Sergio Mendes: The Uncommon Denominator

Who would have thought that a Latin musician who started recording in the ‘60s would be making hits 40 years later with one of today’s hottest producers? Sergio Mendes is one of the innovators of Bossa Nova—the fusion Latin Jazz music out of Brazil. Mendes went worldwide in 1966 when he formed the group Brasil 66, who spawned the hit “Mas Que Nada”.

Fast forward through several hits and 34 albums later… Will.I.Am, the man behind the boards in the Black Eyed Peas, unearthed Mendes’ records from his own childhood collection and invited him to perform on the group’s multi-platinum Elephunk. Both musicians agree that Pop music needs something different, so they created an organic fusion that became Mendes’ new album, Timeless.

The project was released in early 2006 with an all-star roster, including India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, John Legend and Justin Timberlake. Hip-Hop heavy hitters Black Thought, Q-Tip and Pharoahe Monch also blessed the album. Mendes has now been introduced to a new generation of music listeners, and has no plans to stop fusing together high power sounds. He talked recently with Alternatives about the similarities between Jazz and Hip-Hop, and how his sound has remained timeless. Alternatives: I heard you’ve been busy shooting a video today. How long has it been seen you wrote the original song?

Sergio Mendes: I recorded this song in 1966. It was a big hit. It was the first time that a song in Portuguese became a hit worldwide.

AHHA: How was it seeing your song become visualized?

Sergio Mendes: Wow, it’s wonderful. It’s 2006, 40 years later. And the song is as fresh and special as it was then. And now we have the Black Eyed Peas as our guests.

AHHA: You started out mixing Jazz and Latin music. How important is it that artists aren’t afraid to mix different types of music?

Sergio Mendes: I’m a very curious person, and I’ve always like to experiment with other types of music. I’m a big Jazz fan. Jazz was a big influence on my life. That’s why I always did albums with great Jazz musicians like Herbie Mann. Now getting together with Will.I.Am and bringing together the great melodies of Brazilian music for the young generation, and mixing it with Hip-Hop, for me it is very exciting. It is as exciting as working with great Jazz musicians.

AHHA: How much does the Brazilian/Jazz combination have to do with Hip-Hop and R&B?

Sergio Mendes: Well, it all goes back to Africa, which is the roots of Jazz, the roots of Brazilian music and the roots of Hip-Hop. So Africa is the common denominator. Brazilian music is urban, it’s carnival, it’s samba. So is Jazz. It is North American music, but the roots are African. And Hip-Hop is the street music of the world. We have Hip-Hop in Brazil, we have Hip-Hop in Japan, and here. But Africa originated all those rhythms and sounds.

AHHA: What kind of direction does Will.I.Am bring to the Timeless project?

Sergio Mendes: This is a collaboration album, and we brought our own worlds. He was very familiar with all those great Brazilian melodies and songs and rhythms. So the idea was, let’s reintroduce those great songs and then have some guests from all over the world. He brought guests like India.Arie, John Legend, Erykah Badu and Q-Tip. So it really was more like a marriage of the two worlds.

AHHA: How was it like to work with so many artists in the studio again?

Sergio Mendes: It was wonderful. Will.I.Am is a great musician, he has a tremendous sense of rhythm and melody. I learned a lot from him.

AHHA: What’s your favorite song on the album?

Sergio Mendes: “Mas Que Nada.” I like the infectiousness of the chant. It’s a universal chant.

AHHA: While putting this album together, were you afraid it would come off as a gimmick?

Sergio Mendes: Not at all. This whole process was very natural. Will.I.Am came to my house one day, bringing some old vinyls of mine, and telling me he discovered my music when he was 16-years-old in L.A. I was fascinated by that story. He then invited me to play on a song the Black Eyed Peas had on Elephunk.

AHHA: What have you learned about Hip-Hop from doing this album, and what can the Hip-Hop generation learn about you?

Sergio Mendes: Music is universal, and as long as people as passionate about putting out good music, there will always been a need for it. Regardless of what color the people or where in the world it comes from. My sons are teenagers, so they have taught me a lot about Hip-Hop music as well.