A music veteran whose legacy stretches from jazz to hip-hop, Roy Ayers is a legendary vibraphonist who, after a career in jazz, shifted to funk, R&B and even a bit of disco. His résumé includes collaborations with Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, the soundtrack to the Jack Hill's 1973 classic blaxploitation flick Coffy, and a store of songs that have been sampled countless times by some of biggest names in hip-hop, R&B, and neo-soul, from Mary J. Blige to A Tribe Called Quest to Erykah Badu.
Now a New York mainstay, he grew up in Los Angeles, and he performs this Thursday at the historic Exchange L.A. with renowned producer Pete Rock, Brainfeeder bass master general Thundercat and World Famous Beat Junkies DJ J.Rocc.
OC Weekly: You've been playing music for five decades now–what keeps you going?
I keep going because I love music! Music is my life–my inspiration–my happiness–I just love to play music. But you know what I enjoy more than playing music? To play music, and watch people enjoy it.
When were you first introduced to the vibraphone?
At a very young age, I was introduced to Lionel Hampton. I was five years old, and he gave me a set of vibraphone mallets. You know, he was a vibraphone player, one of the original ones who made it very popular throughout the world. He's probably, in my opinion, one of the greatest vibraphonists in the world. Everybody who became somebody, who went on to do something great with their life, went to Lionel Hampton and played in his band. He is my inspiration and there will never be anyone else in my life like him.
How'd you feel when Hampton finally came to see you in the late 80s?
It was 1987 at the Village Gate. He came and sat with my band and we played one of his songs called “Flying Home” in front of about 600 people. It was a sight to be seen, and it was the greatest moment of my life! I will never, ever forget it.
What was it like the first time you listened to the radio and heard a song that sampled your music?
Oh, it was wonderful. My children told me, they said, “Daddy, they're playing your music, but it doesn't sound like you–it's a brand new song!” So many young rappers have sampled my music and it's been a great experience because they took the music, put their beat on top of it, kept the sound, and you hear words on it. The most popular song is “Everybody Loves The Sunshine.” Mary J. Blige sampled it, 50 Cent sampled it, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian–so many people have sampled that song, it's ridiculous. It makes me so happy to see that the hip-hoppers into my music. I feel so good about it.
Did you ever imagine that your music would have such a profound impact on hip-hop?
No, I never thought that would happen. It was truly amazing to see it happen all of sudden. And then it kept happening! I never went out to get anyone to do it. They just found it and loved it that much. It made me feel so special. A lot of the hip-hop artists don't write music. They write words and they tell me that Roy Ayers music is the best music for their words and I'm very thankful for that.
Posdnuos from De La Soul–who has sampled you in the past–said the key to their longevity is a determination to be part of the game. What's the key to yours?
A desire to be part of life and to be part of what's happening right now. I believe that within each of us–especially musicians–we have the ability to create and a desire to create and I think that we have to persevere and things will happen. Doors will open. So I never give up. I feel good. I feel great. And I'm very elated and happy to be able to perform for the people.
Roy Ayers plays at Exchange L.A., 618 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Thurs., Nov. 17. $30. 21+.