Legendary UK acid jazz band Jamiroquai, a standout band of the funk and acid jazz movement of the 1990s, was one of the few groups from that genre to reach mainstream pop success, becoming the third best-selling UK act behind pop sensations Spice Girls and Oasis.
Frontman Jason Luís Cheetham, otherwise known as Jay Kay, grew up with his mother who was a former cabaret singer and television personality and his father, a Portuguese guitarist. Interested in following in their footsteps, Kay began sending demo songs to record companies, eventually signing with Gilles Peterson’s Acid Jazz Records in 1991.
During this time, Kay was influenced by Native American and First Nation peoples and their philosophies, and wrote “When You Gonna Learn,” a song addressing various social issues. When he had it studio-recorded, Kay decided that he wanted a proper live band on the track. He came up with the name Jamiroquai, a blend of the words “jam” and the name of a Native American confederacy, the Iroquois. Kay’s deep interest in Native American culture would also define his look as he would wear attire and hats of indigenous peoples during his performances.
He gradually gathered band members, including friend Wallis Buchanan who played the didgeridoo, keyboardist Toby Smith, who became his songwriting partner, drummer Derrick McKenzie, and bassist Stuart Zender.
Click on the player above to hear “5 on 5: Jamiroquai” and listen to these five essential tracks:
1. Blow Your Mind
With a psychedelic mélange of tight funky rhythms, acid jazz iterations and rock intimations splashed atop 1970s-style soul melodies, Emergency on Planet Earth served as a grand introduction of Jay Kay as a premier frontman and the band as a funky, groovy collective who could craft socially aware, environmentally conscious topical fare that could groove a dance floor. The album quickly reached the UK’s No. 1 slot and signaled the band’s place at the head of the class of the burgeoning acid jazz movement.
2. Space Cowboy
After a rocky period following the release of the group’s successful debut, the band found its footing and its groove with The Return of the Space Cowboy. Exuding a strong Stevie Wonder-inspired vibe, Return of the Space Cowboy was a full-on jazz/funk album that was as vibrant as ever and featured the incredible musicianship and funk of its predecessor, but displayed an obvious maturity and growth both within the band and Kay’s writing. The album cemented the band’s star status in places like Europe and Japan, and also managed to open the door to the ever-elusive American market. Their ability to be seen as more than a party-loving funk band came to the forefront even more on this album as they tackled themes like homelessness and racial and socio-economic issues. Tracks from the release would later go on to be sampled by hip-hop legends like Missy Elliott and Tupac Shakur.
3. Virtual Insanity
Jamiroquai’s next album, Traveling Without Moving, came out in 1996 and signaled their international breakthrough. The album incorporated a multitude of genres, including drum ’n’ bass, nu-disco, reggae-flavor, jazz, salsa/merengue/bossa nova ambiance and R & B balladry. The release sold over 8 million copies worldwide and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling funk album in history.
Their next album, Synkronized, featured changes to the group as well as the band’s sound. Jay Kay and bassist Stuart Zender feuded over album credits, which resulted in Zender leaving the group midway through the album’s production. As a result, Kay became the undisputed and absolute leader of the band, which had a direct impact on the sound of the group. Gone were the extended acid jazz jam tracks with their heavy basslines, improvisations and live acoustic ambiance. They would be replaced with more electronic musical aspects with a heavy emphasis on pop and nu-disco sounds.
5. Seven Days of Sunny June
Following 1999’s Synkronized, the group would go on to release four more albums: 2001’s A Funk Odyssey, Dynamite in 2005, 2010’s Rock Dust Light Star and Automaton in 2017. Jamiroquai has sold over 26 million albums worldwide and enjoyed multiple award nominations and winnings with regards to the Brit Awards, Grammys, MTV Video Awards and various other institutional acknowledgments and recognition. But their impact is even deeper; you can hear the band’s influence in the musical DNA of acts such as Tyler the Creator, Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, The Internet and numerous others. The group still performs, constantly switching up their look and sound while still giving music lovers worldwide musical sonic evolution, making them one of the longtime pioneering trailblazers and one of the best energetic live acts in the business.