40 YEARS ON - HOW QUINCY JONES' THE DUDE SHAPED POPULAR MUSIC FOREVER
Updated: Mar 27
The ’80s birthed a musical era identified by its experimentalism, fun, and visionary creations. Hip-hop and rap emerged and proceeded to reign dominant for decades, and pop transformed into a generation-defining super-power, infiltrating both the charts and society as a whole. Looking back, it’s arguable that this cultural inferno was sparked in 41 minutes, by a record that has since been overshadowed by its own creator's success.
On the 26th of March, Quincy Jones’ album The Dude turns 40. Since release, it has drastically influenced popular music - and probably shaped your record collection too.
And yet, the album is absent from NME’s top 50 of 1981 and doesn't appear on Rolling Stone’s highest rated 100 that year. Today, its significance is rarely debated and Jones isn't bombarded with questions of its production in interviews.
This isn’t representative of failure, but rather that Jones is simply too interesting. Ray Charles was a teenage friend, he wrote for Duke Ellington and played trumpet for Elvis Presley. Oprah Winfrey credits him for her career and his pinkie finger adorns a ring left to him by Frank Sinatra. His production on Off The Wall and Thriller catapulted Michael Jackson to icon status and this century saw collaboration with Amy Winehouse. It’s as if Jones exists as an omnipresent force in the industry, remaining stable as a myriad of artists find him in fleeting moments. He is, undeniably, the architect of modern music - a living legend. And, with so many stories to tell, The Dude is somewhat forgotten.
However, an album so embedded in modern music should be remembered. The Dude optimises sequencing that would go on to become a crucial hallmark of a good record and is still revered by the likes of Jay-Z and Frank Ocean. Press play and be greeted by addictive ‘Ai No Corrida’ - a cover of British keyboardist Chaz Jankel that grabs you instantly.
Sonically flawless, ‘Ai No Corrida' should be a staple in 80s music discussion, yet is simply overshadowed by Jones’ next production work on Thriller.
However, it’s difficult to imagine Thriller’s existence without Jones’ prior experimentation here. Jackson’s recognisable opening hit ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ mirrors the experience of being plunged into the addictive ‘Ai No Corrida', displaying a lesson instilled in Jackson by his mentor on how to transform an album into a journey.
The Dude delivers featured appearances from Patti Austin and James Ingram, with subtle backing vocals from Jackson woven throughout. Austin and Ingram, both undiscovered in the mainstream at the time, establish their identity on the tracks as if joining Jones on stage for a live performance. Unsurprisingly, both credit the album to launching their respective careers.
Representing not only a crucial turning point for modern music, but a homage to the past, The Dude flaunts Jones’ expertise and decades of knowledge which command every track. We see his ability to innovate while utilising classic blueprints, as he blends jazz with an emerging rap genre.
The title track tells the story of ‘The Dude’, a man notorious in his neighbourhood for simply being “so cool”. Though today, lyrics like “ladies call him the candy-wrapper” and “I got a PHD in how to make ends meet” seem innocent for a rap verse, they have an undeniable elegance, paving the way to the crescendo of the outro in which Ingram’s vocal power dominates. The evolution of rap that occurred after is shown in Tupac’s 1995 sampling of the song in 'So Many Tears’.
Ingram then slows the pace as his signature-smooth ad-libs mark his territory on classic 80’s ballads 'Just Once’ and ‘One Hundred Ways'. MF Doom would go on to sample the latter in 1999’s ‘Rhymes Like Dimes’, continuing the cycle of musicians reinventing the work of their predecessors.
Instrumental ‘Velas’ is a slow cruise down a neon highway, a journey to the party that is the final track ‘Turn On The Action’ featuring Austin, infused with the disco-strings of the previous decade and touches of 80’s synthesiser.
Since Austin's debut on the album, slow change has occurred within the industry. While only three women are listed out of the 40 personnel credited, modern super-producers proudly champion female artists. Mark Ronson’s last album Late Night Feelings only featured female vocalists, while Pharrell’s 2014 GIRL aimed to uplift and celebrate women.
The Dude is absent from the political commentary increasingly expected from modern artists. In 1981 the New York Times described the album as “light romantic entertainment”, a refreshing description in our current climate that requires art as a means of escape.
Coincidently, the 40th anniversary of The Dude coincides only days apart from the marking of a year since the first UK lockdown. Though a solemn occasion, perhaps the best way to honour Jones’ legacy is by cranking up the volume, celebrating life, and as Austin croons on track 6, “Make it better with a little bit of Razzamatazz.”