So what did a young black revolutionary listen to in 1968? It’s a trick question: He probably listened to what everyone else listened to.
Before black pride went pop with Shaft and What’s Going On, the revolution was barely heard on the radio. It was occasionally transmitted in songs like the Temptations’ “Message to a Black Man.” And self-styled artists/activists Nina Simone (“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”) and James Brown (“Say It Loud (I’m Black & I’m Proud)”) deserve special mention. More often, however, the changing mood among blacks was subtly inferred through the likes of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” a love song that its audience transformed into a proto-feminist anthem, a Black Power chant, and many things more. The Black Arts nationalists on the East Coast may have been savvy enough to dig into some righteous avant-garde jazz like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, but those records sold in extremely modest numbers; the rest of the country wasn’t hip to that.
Meanwhile, the ferocity of the street battles between the nationalists, the Black Panthers, the US Organization, and other radical groups against sundry police departments and the US government begged for a more militant sound. That soundtrack didn’t arrive until it was almost too late.
In the excellent 2007 documentary on Melvin Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company and Enjoy It, he remembered that in the late 1960s, “In the political movement, there were no black songs. … There was (Bob) Dylan and (Joan) Baez, but there weren’t things that I felt mirrored the black experience.” It’s why the novelist and independent film director recorded albums like Brer Soul and, more famously, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song, despite not knowing how to sing a lick. (Hilariously, he titled a 1973 album What The …. You Mean I Can’t Sing?) Other subterranean rumblings like the Watts Prophets (Rappin’ Black in a White World) and The Last Poets, both of whom emerged from arts programs at neighborhood community centers, suggested that local activism fulfilled cultural needs better than what was transmitted via mainstream media.
By 1971, the world finally got its Black Power pop image. But to the men and women being gunned down by cops, torn apart by internal divisions fomented by the FBI’s Cointelpro program, and struggling to address poverty in their communities despite a lack of funds, the swaggering “private dick” of Shaft, the flamboyant cocaine dealer of Superfly and the flashy pimp of The Mack must have seemed like a sick joke. “By turning our oppression into fantasies, by making Black people look like fun-loving, love-making, hustling freaks, Hollywood would have us walk away from the theatre feeling that all of the problems we saw were of our own cause,” read an 1972 unsigned article in the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service newsletter. It also took offense with how revolutionaries like the Panthers were portrayed: “Black youths with out-dated rhetoric, the ‘revolutionaries’ come across as stumbling fools, with no program to serve the community and obviously being controlled by others.”
We can’t blame the likes of Curtis Mayfield, who strained to turn his Superfly songs into a warning against the perils of drug abuse. And we definitely shouldn’t deny ourselves the funky pleasures of Gaye’s Trouble Man, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft, and Willie Hutch’s The Mack and Foxy Brown. Still, a chasm remains between the street folks that fought for a communal paradise that got subverted into Black capitalism; and the soul renaissance that those of us who didn’t live in that era mistake as representative of their political goals. As Greg Tate wrote in his book of essays Flyboy in the Buttermilk, “When you consider what black folks’ mass energy was then and what it is now, you feel like that era maybe never happened at all.”
So let’s trip back into time and construct an imaginarium of what that young revolutionary’s musical playlist would look like before 1971 and the dawn of Blaxploitation. It’s unlikely he sat around listening to poetry all day, but he may have dabbled in it, so let’s include Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. He may have even educated himself with a lecture or two courtesy of Folkways Records, so Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton belong here. And he may have even sought to tap into his spiritual African roots, so add in Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
For the most part, however, he would have simply sought out popular music that spoke to him. Eldridge Cleaver once (mis-)interpreted Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” as a parable of white bourgeois obliviousness to the civil rights struggle. Mayfield’s “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue” inadvertently signified the infighting that would eventually destroy the Black Panther Party. And Sly & the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” needs no preface. There’s a lot of pain in this music…and a lot of joy, too. If the Godfather of Soul can’t get you clapping and singing, then nothing will.
(Note: This post was created with research taken from Pat Thomas’ Listen Whitey!: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1968-1975.)
There is no genre called “yacht funk,” but maybe there should be. It’s like a corollary to the widely recognized “yacht rock” sub-genre, with breezy, loping time signatures, a languorous disco pace, and maybe a little flicker of guitar, George Benson style. It’s heavy on jazz-funk, true, but wouldn’t be complete without someone doing his best Michael McDonald impression, like George Duke on “Every Little Step I Take,” or the Gap Band on “Yearning for Your Love.” (We will have to save the “Late 1970s soul singers who wanted to be in the Doobie Brothers” phenomenon for another post.) There are even songs specific to summer sun and sailing, like Benson’s “Breezin’,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sailaway,” Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness” and Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade.”
The joke, of course, is that yacht funk is profoundly un-funky. But that’s part of its charm. After all, what’s funkier than trying to relax on a boat in the middle of the ocean?
In 2013, I compiled a package for Rhapsody on Prince’s 80s oeuvre. Unfortunately, that material is difficult to access online now — not least because he removed his catalog from all streaming services except for TIDAL, so my reviews attached to those albums disappeared as well — so I’m reposting it here in honor of the late funk genius.
This spotlight only covers Prince’s 1980s recordings because, well, it’s nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful – until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6’s 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.
Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well because Prince’s reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself – including the double-album 1999 — each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically-hailed work like Sign O’ The Times; and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely-bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album, has been called the most bootlegged-album of all time. Throughout this period, Prince wrote hits for himself, like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”; and for others, including Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.”
With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heel boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award’s winner, into an effusive speech of praise while Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.
Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described “Horny Toad,” but we’re all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that’s why his music seems so taboo – and yes, making songs about incest (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”) don’t help. Ditties about fucking are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.