I almost called this “Blaxploitation Friday”
The sonic methodology prescribed to the *Blaxploitation genre should be a standard of modern film. In this modicum of cinematic classification, a musician was given the opportunity to engage the entirety of a motion picture. However, this was not a peripheral endeavor. Instead, the artist worked directly with the film—perusing frames, conversing with director(s)—creating total immersion with which they were hired to score.
And this is why the sounds emanating from that particular era have stood the test of time. They served as sociopolitical indicators, beyond the typical self-indulgent background noise. Funk provided the rhythm by which the hustler navigated his urban terrain. Jazz fusion was more than a complex schema redirecting a timeless musical tradition. It became Black Nationalism redefining a white power structure. And sometimes, it simply became foreplay to an obligatory moment of sexual bliss.
What took place in this era may never be duplicated. But as I sit back and listen to the recently released 40th Anniversary Edition of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, I reflect upon those records that redefined a generation, musically and socially:
Curtis Mayfield – Super Fly (1972)
It starts here. Super Fly is Blaxploitation’s definitive composition. Encompassing the multi-layered dynamics of 1970s black America, this was the grittier version of Gaye’s What’s Going On. Mayfield capture the inner-city hustle with a vivid imagery nearly unparalleled. What makes this concept even more exotic is the simple fact that it’s placed atop such a haunting blend of funk grooves. It only enhances an already dark subject matter, one that Mayfield tackled from both the perspective of supplier and consumer. Of all the iconic moments in Blaxploitation history, few rival the montage tied with Mayfield’s “Pusherman.” Perfect.
Roy Ayers – Coffy (1973)
To be honest, no conversation of black music in the 70s is complete without a discussion on Roy Ayers. While Coffy gave us much of the funk paradigm, it’s true strength was belied in the lusher recordings found on the soundtrack. As the film’s namesake and subsequent heroine, Coffy carried herself with an atypical aggression, something not applied to women of the era. But, at the end of the day, we’re talking about Pam Grier, and while, I hate to trivialize the dominant archetype she portrayed throughout, ultimately it goes back to her unfailing beauty—the embodiment of femininity. Moments such as “Coffy Baby,” “Shining Symbol,” and “Making Love” captured Grier at her rawest. She was Blaxploitation’s leading lady, in all of it’s gorgeous upsides and sexist pitfalls.
Willie Hutch – The Mack (1973)
If I were to teach Hip-Hop Sampling 101, The Mack would be required listening. With that said, I could discuss the million and one different places this soundtrack has found new life in not only modern music, but modern pop culture. I won’t, however. Instead, I’ll point to just one. When I first heard Outkast’s (featuring UGK) “International Player’s Anthem,” I was hooked. Three Stacks spit the perfect love verse, with the perfect sample, because of course, Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You,” was the perfect love ballad. And then, I saw The Mack. It was at this point that I realized “I Choose You” is actually about a “working woman” choosing her “boss.” It was also then that I realized Willie Hutch is one of the coldest dudes in soul music history.
“I’m going to be everything to you. I’m going to be your father. I’m going to be your friend. I’m going to be your friend, but you’ve got to believe in me…”
Isaac Hayes – Shaft (1971)
Musically, I consider this to be the strongest of all Blaxploitation soundtracks. Even taking it out of that context, I think few, if any, have really matched what Hayes did on this album. Forget the “Theme from Shaft.” That’s too easy. You can even forget “Bumpy’s Lament,” which most people recognized as the joint Dre flipped for “Xxplosive.” (Or Badu’s “Bag Lady,” for my Bohemians). The entire album was arranged with this sort of jazzy orchestral feel that I can’t really explain. If anything, I’d call it incredibly rich and warm, immediately hitting you even at its more tender moments (such as “Ellie’s Love Theme” and “Early Sunday Morning”). For me, however, it always goes back to “Café Regio’s,” in my opinion, the greatest original record from the Blaxploitation era.
Barry White – Together Brothers (1974)
When mentioning the Together Brothers’ score, most would say “good, not great” and I’m fine with that. I include this particular album because of its overall structure. Shaft had an orchestral “feel.” Together Brothers was legitimately orchestral. For this project, White was joined by the underappreciated Love Unlimited Orchestra. The collective was comprised of a 40-piece string section and the female vocal trio Love Unlimited. In performing with his backing outfit, White composed one of the most traditional soundtracks, whilst maintaining that funk influence, I’ve spoken of thus far. It was a masterpiece of hybridity and for that alone it deserves credit. Also, the “Theme from Together Brothers” was sampled for the Quad City DJ’s “C’mon ‘N Ride It (The Train)” My childhood smiles as my mother’s weeps. Sorry.
Marvin Gaye – Trouble Man (1972)
Trouble Man was a pretty bad film, even for the low budget standards forced upon many of these productions. However, it sounded incredible. And it was a different side of Gaye. The greatest instrument that man ever used was his voice, but here we find him in the role of producer, exploring an entirely different entity. The results are incredible. Even the sound is divergent from much of the Gaye catalogue. The titular recording carries much of that indelible soul found in most of these soundtracks, incorporating his most effective weapon—that voice. However, I most appreciate the tracks where he takes a step back, using his voice as an additional layer, more so than the focal point, as heard on “Poor Abbey Walsh” and “Cleo’s Apartment.” On the former, he vocalizes for the sole purpose of dramatic sound effect. Like Here, My Dear, this one, more often than not, gets lost in the Marvin Gaye shuffle.
Don Costa/Lou Rawls – The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973)
Here’s my wildcard. People remember the Fred Williamson-driven original Boss Nigger, but its sequel gave us the classic record. This was a genuine Blaxploitation Western, two novelty genres that produced some incredibly timeless products. Accordingly, we get a Spaghetti Western soundtrack with a bit of soul. “The Lonely Summer” is situated somewhere between Dimitri Tiomkin and Isaac Hayes, while “Fiesta” sounds like something out of a Tarantino film. This is THE lost gem of the Blaxploitation music factory.
Honestly, I could do this for days. The list is endless:
James Brown – Black Caesar (1973)
Bobby Womack/J.J. Johnson – Across 110th Street (1972)
Earth, Wind & Fire – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Badder Than Evil – Gordon’s War (1973)
Willie Hutch – Foxy Brown (1974)
Donald Byrd – Cornbread, Earl & Me (1975)
Rose Royce/Norman Whitfield – Car Wash (1976)
More than anything, on the wake of Trouble Man’s re-release, it seemed appropriate to highlight a magnificent era of achievement in a rather marginalized genre. Regardless of how we feel about the films, their influence is undeniable. When listening to these soundtracks that opinion turns to fact. Right now, I am most thankful for the gifts bestowed upon us by a legendary period of black art.
Written By: Paul Pennington
*”Blaxploitation” is a term meant to describe the subgenre of films made in the 1970s targeted towards urban audiences, with predominately black casts. While many of the era have discredited the term (an amalgamation of “black” and “exploitation”), the term is used here for the sake of simplicity, not social statement.