Billboard Live Music Summit

Kool & the Gang on 'Keeping the Brand Alive,' the Origin of 'Celebration' and Being the Most-Sampled Band in History

Robert Bell
Michael Seto Photography

Robert Bell of Kool and the Gang attends the 2014 Billboard Touring Awards at Edison Ballroom on Nov. 20, 2014 in New York City.

At Billboard's 11th annual touring awards, the "Spirit of the Boogie" panel -- a conversation with Kool & the Gang -- demonstrated that flexibility plays a crucial role in a band's longevity. Groups often solidify as they get older: they settle in and focus. In an increasingly uncertain music world, Kool & the Gang manage to maintain their youthful malleability.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

What's left for Kool & the Gang? They're still hoping to play in the few countries they haven't reached. During the presentation, someone wondered, "Have you thought about going to North Korea?" Bell didn't rule out the possibility.