Quincy Jones may seem an unlikely champion of rap music. This is a guy who came up through the Berklee College of Music and big bands like Lionel Hampton, then by the '60s was producing "It's My Party" for Lesley Gore. He did jazz records and movie scores in the '70s ("The Wiz"), then spent much of the '80s producing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and "Bad" albums, plus other projects: "We Are the World" and "The Color Purple" (premiering on network TV next week).
While this has sold records, won him Grammys and earned him respect, it has
rarely suggested he's down and dirty. Jackson's music, for all its popularity, didn't get much closer to the streets than a couple of slick videos.
But with his own new album, "Back on the Block," Jones wanted to send a line out to everyone - and accordingly, he wanted some rappers out front. It's not an all-rap album, but the rap role is large, starting with the track on which Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane are interwoven among Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and other jazz veterans.
Actually, the record has a cast of dozens, all talented and famous. ''Singers and musicians," says Jones, "are my instruments." But poking through oatmeal and toast at his hotel, where he's arrived to host tonight's ''Saturday Night Live" (11:30 on Channel 3), Jones is particularly effusive about the rap part. "My son produces rap, so he keeps me on top of it. But I've dug rap since the Last Poets (ca. 1970), and rapping itself goes back to Africa."
On this record, however, he makes a very specific connection: rap to bebop, his own musical love of 40 years ago. "They're very much alike," he says. ''They're the music of outsiders. People shut off from the conventional channels who finally said, 'OK, we'll create our own language.' Some of the language is even the same. Forty-five years ago, Count Basie was calling me 'Homeboy.' But rap has created its own language, too, which has given us our first fresh colloquialisms since the beboppers. Except for a few drug terms from the '60s, we've been saying 'Cool, dude' for 40 years."
For this record specifically, Jones hopes rappers can help him deliver a message that there are positive alternatives to bad living. "You can't preach. But you can give someone the right word at the right time in his life, and it lets him know the choice is there. Rappers do that. They're laying a blueprint for the future.
"Some people say it can't work. I think it can. Look where we were heading in the early '80s - the YUPs and BUPs and DINKs and WOOPs and all that, people who had a vial of social cocaine and a couple of Armani suits saying, '(Blank) the world.'
"Then we did 'We Are the World' and I'd get letters from 7-year-olds saying they were sending in 65 cents for the people in Ethiopia. We opened a
window, showed folks they could channel their instincts."
Jones' own instincts point him toward movie and TV projects and the Jesse Jackson talk show he's producing. "I can pretty much control my career now . . . and I'd like to do things that can have positive impact. Give something back."
One measure of his comfort is that he seems unbothered by the amiable break in his work with Michael Jackson, or the fact Jackson declined to sing on this record. "With the people we have, no one was essential," he says. "Michael wasn't going to blow away Ray Charles."
In fact, the worst that can be said of Jones at the moment is that he looks a little tired. He pleads guilty. "We were over in Europe and Herbie Hancock was with us. I love that cat, and we were killin' it. We'd be up all night jammin', then somebody'd look at a watch and it'd be five, six o'clock."
It's the life of a free man, which is what he feels like - especially with ''Block" done.
"Every year since 1981 (when he did 'The Dude'), Warner Bros. would be saying, 'We think we've got a new record from Quincy this year.' Now they do."
It's also a better record, he says, for the delay. "If we'd done it in 1983, we wouldn't have had the rappers. We also would have had to do it on vinyl, which limits you to 18 to 20 minutes a side. By the time we did this, we went with CDs and cassettes, which means up to 74 minutes. The difference is enormous. Now you can do the extra 20-second intro with Dizzy and Lester Young. Set things up. We could use Charlie Parker's break from 'A Night in Tunisia,' probably the most famous instrumental in jazz, then go to Kool Moe Dee. Without the extra time, we wouldn't have been able."
Extra time - that appeals to Jones. "Pretty soon," he says, "I'm going to take two weeks and do nothing. That'll charge me up. This decade feels real good to me."