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22 April 2024

Still Kool after 40 years

By Rachel McArthur


Kool & the Gang have found a niche sound through their intersection of jazz, R&B, funk and pop. The same core of players – Robert “Kool” Bell, his brother Khalis Bayyan, their long-time friends Dennis “DT” Thomas and George “Funky” Brown and past members Robert “Spike” Mickens, the late Charles Smith, Ricky West and Woody Sparrow – have created their music for 40 years. And they’re still going strong. The group were in town last night to celebrate the official opening of the Intercontinental Dubai Festival City. Emirates Business met the founder of the band and bassist Kool to have a chat ahead of their Dubai show.

Welcome back. You guys have certainly become regulars in the UAE.

Yeah, and I love it. We’ve been to Dubai four times already and have also performed in Abu Dhabi. I love the place. I’m amazed by the number of changes, particularly in Dubai, over the years. We were last here two years ago for the Dubai International Jazz Festival, I remember it being really hot.

Is it true that you’re celebrating your official 40-year anniversary this year?

Yes. We started out in 1964, but that was under another name and we didn’t turn to Motown, funk and soul until 1968, when we became Kool & the Gang – after which we became famous for such songs as Celebration and Ladies Night. So we have officially been Kool & the Gang for 40 years.

You released Still Kool last year – your first album in 10 years. How did your fans react to the new socially aware sound?

It has been great. I mean, we started out as a jazz group in the 1960s and then moved on to pop in the 1970s. In the 1990s, we travelled around the world, so when the millennium came we decided to do a new album.

We have a great singer on the new album called Jirmad Gordon, who was discovered by my son Prince Hakim. Jirmad did about 90 per cent of the vocals on the new album. There’s a great mix of tunes on it – everything from pop to jazz to ballads. And the fans have been really supportive.

I heard that you had to really struggle to get radio play though.

Yes, it was a struggle, especially with the market these days. All the commercial radio stations only want to focus on our hits. However, the first song on the CD, Dave, has been doing well. It is currently number five on the AC Independent Radio stations list in the US.

Is it tough being in the music business for so long? Do you find it difficult making money out of music?

It’s hard because artists come and go and the market changes. As a group, we still have four of the original seven members. We lost a member in 2006, when Charles passed away, plus we had already lost Ricky and Woody. So everyone has had different experiences with the band. However, we do have a great back catalogue and we’re always performing, so it’s what you make it really.

What’s next for Kool & the Gang?

My brother is working on a project called Real Kool TV, which aims to film us while we are on the road. We’re also working on a film called Hollywood Swinging, which will be based on the life of Kool & the Gang. It’s set for a late 2009 or early 2010 release.

Will you be appearing in the film?

I think we will be appearing in the later years, but we’ll leave the younger actors to do the earlier times. (laughs)

Who do you want to play the “young” you?

Man, there is a lot of talent out there right now. I think it’d be cool if someone like P Diddy played me. He’d be really good.

You’re also doing a musical, correct?

Yeah, we’re working on a musical, which is set to debut in Las Vegas, called Ladies Night. Someone came to us with a script and we really liked the idea. It’s based on the songs of Kool & the Gang. We were inspired by other musicals, such as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, which have been successful and we’d love to create a hit like that.

Do you see yourself investing in Dubai?

We’re definitely looking at investing over here in the near future. And we’re serious about setting up an office in Dubai because the emirate is considered the business hub of this region. If we had an office here, doing business in countries in the Middle East, as well as Asia, would be much easier.

Finally, what would you like to achieve before the end of 2008?

I hope this album becomes successful because it’d be great to achieve that after 10 years. We’d also love to go on tour – especially Europe, Asia and the Middle East.