Jamiroquai - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
In a mid-90’s musical landscape dominated by tepid post grunge outfits, the Lilith fair set, and contemporary R&B starlets, the acid jazz soul funk of Jamiroquai was an anomaly to say the least. Led by the elaborate headdress donning Jay Kay, the English outfit injected the power of a veritable funk orchestra into relatively benign mainstream dance music of the times with massive worldwide success. If it weren’t for the overwhelming popularity of the innovative futuristic video for their 1996 breakthrough hit, “Virtual Insanity” however, it’s safe to say Jamiroquai probably wouldn’t have ever broken America under their own steam. If anything, the group showcased the make or break power MTV had on up-and-coming artists in the mid-90’s. Blending the celebratory energy of mid-70’s era Stevie Wonder with acid jazz, house music, and a George Clinton inspired fashion sense, none of their mainstream contemporaries sounded (or looked) like Jamiroquai. Although their time at the top was relatively brief, the band arguable presaged a back to basics neo soul movement that would dominate the charts nearly a decade after their heyday. Jay Kay and his ever evolving line up have kept quiet in recent years, and their fame in North America has diminished significantly, yet Jamiroquai continues to be one of Europe’s most enduringly popular artists.
As the sole constant within the band, Jamiroquai is arguably a vehicle for leader singer Jay Kay and his penchant for 70’s inspired soul and funk. Born on December 30, 1969 in Manchester, England, the vocalist spent his teens as a homeless vagrant often in trouble with the law for petty crimes. After being stabbed and falsely accused of a felony, Kay decided to forgo his criminal career and returned home to focus on music. Heavily influenced by the acid jazz scene of the late 80’s, Kay unsuccessfully auditioned for The Brand New Heavies before forming his own band in 1992. The name, Jamiroquai, is an amalgam of references to “jam” bands and the Native American tribe, the Iroquois. Kay would later play up the Iroquois reference by wearing a buffalo headdress complete with horns, which quickly became the trademark visual icon for the group. After recruiting original members, Derrick McKenzie (drums), Stuart Zender (bass), Wallis Buchanan (vibraphone), and Toby Smith (keyboards), the band home recorded a demo and subsequently signed to the Acid Jazz label. When the band’s didgeridoo laced debut single, “When You Gonna Learn” became an underground hit in October of 1992, Jamiroquai signed to major label, Sony/BMG. In late summer of 1993 the full length debut, Emergency on Planet Earth (Columbia) shot straight to #1 on the UK pop charts on the strength of funky acid house singles, “Too Young to Die” and “Blow Your Mind”. The sophomore full length, The Return of the Space Cowboy (1994 Sony) took on social issues like Native American rights, homelessness, and cannabis legalization but it was the funky dancefloor grooves that made the album a hit across Europe and Japan. Despite near worldwide success, Jamiroquai remained relatively unknown in North America but their next album would change all of that.
The international phenomenon Traveling Without Moving (1996 Columbia) added an electronic flourish to the soul funk proceedings, spawning the instant hits “Virtual Insanity” and “Cosmic Girl”, and selling a whopping 11.5 million copies worldwide. The massive success of the album, particularly in North America, is largely attributed to the hit music video featuring Kay performing inspired dance moves on what appeared to be a fluidly moving floor (in reality the walls were actually moving, giving the impression Kay was in motion although he was dancing on a stationary floor). The music video alone garnered four MTV Music Video Awards for Best Cinematography, Breakthrough Video, Best Special Effects, and Best Video with the band giving an inspired performance of the song (with a moving floor) during the ceremony. Despite the band’s global success, Traveling Without Moving would be last Jamiroquai album to feature the original line up with bassist Stuart Zender exiting the group shortly after recording commenced on their fourth full length. Zender’s departure forced Kay to shelve the sessions and start from scratch on a new set of songs, resulting in a three year gap between albums that sunk Jamiroquai’s momentum in the U.S.
Synkronized (1999 Work) infused disco and orchestration into the signature Jamiroquai sound, spawning the hit single, “Canned Heat”. The album was another hit in Europe and Japan but was pronounced D.O.A. stateside where Kay was making tabloid headlines by turning down a $1 million offer to play the 1999 New Years Eve party in New York City and allegedly assaulting a photographer. A Funk Odyssey (2001 Epic) sacrificed much of the “jam” in Jamiroquai for a streamlined electronic pop sound that alienated much of their core following but garnered a whole new set of younger club going fans. The dramatic shift in sound is mostly attributed to another line- up change that practically left Kay with none of the original members during the recording process. Nonetheless, A Funk Odyssey became another overseas hit spawning the worldwide hit (except in the United States), “Little L”. Kay put the band on hiatus for the next few years, only releasing Late Night Tales (2003 Ultra), a collection of 70’ funk and soul standards by the likes of Sister Sledge and Marvin Gaye, amongst others who influenced Jamiroquai. After a four year break Jamiroquai returned with their sixth full length, Dynamite (2005 Sony). Recorded in Spain, Italy, Costa Rica, and other exotic locals, the album added slow jam grooves to the otherwise frenetic Jamiroquai dance party, spawning the hit singles “Feels Just Like It Should” and “Seven Days in Sunny June”. Jamiroquai’s contract with Sony ended with the 2006 release of High Times: Singles 1992-2006 (Sony), a greatest hits package featuring two new tracks, “Radio” and “Runaway”. Kay later announced he only released the album to get out of his contract and the band subsequently signed to Columbia Records later that year. Allegedly, Kay has been writing and recording the seventh Jamiroquai full length, tentatively titled Addiction, since the summer of 2006. According to Kay the album is a return to the band’s acid jazz roots and is currently slated for an August of 2008 release.