell, Still Kool After All These Years – Bass Musician Magazine, December 2015 Issue…
When Kool & The Gang released the ultimate party anthem, Celebration in 1980 it would have been hard to believe that 35 years later, the track would be applied to celebrating themselves. And celebrate they should as 2014 marked the group’s 50th year in existence, longer than any other R&B group in history. And the achievements do not end there; with all of the group’s recent activity, the band is more relevant, more a part of pop culture than ever.
The band has crossed the generational gap by joining James Brown and Chic as one of the most sampled artists in Hip Hop, have racked up countless awards, accolades and gold & platinum albums, and have seen the aforementioned Celebration inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame; one of 26 recordings inducted which highlights diversity and recording excellence. 2015 also saw the band receive a gold star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
In the center – or shall we say, at the bottom – of all this activity is bassist Robert “Kool” Bell, whose bass lines are a quintessential part of the hooks and grooves of Kool & The Gang’s music. Mixing the swing of Jazz with the groove of Soul/R&B and the melodicism of Motown, Bell created an understated style that manages to drive the song while staying out of the way.
Days shy of their “mashup” performance with Jewel (affectionately dubbed Jewel & The Gang) on Jimmy Kimmel Live, BMM phoned in to Robert “Kool” Bell to discuss his extraordinary career, his approach to the bass and his very exiting plans for the future.
Well, we have some history to catch up on, let’s start at the beginning – how did Kool & The Gang come together?
When we first started, we were a backup band – actually, we first started playing our own style of jazz and then we became a backup band for local talent in Jersey City. The show was called the Soul Town Revue so we were the Soul Town Band and we had to learn all these songs for the groups that were part of the revue. Most of them were Motown songs because they were trying to be like Motown. So that started the development of my chops at that time. And that’s when I was into Jamerson because he was the bass player cutting all those tracks! And then there was James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, and all that became a part of our repertoire.
And then Kool & the Gang left that organization, and went on to establish the name Kool & the Flames. By that point, we had developed a sound, a style that was a mixture of the jazz and the R&B because we had to learn those tracks and we were influenced by that style. That was really an earlier style of Kool & the Gang, an early style of playing.
And then we evolved, I guess, into the 70’s and we started to create more songs that were basically drum & bass driven along with the horns because we didn’t really have singers in the 70’s. So a lot of those tracks like Funky Stuff, Jungle Boogie, Chocolate Buttermilk or a lot of those songs we did were really Kool & the Gang-style records, just without the stronger vocal approach we added later on.
Even with so much of your early material being instrumental, the band’s music always had focus, the songs never meandered or got lost in excessive soloing.
Well, coming from the 60’s, the songs that we were learning to play had more structure – like the Motown sound. Since I Lost my Baby or Beauty is Only Skin Deep and all that stuff. Although there was singing, it was very melodic. So when we did our songs, we were influenced by that. Say Chocolate Buttermilk for instance, (sings horn line) – that was influenced by Motown!
Who were your influences early on?
Early on, I listened to people like Ron Carter and James Jamerson and I listened to a lot of the early bassists and then guys like Stanley Clarke. I really didn’t play with anyone else except Kool & the Gang so most of my experience has been working with the other members of the group.
How would you describe your bass style?
My style has been pretty basic you know. I really focus on working with the drummer – George Brown – and not getting too fancy (laughs)! I don’t do slap-style bass playing.
How do you build your bass lines?
Basically, a lot of the songs start with the drums and a groove and then we build a house or a foundation with that. Then we put the keyboards, guitars, horns later on. But they started with the bass & drums at first.
The band’s sound has seen a few shifts over your career, how did you approach the more keyboard-dominant sound of the mid 80’s?
Well, again, one of the identities of Kool and the Gang was always the horns and even during the 80’s, we would keep it more… let’s say Ladies Night for instance, that was right after doing a song like Open Sesame. But in the Ladies Night song, it was always that horn identity and that bass identity. So if you had the beginning of Ladies Night (sings horn line) we would take parts of Open Sesame (sings horn line) we always kept our identity in terms of how we use the horns and how we use the bass. Now Emergency  that was a little more guitar-driven and more ‘rock’ than what we had done. But you can still hear that Kool & the Gang style in it!
What coming up for 2016?
Well, we are working on a new product. We’re also looking into a tour for next year; we’re working on a book and hopefully a musical at some point! We’ve been going back and forth with this and hopefully by 2017, we’ll be able to accomplish that.
Oh, just recently, we did a show – the JVC Jazz Festival in Nice – and Larry Graham joined me onstage (laughs)! For Celebration you know. And I have had various conversations with Bootsy Collins about doing something together like 2 or 3 bass players doing something together like Bootsy, maybe Larry Graham and myself!
Robert Bell’s no-nonsense approach to playing bass extends to his gear. When talking about his basses, Bell notes that his preference is, “Always four strings. The early days were a Fender Jazz or a Precision. There was a bass that was made by… it was called an Oasis. That was another bass that I used quite a bit. And then I was introduced to Zon, and I’ve been using them for about the past 10-15 years.”
Bell’s bass tech, Charles “CJ” Johnson, says that the Zon basses are Sonus models and are strung with DR Hi Beams gauged 45-105.
While Bell has used Ampeg and Fender amplifiers over the years, he has relied on Eden Amplification in recent years. His current stage rig consists of the World Tour 800 head, which according to Johnson has, “A great EQ section and is very clean. You can also bi-amp those so when you adjust your crossover point, which for Kool, I drop it way down to about 100 hZ, I can separate my 15, my low-end cab from my high cab. And you can adjust the sweet spot for yourself or the venue.” For bi-amping, an Eden XT 410 is used for the highs while an XT 610 pumps out the lows. The 610 Johnson notes, “Moves a lot of air and the 800 has no problem pushing it”.
Bell does not use any effects pedals on stage aside from a tuner and an A/B box, which toggles between a bass with a wireless unit and another that uses a standard instrument cable should the wireless unit fail. From the wireless unit, the bass signal goes to the pedals and then to a DI, which is used for FOH sound. A signal from the DI travels to an Avalon preamp before hitting the front of the amplifiers. Johnson says that the Avalon preamp is used, “To get a little more EQ for onstage monitoring. The Avalon is just for Kool’s stage sound.”
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